Team Culture - How The Little Things Enable Great Outcomes


Team Culture - How The Little Things Enable Great Outcomes

Enabling the Team
UXDX Europe 2019

"None of us is as smart as all of us"
Culture is one of those intangible things. We all recognise what a good team culture looks like - team members collaborating, sharing knowledge and supporting each other.

Creating the conditions where a strong team culture can thrive is challenging. What approaches can we take to set up our teams for success and help instil and grow a culture of leadership at all levels?

Aidan Cunnion

Aidan Cunnion, SVP, Engineering,HMH

Team Culture
How the little things enable great outcomes?

Speaker 1

Good afternoon, everyone! And thanks for such a great turnout. I know the last session of the day, hopefully you've had a really good day. So let's get straight to it.

When I was younger, I used to do a lot of athletics, and I used to focus mainly on the sprint events, the one and the 200 meters. I suppose I was about average, you know, I was pretty strong, and in terms of my flat speed, but I was quite slow coming out of the blocks. And when you're making 100 meters, your response times out of the block are obviously critical. But I suppose my favorites event that was the 04 by 100-meter relay, and I was fortunate that I trained with a number of really good athletes, and we complemented each other in terms of what we brought to the relay race, and I suppose, what I was found is that with some of the team members, one of them was a really good starter, and I typically would run the third or fourth leg because I thought you are already into your stride when you pick up the baton. But I suppose I did it as an individual, I was never going to achieve, you know, a medal at an all-Ireland. But as part of that team over the course of a couple of years, we were very much in contention. And we were able to win a few medals. And it was really exciting. And it was a great sort of team ethos to it as well. But for me, I suppose what struck me was that as an individual, like I said, I was going to achieve so much more as being part of that team. And I think you'll see that mirrored in the technology side as well.

A couple of years ago, I was reading an article in Wired Magazine about the passing of an individual called Bob Taylor. And to be honest, I hadn't heard about Taylor, but the subject line of the article was Bob Taylor, the tech pioneer you've never heard of who's invented almost everything. And as you read through it, what you find out about Taylor was that he was involved in the ARPANET project, he was a director in the famous research facility Xerox PARC, during the 70s and early 80s. And his teams that he led were responsible for some of the innovations that underpin modern computing today. But what he was passionate about was the team dynamic. So even though he assembled the best and brightest computer scientists, what he was used to look at was how can we achieve as a team? And what he used to talk about was that none of us is as smart as all of us. And again, even though we had the best and brightest computer scientists, what they could achieve as a team was so much better than what they could achieve as an individual. And I think that's the thing about team culture. And it's one of those intangible things, we recognize a strong team culture when we see it. And teams are communicating well, they're collaborating well, and most of all, they're supporting each other.

Now, I can't promise what I'm going to cover today is going to transform your teams into the kind of tech legends that came out at Xerox PARC. But hopefully you'll find some of the approaches that we've taken at HMH useful in your day to day. So just a little bit of background, I think it's important to set the context of the environment that the engineering teams that HMH are operating in. So as was mentioned before, for HMH, we are focused on educational technology, our primary market is in the US is the K to 12 market. So that's the Kindergarten to 12th grade, where we have a user base of over 50 million users. And that's a combination of district admin students and teachers. And although we're primary market is in the US, and we're headquartered in Boston, and our largest engineering function is actually based here in Dublin, where we've have over 150 engineers working on the design and development of our flagship learning platform called ED, as well as overall responsibility for our data practice.

And over the past couple of years, the company has been on a journey of transforming from what's a traditional publishing company, and into a learning company focused on great outcomes. And it was described to me by a colleague as moving away from the thought effect. And I didn't really understand what that was, until he explained that. When a salesperson used to walk into a school, the books they carried in when they dropped them on the desk, the louder the toad, the more impressive it was. Now, that's not necessarily a model that scales well, when you look at the digital space, and what we're about is still producing great content, which is obviously vital, but it's how do we blend it from an application standpoint to support the teacher and students in the classroom to provide better insights and recommendations. And ultimately, I suppose achieve the better outcomes that the educators are looking for.

