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Foundational Practices for Great Teamwork

June 8, 2020

“Watch your thoughts, they become words
Watch your words, they become actions
Watch your actions, they become habits
Watch your habits, they become character
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”—Lao Tzu

Twenty-three years ago, Dan performed in a production of Neil Simon’s play Laughter on the 23rd Floor, playing the character Milt Fields. Just recently, the cast of the play reunited for an online script reading. While it had been a long time since Dan had interacted with the cast, from the moment everyone had gotten onto the call and began reading the script right up to the wrapup, they were able to create a trusting, safe environment and performed a reasonably polished script reading together. Not bad at all.

What was intriguing to us was that no one spoke about meaning or defining what that might be, laid any ground rules, or set up the environment to be one way or another. The cast spent little time discussing what it meant to respect one another.

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They were able to jump right into the reading, pretty much pick up where they had left off 23 years ago, and complete a fine online script reading together. There was trust, respect, safety, and meaningful intention from the get-go.

Problems of Teams

Meaning is something you inject into your daily life and work, not something you search for. Practices are the soft skills and capabilities that give people the ability to do their work.

People on teams generally have way too little time and space for reflection and practice. As we’ve listened to people sharing stories, we’ve observed some clues that have led us to key insights about the problems of teams—specifically, that people at work are not

  • connected to their own sense of meaning in their work or a greater meaning beyond their role
  • connected to the organizational values, purpose, mission, and vision
  • aware of or explicitly calling out the explicit 21st century practices necessary for work today
  • adapting 21st century practices or deeply practicing them in a regular, rigorous manner
  • taking the time to stop and reflect on their meaningful work by stepping away from their transactional work
  • explicitly sharing stories about work or conducting practice spotting for these stories
  • converting sensemaking into real, practical outcomes in the form of practices
  • codifying practice cards that provide sustained use and reuse over time
  • tracking potential and improvements through the use of those practices

Work Is an Environment

Work occurs an environment that includes people’s workplaces, spaces, offices, and cultures. An environment can bring out the best or worst in people, in terms of both their level of trust and the quality of their conversations. Since everything is part of some environment, we use the word environment to talk about many things.

There are many macro and micro environments around us that interact with each other. For example, an individual’s body is that person’s biological environment and contains the emotional messages that person exchanges through his or her thoughts or with other people. The state of the body determines the person’s mental and physical well-being.

What was it about the environment of the script reading that enabled the cast to work well as a team and achieve meaningful, purposeful, valuable outcomes together?

In this article, we’ll outline the foundational practices for great teamwork, taking Dan’s script reading as an example.

Applying Lenses That Matter

Before the cast members got on the call, they considered the lenses they were bringing to the reading, including the following:

  • attitude + mindset—open or closed
  • perspectives + opportunities—past, present, and future
  • communication + intent—individual and team outcomes
  • impact + time—success based on commitment

These lenses spoke to explicit practices of the people participating in the reading, regarding their interactions and relationships, as well as the respect, goodwill, and good energies they demonstrated. Let’s examine what is necessary for great teamwork to exist.

Caring Enough to Turn Up and Listen

People attending the reading cared enough to turn up. Attending meant more than just ticking a box. The cast members felt connected to the other people, the script, the characters, the production, and the outcomes they would create together.

There was little ego. They cared about the success of the reading and were committed to taking responsibility and being self-directed. Listening created trust, which, in turn, created safety and respect.

Having Curiosity About Other Perspectives

The people who participated in the script reading were deeply curious about the characters they were playing. They were also curious about the other characters they experienced through the reading. They were invested in the outcomes of their transactional reading of the script, as well as the meaningful outcomes everyone gets from having an experience together.

People in the cast had not only brought what they had created 23 years ago but also allowed themselves the flexibility to grow into the possibilities of improving the production. They widened their perspectives throughout the reading—in part by learning from others’ feedback and from the debrief at the end of the reading. What could they all do with the reading 23 years later, and what could be different or improved this time around?

Solving Problems to Achieve Focus

Reading a play is a problem to be solved. Could they make the play compelling enough for themselves and an audience?

During the reading, the cast occasionally faced some technical issues with Zoom, including lag and echoes, but this did not detract from the reading or distract them from playing their characters and delivering their lines. In fact, it created even more focus as the reading continued.

Focus was clearly and explicitly present from the start—in their ability to deliver the lines that make up the scenes, which in turn make up the acts, and the acts then make up the end-to-end experience of their delivery of the play and the production itself.

People brought the right attitude and mindset to act professionally and remain focused, so they delivered their performance successfully together, without ego.

Prioritizing to Gain Clarity

During the reading, everyone was clear on what was meaningful and what would be a distraction that would block their ability to perform successfully together. Naturally, it helped that they were all following the same script and that they also had a connection with the characters they had played 23 years ago. But it was the depth of the friendships that had emerged from that production so many years back that made this reading work well. What contributed to the depth of those friendships is an interesting question.

People demonstrated compassion, both implicitly and explicitly, by making not only their own lines work in delivering the story but also by making sure that their lines connected to other people’s lines to make the moments in the play work well.

In essence, the reading was less about self-promotion and more about prioritizing the team first to help everyone achieve clarity and good energies. The people were not just dependent on each other but also interested and deeply involved in self-direction, as well as in directing others in delivering their lines together.

Confronting Constructively for Accountability

During the reading, the flow of lines, ideas, interactions, and relationships connected the script to the people and to their friendships, creating a shared sense of accountability and an awareness of their responsibility to do a good job. In fact, their goal was to make the reading shine so, if they delivered the play in front of an audience, it would be something people would want to listen to and would pay money to attend.

