Team building fundamentals for product and dev teams.

I’m often asked about management philosophy and my approach to team building, so I’ve tried to boil down my philosophy for creating successful digital teams into a few simple pillars. Let’s start with some core principles that are critical to building strong teams and defining culture.

(BTW, don’t forget to check out Part 2 of this series, which is all about creating culture in creative teams.)

First, culture starts with people.

This should seem obvious, but for many leaders it isn’t. It’s easy to get fixated on goals and items on checklists and deadlines, but in the end it’s a team of creative and dedicated people that are required to accomplish anything worthwhile. Before we think of them as “resources” we should remember they are human, each with individual quirks and passions. How you treat each other is therefore the greatest contributor to a team’s culture. This means helping each and every person to achieve their individual goals, mentoring them, and treating them like adults, not children. Team members shouldn’t be punching clocks, waiting for the end of the day to come so they can run out the door. They shouldn’t be afraid to take a lunch or have a doctor appointment. As long as the work is getting done, there should be flexibility and an equally strong focus on work-life balance.

This doesn’t mean that as a leader there aren’t difficult choices that sometimes have to be made, or that people shouldn’t be held accountable for their mistakes. I believe it’s a matter of always attempting to strike the best balance between the desire to excel and build amazing things, while remembering it’s the people who actually do the building.

Culture needs vision.

The team must all share a vision that is well communicated from their leaders, and the vision should be an aspirational one. It should feel a little hard to accomplish. Just out of reach, but not so out of reach that it’s absurd. This helps keep innovation core to the DNA of the team.

Healthy teams understand the importance of ownership.

The great contribution each person makes directly impacts not just the team’s products, but the company and every single one of its employees across all departments. 

Sometimes you will fail. Each person should Take responsibility for their mistakes. Don’t be afraid to take risks. You may fail again. That’s how you win.

It’s important to remember that we will all make mistakes. The often thrown around phrase of “fail big” may be trite, but in many ways it’s still an important part of the core of innovative product teams. If you’re too afraid to try big things, to push for something awesome, you’ll end up with just something mediocre. In that process of striving for something awesome, what is likely to happen is that you’re going to get some things wrong. When you are wrong, you take responsibility. Especially as the leader. Decisions are on you, and they effect not just you, but everyone else under you. A fearless leader will push the team to convince him/her of the right decision. If their arguments are strong, he/she will listen to them. If his/her experience leads him to believe themself right, they should follow their instincts. If in the end the choice was wrong, he/she should be the first to admit to it, and try something alternate.

“Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not. ”  ― C.G. Jung

Creation is subjective and uncomfortable. Debate is critical.

Ideas are the most powerful thing you have. You cannot be afraid to challenge each other’s ideas. Creation can sometimes be uncomfortable, but great things are born from the tension of talented people striving together with common goalsBut you must also never forget that, once again, the people come first. You may argue, but you should try to never disrespect. 

Critique is the lifeblood of quality. A team that can critique each other will always create better products. If people are too afraid to offend, or only give positive feedback and no negative feedback, product design becomes stagnant. The team needs to be pushed and encouraged to speak up and participate in healthy debate. Of course this still requires a healthy amount of respect and making sure lines are never crossed into personal attacks.

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”  ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Diversity and Openness make the healthiest culture.

The diversity of ideas and experiences everyone brings is a cause for celebration on your team. There is always more to learn and new ways to grow. You should embrace each other’s knowledge, and you should celebrate new perspectives.

Similarly, there is amazing value in transparency, another often thrown around word. 

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” ― Socrates


So, with those principles underlying the fundamental approach to building and managing strong product design teams, here are a few more rules that I’ve always found to be invaluable.

1. Think, Do, Fail. Do it better next time. 

2. Ideas are only as good as you’re willing to defend them.

3. Listen and Instruct with equal measures. Make sure you share feedback with each other.

5. Credit is always shared – it’s the royal “we” not “I”.

For any leader, this last point is one that I think is worth reminding yourself of every day. A good leader never needs to take credit away from individuals on the team. Credit always trickles up. If you’re doing your job well, it should be reflected. And making sure that each person on the team feels like they are an important contributing element starts with never saying “I”. It should always be “we”.

Next up, here are my thoughts specifically on building culture in creative teams – check out Part 2.