I’d just graduated from university and, on a lark that turned into a life for several years, decided to spend the summer working at a kids camp where Charlie was one of my roughly 200 co-workers.
Charlie was one of two staff members tasked with running a team-building and leadership activity called Adventure Park. Each summer he saw every single camper — close to 700 kids — at an activity designed to forge bonds and create an atmosphere of trust and kinship among the campers and staff. Not an easy job.
But Charlie was an expert in deftly handling communication struggles between cabin-mates and overcoming the diverse objectives, wants, and viewpoints of groups of kids that, in some cases, had never even met before arriving at camp. So he did that tough job very, very well.
Fast forward ten years and Charlie is once again a co-worker of mine here at Myplanet, though this time in the city, far from any lake one would be inclined to jump in. And once again, he’s putting his team-building skills to use.
Charlie is the Product Manager of Myplanet’s videoconferencing enablement platform, RelayRobin. As any PM can tell you, finding common ground and getting a diverse group of developers, designers, clients, and other stakeholders on the same page is no small task.
Having emerged from the woods (quite literally) a veritable font of knowledge about how to navigate the sometimes rocky path to team success, I asked Charlie to share some of his insights on how to build a team that is both resilient and united.
Below are his three key lessons for any PM seeking to build a strong, connected team. And while he honed those insights over many a halcyon summer working with kids, they apply to kids of all ages.
Charlie’s important lessons learned while running team-building activities with children that also apply for adults in a business environment:
“Kids have a tendency to think that what they want is the same thing everyone else wants. As it turns out, so do adults,” says Charlie.
We all see the world through our own lenses, and that can make us blind to what others think of as important, and to the challenges others are facing. Which is why before you can embark on a successful project journey, it’s important to know what each person has at stake and what their ideal outcomes would be.
Let’s say your developers want to be at the forefront of a new piece of technology. An admirable goal, but if the client needs a simple solution on a tight budget, you’re going to encounter difficulties delivering on what was asked.
Knowing up front what each stakeholder wants to get out of the project helps you, as the PM, determine how best to direct the plan.
“Understanding what moves every person on the team to action is supercritical for being able to rally them around a common cause, as each person needs to find the link between what motivates them and the common goals of the group,” says Charlie.
So how can you be sure you’ve understood the motivations of each team member?
“Planning meetings and retrospectives are a great opportunity to uncover these things,” he notes. “We’ve run a Team Introspection retro on what motivates us, where we explicitly list our personal motivators. For me it’s personal challenge, overcoming the odds, and rallying a team (go figure). For others it’s making our customers happy or the joy of creating something beautiful. None of these are inherently contradictory, but they are different.”
Once you start to identify what things keep people excited and on track, you can start to leverage the motivators for your project goals—and identify the biggest de-motivators for people, as well.
For example, when the RelayRobin team had to deliver a big element on a tight timeline, Charlie put up a countdown to emphasize the urgency. The Head of Engineering, however, found this troubling.
“For him, the time crunch and delivering under pressure was an anti-motivator. As a puzzle-oriented person, the challenge for him was in the implementation, rather than the crunch. What to me seemed like an exciting reach to the finish to him felt like a ‘death march’.”
By better understanding his engineer’s motivators, Charlie was able to shift the team focus and rally them to deliver on time.
In an ideal world, everything runs smoothly on a project from start to finish, but the real world tends to operate a little more… randomly.
Teams will, inevitably, encounter bumps in the road as they move towards an end goal. Part of being a good PM is figuring out the problems and finding solutions, which often means trying something new and viewing an issue as a detour, rather than a derailment.
“With the kids at camp, we would create an artificial challenge, in order to put the team in a situation where they could get out of their comfort zone to learn and grow,” says Charlie. “Luckily, in the big-kid business world, there are a constant stream of challenges, so there’s no need to simulate that part.”
But there’s also a difference in the best way to respond to the challenges, notes Charlie.
“The important piece changes from creating the teachable moments [with kids] to calling them out [with coworkers], and making sure that we make active use of challenges to grow.”
“When things are too easy, nobody learns anything or has any fun (like bowling with bumpers). A classic move back in the camp days was to crank up the difficulty of a game part way through by imposing some ridiculous restriction, like blindfolding half the kids and tying the other half’s hands behind their backs. When the challenge gets a bit harder, the feeling of accomplishment gets a bit sweeter.”
Blindfolding your developers or bombarding them with frustrating, unnecessary challenges isn’t going to produce great results in a business setting, but as Charlie notes, there is still some level of challenge-management at play.
“That’s why sprint planning is set up the way it is. The team commits to an ambitious-yet-attainable goal, and can rally to accomplish it. If the goal isn’t ambitious, the team is coasting and people get bored. If the goal isn’t attainable, we’ve set ourselves up for failure, and the team’s motivation to push itself is diminished. As a PM, I get to actively play with that balance.”
“We used to have a series of squishy dolls with different cartoony emotions that we would use to debrief with little kids. We would go around the circle, and everyone would pick a doll and talk about when they felt that emotion. It was a ploy to get them comfortable talking about their feelings, which is something that really doesn’t come naturally to many people.”
Charlie’s squishy dolls may not be suitable for the business meeting you’re about to conduct, but ensuring you’ve set up an environment where team members are free to share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns about a project is a crucial element to success.
It’s also tricky to do.
Because, as Charlie notes, there is a stigma around sharing, especially in work environments where “feelings” seem disadvantageous and people think feelings shouldn’t “get in the way of the job”.
“Adults don’t react to squishy dolls in the same way 7 year olds do, so I’ve have to adapt the technique a bit,” he says. “Going around the circle is still a great technique. If everyone else is talking about their feelings, positive peer pressure will encourage everyone to pitch in.”
He’s also made a conscious effort to kick things off himself. “Instead of the dolls, I like to open by volunteering some deep, personal thing that I’ve experienced myself over the course of the sprint, which sets the pattern that anything is on the table as a topic of conversation,” says Charlie.
Removing the stigma around expressing feelings and building a reciprocal sense of respect among teammates takes time.
“It takes true trust that the people on your team want what’s best for you. It has to be built up over time by going to bat for each other when needed.”
But by establishing that safe space, you’ll create a team that has stronger bonds, is ready to step up to help one another out when the going gets tough, and that feels comfortable raising project concerns before they spiral out of control. What more could a PM ask for?
Our summer camp days are long gone.
And though Charlie and I often spend a good few minutes of our lunch breaks reminiscing about lakeside afternoons wearing silly costumes and pretending to be werewolves, the real take-aways we have from our time there are brought to bear in our day-to-day work here at Myplanet: a deep understanding of what gets us excited about our jobs; a knack for changing course and thinking on our feet when faced with unexpected challenges; and an open-communication approach to voicing thoughts, feelings, ideas and issues on an ongoing basis.
I might not have learned everything I need to know at camp, but I learned a lot. And some of the most important lessons about being a part of a team, I learned from Charlie.
Written by: Leigh Bryant
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