So as you can appreciate when a strategy like that permeates right throughout the organisation, and very much has an influence I suppose, on engineering and the approach that we're taking. So what I'd like to do, I suppose, is a couple of months ago, I presented at a UX event. And I presented this, which is obviously a visual around the HMH engineering culture. Now, I appreciate there's a lot going on in this and we're going to spotlight a couple of particular areas. But what I liked about it was that; it was done by the engineering teams, and I suppose it was a reflection on how they see us operating day to day.

You know, in terms of the approaches that we take, but also I suppose just how we're striving to operate day to day because as you can fully appreciate this is very much a journey. So as we look at the different elements of that, if you look, for example, at the leadership side of it, the onus is very much on myself and our leadership team to put in place the conditions where a strong team culture can thrive. And really what you're looking for is that engagement from your employees, and you want to set up a team and the right way, you want to support them, you want to encourage them so they can perform at their best. And that engagement is really crucial, because so much of what HMH is striving to do. The technology and engineering aspects are very much the enablers of that future value innovation. And we need that engagement from our teams on our employees, so that they become more or less psychologically owners of what we're doing and help drive performance both at the team level, and indeed at a company level as well. But what was recognized by my colleagues, I suppose back in early 2018. As was the leadership skills at the managerial level, it was also about how do we equip people in the day to day with leadership skills that will help them and what is a fast changing environment.

So what was put in place was a series of p2p leadership learning groups. And this is very much focused on modern day leadership and software development. So just to talk a little bit about the logistics of it, what this is, is that you would have a cross functional group, again, at all levels, where they would meet every couple of weeks in a facilitated session. And they would work through a curriculum, which is based on the framework of three levels of leadership, the Me, the We, and the Us. I'm going to talk a little bit more about each of those as we go through this. But they'll meet every couple of weeks. Ahead of that, they'll be given a little bit of homework, for example, to read a book, to watch a video and read some articles, and then come in, I suppose, prepared to discuss that within the session. But what's key about this, it's not just about reading it, and just talking about the theory, it's how do we relate that back to the day to day, how do we actually take, you know, what's been shown or been talked about in the particular material so that we can actually bring it back in and start using it on a practical level in our day to day, both as an individual and within our teams as well.

So just to kind of delve into that a little bit more. So when you look at me, here's an example of some of the materials that we would cover.

So again, we're looking at how people see me? How do I communicate? And it's really, I suppose, the focus, as you can see here, and things for leadership and self-deception. So again, a well-known book where it talks about whether a person is in the box or out of the box, and the whole thing around self-deception, whether you're actually carrying out an act, which is contrary to what you believe you should be doing. So what happened with the group that I'm involved in is that we got this book a couple of months ago, and we were working through we came into the workshop then, and it's an hour session, like I said, it's facilitate and we started to go through the what people thought about the book, the feedback from us. And what was interesting was that one of the engineers in the team had been working with a supporting group, and talked about the frustrations that he was having with our particular partner organisation that he was working with. And he said, "Well, by reading this particular book, it really resonated with them just how he was actually in the box, and that he was looking at it from a point of view, which was causing a lot of frustration from his side, but also not necessarily being the most productive in terms of engagement with us, with our partner team". So he said, "He was able to kind of step back from that and gain some perspective on what was being done. And really, then he said that the follow-on meetings, he was less stressed about it. And also you found them to be more productive. And I think for me, that speaks to the essence of what we're trying to do with these leadership learning groups, is that taking something like this being able to apply it on a practical level day to day, and then I suppose that the key message for me is, it's not trying to be perfect, it's just trying to be better, and sort of identifying how we do that.

So as an example of some of the other material that we recovered within me, at that level, is the non-violent communication. And again, we've had scenarios where as part of the group sessions, things have come up where you will have situations some-one brought up where a particular person was always five minutes late to the standup meeting, and when the stand up was about to start, they will go off on a coffee break. And this was getting a little bit frustrating, but they weren't sure about how to approach it or how to sort of bring this to the attention and get it resolved without causing so much conflict.