The connection and relationships between these people meant that they were all equally concerned about their own character’s delivery and the performances of other players. Therefore, they were able to confront and discuss issues. Everyone was clear that this was not about judgment, but about collective responsibility for improving together.

Practice Outcomes in Culture

The work environment affects the person’s growth and development—as well as the person’s behavior, body, mind. and heart. What people do or do not do and how they behave within an environment has a very big impact on others.

There are implicit and explicit behavioral practices at play—such as muscle memory—of which many people are not usually aware. People often absorb such implicit practices unintentionally because of their cultural background, habits, personality, education, and family contexts.

By giving greater exposure to these implicit practices through the use of a tool such as practice spotting and helping people learn how to spot and practice them, we hope that people will become more aware of when their own and others’ implicit practices are at play.

Whether through self-practice or practicing with others, we aim to encourage positive behaviors and discourage negative behaviors among team members. Doing so reduces unnecessary, intangible forms of waste—such as stress, which can lower people’s immunity, affecting their health and the health of others.

Foundational Practices for Teams

Twenty-three years ago, this cast had already established many of the practices that came into play during the reading through

  • weeks of rehearsal
  • learning their lines
  • getting to know each other as players and through the development of their characters
  • taking notes from the director over many days to improve moments in the play
  • experiencing the reactions of a live audience—letting them see whether they were indeed delivering a production people would pay to see and tell their friends about
  • having moments of reflection with each other—both during the production itself and outside it—allowing them to bond meaningfully together

During the time they worked to produce the play, they had built respect for each other and felt gratitude for their taking the time to get to know each other and taking risks together to achieve an outcome that was greater than just one person could achieve. Different people were able to lead at different points in the rehearsal and the live performances, with the explicit intent of improving through every moment.

This collaboration resulted in feelings of trust and safety that grew over time, so 23 years later, they were able to get to the same place quickly enough that they could do a successful reading together. They had already sharpened the foundational teamwork practices that let them deliver a great production 23 years ago, so they had a great script reading in 2020.

The following three foundational practices are critical to fostering great teamwork—both in the story about the script reading that we’ve shared with you and in our workplaces—and in solving problems:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Listening
  3. Adaptability

1. The Curiosity to Explore Openly

Curiosity is a strong desire to know or learn something.

The problem at work: People are busy and stressed much of the time and do not have the energy or time to consider and connect to what is meaningful or assess where they should spend their time and potential. Often, people do not have a clear idea of what they are working on or why. This leads to an unclear connection to the bigger picture, as well as the purpose of their own role or function or the outputs and outcomes of their work in relation to that of others.

The opportunity at work: The play reading provided the space for people to transcend their busyness and focus on their role in the delivery of a great reading. The script allowed them to explore possibilities for improving the play and identify forums for trying out their ideas.

2. Listening to Understand

Listening is giving one’s attention to people, time, places, and practices.

The problem at work: Often, people focus only on their own function and the outputs from their part of a job, without connecting to their team’s overall impact. This creates an inward-looking view that fractures and restricts their own lenses and limits the lenses they can bring to various contexts at work. Sometimes this gets so bad that people lose their ability to be open to what others are saying, so they lack a complete set of stories, knowledge, and data to work from. This creates negative patterns in their work.

The opportunity at work: Simply stop and listen to what others are saying. Consider their points of view through different lenses and cultivate your awareness of and investment in other people. Set aside your assumptions by considering these questions:

  • Are there other points of view of which you’re unaware that could you learn if you took more time to listen carefully?
  • What is hidden from view of which you could become more aware if you considered how to cultivate and express greater interest in others, listened better, and worked toward creating a compassionate workplace?
  • What investments are other people putting into their work, and what could this mean for them and also for you?

3. Adaptability to React to Needs

Adaptability is the quality of being able to adjust to new conditions.

The problem at work: Our organizations reward us for solutions rather than reflecting on and unpacking problems to derive where we should meaningfully invest our energies and focus.

At school, we were taught to have the right answers, in an environment that did not promote discussion or debate with other students or teachers. Hopefully, this is changing in some schools.

Workplaces are no different. Most people do not have the opportunity to move, edit, or adjust as different scenarios get thrown at them. This leaves people feeling helpless and powerless.

The opportunity at work: Provide a space in which people can try out scenarios they might not encounter in their day to day work and a buddy with whom they can practice. For example, in a play reading, what would you do if someone lost his place in the script, forgot a line, or got interrupted? How would you adapt, being sensitive to your own context and that of the other people in the play? Provide support and help in the practices you’d need to get back on the right footing.

The Gap Between Words and Actions

People need to know when value is missing from their work and quickly do something about it. Most people generally have good intentions at work and want to contribute positively to the work. People can generally translate intentions into words that relate to their work outputs.

Value, or meaning, is often hidden between words and actions in what we call the gap, which includes the environment or culture in which elements of our work live and actions happen—such as conversations, language, process, methods, values, beliefs, motivations, and philosophies.

People do not always explicitly observe the gap and may not have the tools to record what is happening or capture practices that would aid their understanding of their own and other people’s actions and intentions.

In the context of the play reading, what mattered was that people belonging to the cast

  • shared stories
  • observed implicit practices during the reading
  • practiced together
  • made professional and personal development explicit

These lenses and the foundational practices that we’ve described can help guide people within environments and cultures to help them achieve authentic outcomes by being curious, listening with intent to advance their potential, and widening their perspectives to achieve healthier outcomes for the planet, other people, and themselves. 

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

Co-founder and Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Josephine WongJo is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management.  Read More

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