Establishing trust in a pandemic

James Dowling

James Dowling

Handyman extraordinaire. Code at work and timber at home.

Back in March, as the Covid-19 pandemic was just getting a foothold around the globe, Cogent embarked on a months-long consultancy project with Square’s Cash App. As whole cities — including Cogent’s home town of Melbourne, Australia — went into lockdown, my team was ramping up work with the Cash App business, which is based in North America.

Working with a client remotely is one thing, but consulting to a team whose every member is also located remotely was a new challenge for me. Add to that the fact that Cash App is a large, dynamic organisation that’s grown quickly, and we had a new layer of complexity. As the engagement — and the pandemic — began, I knew this was not Business As Usual.

Build internal culture

It was clear from the outset that we needed to develop strong relationships across the Cash App and Square businesses to get work done, and provide real value. But how could we do that from a dispersed collection of home offices in Australia and New Zealand? 

The answer was trust. The dispersed Cogent project team, some of whom had never worked together before, needed to build and maintain a high level of trust not just among themselves, but within the Cash App business, including individual product owners, stakeholders and sponsors from around the organisation. Of course, Cogent focuses on trust-building with all its clients, but the pandemic brought this need into razor-sharp focus. We had no physical space in which to meet, work together and establish strong relationships, either with each other or the Cash App team. We needed to create that space both virtually and psychologically.

So we began the engagement with an open Google Meet video call that we left on for two weeks straight. In it, we talked constantly about our efforts to decipher systems and understand organizational structures; we shared what we learned in meetings with important stakeholders, worked to understand those stakeholders’ needs, and discussed how we might adjust our approach to meet them. In this way, we created a culture of total transparency. We shared our wins and struggles, and we all pitched in to support each other with ideas, solutions, and help.

We started talking internally about how we wanted to focus on building and maintaining trust with key project players at Cash App. We divided those people into three groups: sponsors, stakeholders and product owners. Sponsors were people who were interested in helping us achieve our goals, and having Cash App achieve its goals through us. Stakeholders included individuals affected by the work we were doing. We also worked with two product owners. These groups represented people who could tell us if the work we were doing was having the right results — the key to a successful engagement.

Through this process, we created the expectation that every member of the team, no matter how senior or junior, was thinking about trust at every step, and at every level. Sure, trust is an element of basic professionalism, but it’s not usually particularly deliberate. Normally we’d rely on processes like open offices, showcases and standups to build trust. Normally, people are always present, and consultants can rely on that. If something goes wrong, you can walk over and speak to whoever’s involved. 

Yet when everyone’s remote, and you’re using digital tools, you need to consistently provide clients with the evidence that shows things are going in the right direction. They need to be able to see that they don’t need to come in and start pulling proverbial levers to check that that really is the case. That deteriorates trust on both sides.

So we were determined to give Cash App complete transparency the whole time. Everyone in our team worked on trust and transparency as strategic priorities, asking questions like, “Are we communicating at the right level? Are the client’s teams being served by that transparency?” every single day.

Set the foundations for open collaboration

We talked with our Cash App sponsors, stakeholders and product owners firstly about what they needed from the team, and what would make this a great engagement from their perspective. My team tabulated their concerns, then fed them back to those people to make sure we understood their problems perfectly. Next, we discussed their communication needs and the processes they preferred. As we researched, we decided that we wanted to be transparent without creating noise. We needed to provide the right information, where it was needed most. 

That meant adopting a variety of approaches.We set up virtual job boards and made sure all interested parties could check them whenever they liked. We also used those boards in meetings, so that everyone was always aware of what we were doing, and why. Of course, tools weren’t the whole solution. Each time we met with team members at Cash App, we’d make a point of asking if they were getting the information they needed in those meetings. We’d also check-in outside of the meetings themselves to make sure the meetings were happening at the right level and frequency. 

In this way, we deliberately built trust at every touchpoint. Every conversation, every Slack message, every update was done with trust and transparency in mind. Against the alarming backdrop of a spreading virus, and as the world entered a context we’d never seen before, our transparent approach gave us a solid foundation from which to attack the problems that Cash App had engaged us to solve. 