So again, using the approach that's outlined by this book, gave them some of the tools or techniques that they could then take back to their team and look to address that particular situation.

So then, as we move on, I suppose we move on to the We level.

And that's very much focused on the team. So again, high performing teams critically, how do we set up the team? How do we motivate them? How do we coach them, etc., and have communication between those different teams.

When you look at the sort of material that we cover. Again, there's a whole series of different materials that's applicable here. But if you look at things like scarf, which is a framework for collaborating and influencing, and again, trying to bring that back to the relevance of the day to day, but then we would also focus on well-known books such as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Absence of trust, Fear of conflict, Lack of commitment, Avoidance of accountability, Inattention to result) and again, trying to get some people to understand, I suppose, why is that confusion or misunderstanding at the team level? But you know, understanding that there are those 5 dysfunctions, whether it's an absence of trust, or lack of commitment, fear of conflict, it's really sorting trying to get to the heart of that. So that even though you may say, "Well, I'm in a team", is a really a team, or is there an essence of teamwork there. And I think this comes kind of dovetails nicely then into a book that we have used extensively within HMH, which is Collaborative Intelligence, by Richard Hackman. And he focuses on what he calls the 60-30-10 rule, which is the team launch or the team forming the team launch, and then the ongoing coaching of the team. And it's very much about the team sort of coming together and understanding the purpose, why are they there to do what they're being asked to do? What are the business drivers behind it? And really gaining a context about the work that they're being asked to do, and ultimately then coming up with how they're going to approach that.

So what I'd like to do is spend a few minutes on actually just talking you through how we actually sort script that out. So the first thing that we do is an icebreaker. And if I can ask for some assistance here, please?

So what we typically do in order to break the ice is that when you've got an engineering team, and this is what we use, and there's different techniques, but this is just a beach ball with a whole series of random questions on it. And what we do then is we throw it out into the team, there's a question and wherever it lands on your left near, your left hand is the question that we asked the team member to answer. So these sessions will be attended by everybody, from the engineers, to the product designers, to our UX folks, everybody is in the room again to make sure they gain that perspective.

So as just a little bit of a test of the theory, I'm actually going to throw this out. So whoever catches it, I notice people aren't making eye contact right now. So whoever catches it, and if you can answer the question, and then throw it to the experts, and then we'll just see how we go. So I'm just going to throw this out.

For people now paying attention. So left hand, what's the question that's nearest to you, just on the beach ball? It's written on the beach ball, there's a question on the beach ball.

Speaker 2

If you have a...

Speaker 1

Pick one.

Speaker 2

I will take another one. Tell us a joke? [laughter]

Speaker 1

So if you're not able to answer, just throw it to the next person, but the idea behind this and I know it's just a little bit of a gimmick, please throw it to somebody else. But what happens with this in the team environment is that it loosens people up, it gets them talking, and very often with an engineering team, it can be a little bit tight. And you know, it's not always that easy to get people sort of vocalising. So this is really just an icebreaker, there's a number of different techniques that you can use...

Please feel free to pick a question.

Speaker 3

[Unintelligible 13:06]

Speaker 1

What powers would you have as a superhero? What would it be?

Speaker 3


Speaker 1

Okay. That's what you'd like to have now was basically just saying, Okay... That's fair enough. But again, these were techniques, we actually had our CEO, Jack Lynch over a number of months ago when we're taking through a whole series of talking about our HR practices, and he sat in in a team forming session. And he absolutely loved it, he said, "This is something that we should be doing at all levels in the organisation". And we had a recent takeover. There was a company and the executive team were joining our team. And he actually decided to use Hackman this team formation and team launch to really set down to the essence of what this team was about. He didn't use the beach ball, I'll be honest. And he obviously was a bit of an icebreaker kind of, but he did follow the script that I'm just going to take you through now. So you want to throw me back up the beach ball? Great! Nice throw...

