Not all teams are created equal, as anyone who has worked on multiple teams can attest. Some teams gel and produce outstanding work that no one thought possible, while others never quite hit their stride and are only able to barely hit the mark—if that. In teams that I’ve worked on, the most successful teams were those that quickly establish a culture of open communication and trust among their members. In these teams, each team member constantly keeps the others informed about his or her work, disagreements are quickly resolved and respected, and teammates innately trust one another. To achieve this kind of culture quickly, and to take advantage of the productivity that comes with it, leaders must take special care with the first few days of the team’s work together, and then proceed to lead with the behavior that they expect from their staff.
Successful teams that I’ve worked with resisted the temptation to dive headfirst into the task at hand. Instead, we took anywhere from a few hours to a few days to lay out a set of ground rules that we all agreed to abide by. In the case of Kirie, my first game project completed at Southern Methodist University, this planning took the form of a Team Formation Document. Even before we had a single line of code, the five of us went around the table and clarified roles and responsibilities for each team member. This practice prevented miscommunication about tasks, and ensured that each team member knew who specialized in each area of the project. We also brainstormed pipelines for each kind of asset that would eventually be made—from code to art to audio.
The heart of the Team Formation Document, and the one that contributes the most to a culture in the early days of the project, is the Team Contract. The Team Contract is a list of statements that all team members agree to abide by for the duration of the partnership. Our contract included a multitude of concepts, including elements of common sense such as “Wear deodorant” or “No smelly food.” These items could be construed as a joke, at least until the day someone needs to be held accountable for breaking them!
Other items on the list were more philosophical, and they represented what kind of group we wanted to be. For example, we included a provision of “Don’t be afraid to be creative” in an effort to ensure a supportive environment, and we included “Don’t talk badly about teammates, or other teams” as a stake in the ground that we were going to avoid gossiping. All of these philosophical ideas came back to our first contract item: “Don’t be a downer.” We decided that we were going to create an environment where everyone wanted to come to work every day, and for us, a big part of that idea was to remain positive about our work and our fellow developers.
After the initial formation, there may be some culture on the team, but it exists primarily in the document—as a set of goals and standards the team thought would be ideal to hold themselves to. The key to bringing that idealistic culture into reality is to start practicing it. Teams take their cues from those leading them, thus it’s up to the manager to reinforce the team’s culture at every opportunity. With Kirie, that reinforcement meant that I always focused on approaching the day with energy and positivity, and reinforced our other ideals such as honest communication.
Similarly, but on the other side, it’s also the manager’s job to address any breeches of the Team Contract, and discourage them from occurring again. Unpleasant as it was, there were moments during Kirie where I needed to chastise team members for gossiping or for allowing their bad day to affect the rest of the team. Believe it or not, there are even days on some projects where leaders need to remind their team to shower.
Note that while the leader enforces the contract, the team themselves should concoct the consequences. Some teams may see a small fee (spent on donuts or coffee) as an adequate deterrent, while others may prefer solutions that are more creative. Perhaps any team member who misses scrum must dance the chicken dance in front of the rest of group!
Once the team is in development, the most important events that determine whether and how a team comes together are the challenges they face. I’ve found that leading by example is more important in these situations than in any other. In Kirie, one of our two programmers left the project shortly after we began. All four remaining team members, myself included, were concerned about our ability to finish the project without the additional resource.
To deal with the situation, I found myself leaning on the principles we set in the Team Contract, and I encouraged the team to do the same. I clearly communicated how I felt and what my concerns were, which prompted the others to also voice their fears. I tried to encourage them to think positively about what we could accomplish despite the loss of resources, and together we constructed creative solutions to our technical problems. At the time, our Team Contract even included a sort of self-imposed non-disclosure agreement, which simplified our interactions with other teams who wanted to gossip about the issue.
If handled well, crises can make a team stronger that it had been before. Effective leaders use them to give their teams specific, tangible issues to rally behind. We were all distraught at losing a team member on Kirie, but the experience bound us together, and I endeavored to use it to test our commitments to upholding the Team Contract and the culture that we put in place. Once we recovered, we trusted each other more than if we hadn’t had to deal with the crisis.
Just as all teams are different, all team cultures are different. The specific virtues and vices that matter to one team are inconsequential to the next. Because of these inherent differences, the Team Formation Document and the Team Contract within it give a quick framework that all members of the team and management can use to gain an idea of what sorts of ideals are important to a specific team. From that point, managers must embody the attributes important to the team, both in crisis and day to day. Managers who work to represent the culture that they and the team value push the team toward creating a healthy culture, which in turn contributes to a happier work environment and greater productivity.