Anticipate the challenges, and overdeliver on solutions

As the project progressed, we identified more stakeholders in the problem space that the product owners wanted to address. We researched their processes and goals, and the problems they had. We put those issues into our words, to understand the product and technical gaps that might have led to the stakeholders’ pain points.

One common challenge consultants face at this stage is that when we come knocking on doors and asking probing questions about secure systems, clients can feel uncomfortable. Then they start making calls, asking who we are and what’s going on, which impacts the project’s progress and — of course — undermines trust-building, at least for a time.

We needed to avoid that scenario. Within globally dispersed teams, misunderstandings could take days, or longer to sort out. So, each time we approached a new stakeholder, we’d be very clear about who we were, and what we were doing. We’d give them a little personal information about ourselves, a little about Cogent, and explain what we’d been brought in to do. We’d also explain who had given us the remit to work on whatever we were working on, before asking for an initial conversation to understand more about their role in the project space. Above all, we worked to communicate that we had permission to be asking important questions about business-critical systems.

We didn’t just dream this approach up once and apply it, cookie-cutter style to every message we sent. We observed how people were responding and fine-tuned it over time. We weren’t nailing down a set-and-forget process; we were creating a context to smooth the flow of information so that we could deliver the best outcome to the client, in spite of the societal context under which we were all working.

James working alongside a fellow developer before the pandemic.

From walking to running

Having made contact with each stakeholder, we spent time understanding that stakeholder’s problems as they related to the project. Then, once we’d built a certain amount of trust, we’d offer advice, suggest a small change, or begin work on a small initiative together. It was important to take smaller steps in the early stages, and get some runs on the board.

We based our processes on high levels of communication, even in these early stages. All the way along, we remained deliberate in our approach. After all, if we lost the trust we’d worked so hard to build, we couldn’t just tap someone on the shoulder in an office, or make up the lost ground over a coffee. As the small risks began to pay off, we found ourselves becoming more trusted, which gave us growing support over the larger problems we’d been engaged to solve. 

In parallel with the growth of trust, the nature of our communications began to shift. We’d started with a less-is-more approach, so we didn’t overcommunicate or overpromise. We made sure our clients got what they needed, and then checked in to ask if they needed anything else. But over time, as the trust grew, the fidelity of the information our Cash App partners needed decreased, because they could see that we “got it”,valued what they valued, and understood their ways of working. The more deliberate we were in our work and communications, the more autonomy we gained. Of course, we still kept those parties informed, but over time, we could use the trust we’d built to preempt questions and decisions. It was the ideal scenario for delivering real value to the client, and we’d managed to get there in spite of the pandemic.

The client counts

I have to say that Square is an astonishing business. Trust isn’t one-sided. Cogent certainly didn’t build the trust that let this project achieve great results on our own.

The Cash App and Square teams are purposefully helpful and friendly, all of the time. The pandemic presented challenges on both sides of the fence. It wasn’t as if we were just working from home: for both organisations, our project partners were dispersed on different continents, in different timezones. We all had to talk to each other at strange hours of the morning and night. To do that, the Cash App team needed to believe it was worthwhile and that came down to open communication in both directions.

When they learned how much value we intended to bring to the business, the Cash App team members got very excited — even when it came to waiting past dinner time to explain their problems to us. They really wanted to speak to Cogent, since we were so eager to achieve their project goals. Ultimately, the Cash App business was actively engaged in trying to make people’s work lives happier, which is an incredibly strong motivator, and was a real help in our collaboration.

 So both we and they had no fear of asking questions. And when we asked questions, we didn’t ask in silence; we asked in public forums with hundreds of people. That’s a part of the Square culture, and that level of transparency is invaluable. Everyone was always quick to respond — even if the answer was “I don’t know”. It was clear that we were all on the same team, every step of the way. So Cash App and Square themselves added to our internal mantra about deliberately fostering trust. I expect it’ll be critical to future engagements for Cogent, too.


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