So what do you then move on, so this session, so after you do the icebreaker, and there's different techniques that you can try on that. And what you then get into is that the facilitator, who's typically external to the team, would s lay out the rules of the road for the meeting, so again, how we want to engage with each other kind of being respectful. It's a safe space and all that. But then when we get into sort of the... Again, what I touched on was very much to the heart of the team.

How do we... What are we here to do? What is the business driver for what we're doing? Where do we fit into the bigger picture?

I've seen it over the years where a team is formed or given some work, but they really don't have the context of what's driving that work, maybe where it fits into the overall strategy within the company. And so this is a critically important first step because it allows the team to really get a handle on what they're being asked to do. And ultimately then the next stage of what we do within the session is talk about the ways of working, establishing the working norms. So everything from.... You know, what time are we going to do our stand-ups, when will we do our retros or when we do our planning session.

So again, even though there'll be guidance said at the management level, what we really want is that ownership by the teams, because by establishing that set of behaviors that everybody can sign up to, this is what you want to see the team take and continue to improve upon. A number of months ago, there was a series of podcasts on News talk with Stuart Lancaster, who's the former England rugby coach, and he now works as part of the Leinster coaching team, and he's passionate about leadership. But they were interviewing him about his own experiences. But he also brought in a number of people that he'd worked with over the years, and one was a sports psychologist, and what I took away from that session was, or that particular podcast was that they talked about how an individual's behavior, 70% of their behavior is influenced by the environment that they're in at that time. And I think that really speaks to how important it is that we get the team launch, we get the team forming, to make sure that the established kind of working norms are there. So as the team moves forward, it's accepted by everybody that everybody has an opportunity to provide input. And ultimately then establishes a very clear kind of set of rules and guidelines that the team is going to operate by.

So then, as we move on to the next level, what we're looking at then is Us. So what we're finding as the group's work their way through this program, they move from the Me, the We, and then into the Us, and the Us allows them to sort of broaden out where they start to look at such as the environment, the systemic conditions within the organisation. And where we've seen real benefit with this is within our teams being able to or these particular groups going off and looking at things like value chain mapping, so we've looked at lead and cycle time on the work that we're doing, and how we provide better transparency into our backlog of work... Again, you know, having this long backlog of work, And the question is, well, actually, are we going to be able to work away through it? How does the flow of work come through the system? And sort of, like I said, providing that transparency into providing a better understanding of it.

Also, then we focus on... I suppose, what we call those little things about the environment that the teams are in. Do they have whiteboards, do they have boards, where they can put up your posts, etc., do they have a visual board, as well as maybe what they have within JIRA. So again, it's about setting those right conditions that the team can prosper in and really sort of perform at their best. And it's also led on to as a picture from an event that we did, there is a site wide day where we've got multiple functions on the site here in Dublin. But we wanted to bring everybody together, where everybody gets opportunities, like a showcase of all the work that's been done. It sort of celebrates the success, the successes across the different teams, and then we'll have some team building events happening at the end of that.

So when you bring it all back together, and you look at everything that we're doing, all of these little things that we're trying to pull together, is very much about the engineering team being seen as an effective partner for the business. Can we deliver against the expectations that are there and work closely with our product and counterparts, but also from the business standpoint? Obviously, the commercial pressures that are out there on how we ensure that we're all in lockstep about what we're planning for the next year. And everything that we're trying to do, I suppose, is built on that foundation of trust.

So whether we do it day to day, week on week, we're very much focused on where we can make those small improvements, and really trying to sone in on the areas where we can have the most impact. And really, what we also do at a team level is this quarterly check in, sort of a health check, a pulse check into the teams about their engineering practices and how they feel about different areas of what they're doing. And you'll find it varies quarter on quarter, but it gives you s gauge that you can work from and start to identify specific actions that you can take both as a manager etc., to make sure that as things move forward, you can help the team to perform even better.

So like I said, day on day, week on week, month on month, really the focus is about being able to deliver against what the business needs are, and continue to improve upon the team. And like I said at the start, it's not just about being perfect, it's about trying to be better.

Thank you for listening.