Cogent Conversations: Episode 20
How high-performing teams work together
Welcome to the first episode in Season 3 of Cogent Conversations, where we’ll be taking a deeper dive into the 2021 Australia & New Zealand Product Teams Report.
This is the second year we’ve published the report, featuring insights from 100 tech companies across Australia and New Zealand, and helping us answer the question we get asked most at Cogent: “how do other people do it?” when it comes to the way product teams best work together.
In this episode Adam Murray, a Product Principal here at Cogent, digs a little deeper into how high performing teams work together. Hear him interview two highly experienced experts on the topic from Cogent about their experience, opinions and recommendations.
“Almost half (46%) of all respondents say that, overall, their product team is working well or very well, 40% say it is working ok, and 14% say that their team is not working very well.”
Full Episode Transcript
Adam: Welcome to Season 3 of the Cogent Conversations podcast, in which we take a deeper dive into our 2021 Australia and New Zealand Product Teams Report. This is the second year we’ve published the Report, featuring insights from 100 tech companies across Australia and New Zealand, and helping us answer the question we get asked the most: How do other of people do it when it comes to the way Product Teams work best together? I’m Adam Murray, a Principal here at Cogent, and in each episode, I’ll be digging a little deeper into a key theme of the report, gaining further insights and recommendations from some of our experts here at Cogent. You can download the free 50-page report by visiting cogent.co/podcastreport. Let’s get into it.
All right, welcome to this season of the Cogent Conversations podcast. One of the things I love about this podcast is that we get to share all the little insights that we get from working with different clients and share them with a broader audience as well. It’s really cool. And in this season, we get to think about the context that we’re in at the moment, which is obviously, as we know, a distributed setting for most of us, and we’re seeing some really interesting and different things. And also we’ve got this report to dive into as well.
I’m Adam Murray. I’m one of the Principals here at Cogent, and I’ve got a focus in strategy. And in this episode, I’m sitting down with Dan Tropp, who’s our Managing Principal in the Area of People and Scott Rogers, who’s another Managing Principal in the Area of Practice. We’re going to talk about how high performing teams work together. So, yeah. Welcome Dan and Scott. Great to be chatting with both of you. Dan, I wanted to just quickly throw to you before we dive into the report. Now you’re one of the pioneers of distributed work at Cogent. And there’s a story, I think that you’ve got about the very early days of your career and working in a, we might not have called it distributed back then, but you certainly had an experience of it back then.
Dan: Yeah, that’s right, Adam. So my first experience of distributed work was my first job out of uni. This is back in around 1998, 1999. And it was a startup based in New York. That’s where the head office was. And I was part of a small team in Melbourne, but there were also small teams in New Zealand, Brazil, Russia, a few other places around the US. And we were trying to work on a distributed artificial intelligence system in the peak of the dot-com boom, all these amazing smart people working on this, but the tooling we had to do it were telephone conference calls that you dialled in on that had terrible sort of one to two second lag, talking over the top of each, we were sending emails to each other and 24-hour turnarounds. Maybe some people were using a bit of IRC and text-based chat, but it was kind of on the side.
We didn’t have live collaborative working. The tools we have today are just amazing in comparison, all the live collaborative editing, we just take for granted. And I distinctly remember back then that every sort of three months we’d fly to New York, spend two weeks in person. It’d be amazing. We’d be doing all this stuff. We’d get back to Melbourne. And just week by week, this effectiveness would just erode as we fell back to the snail’s pace of working by email and other things. But yeah. It’s very interesting to compare that to today where we have so much help to keep the connection going.
Adam: Yeah, cool. Thanks for that. And Scott, you’ve also been at Cogent for a long time, and I think you had an early experience of distributed work at Cogent as well.
Scott: Yeah, that’s right. One of my early product teams at Cogent, probably about 2014 or so we had a team based in Melbourne. We brought on another team member based down the New South Wales North Coast. And the person that we brought on was really well versed at working remote and kind of integrating into teams that weren’t located on the lovely beach that he was located on. And he really showed us what it could look like back then. And, the things that I remember were just the way he communicated and the way he was able to demonstrate the work that he was doing, where he was up to, was just better than we even had amongst ourselves when we were working side by side, at each other’s desks. And he just set a great bar for us, for how to work as a distributed team.
And some of the practices that he was employing, we actually started to take on ourselves for our own team, even though we were sitting side by side, but then also the way we could demonstrate our work and the approach we were taking back to our customer, because often our customers aren’t sitting side by side with us. They never really have over my eight years of working at Cogent. We’re often a bit separate from the customer and the main stakeholders. So becoming good at working with a customer where we’re trying to bring them into the team to feel as though they are part of the team — yeah, this guy really set the bar for us. And it’s always kind of stuck in the back of my mind: yeah, that’s what good looks like. And it’s still up there today.
Adam: Yeah, wow. That’s pretty amazing. It’s pretty amazing, just diving into the report now. So we’re looking at how high performing teams work well together. I was a bit blown away by one of the results around this, where 46% teams or people working in teams are saying their team is working well and 40% are saying it’s working okay. So, maybe okay is, people would like to be performing higher than that. But I guess my first question and Dan, it’s for you, given that it’s pretty remarkable given all the change we’ve had to go through recently, what do you think teams have been able to adapt so readily to the new context and still feel like they’re performing well?
Dan: It’s a good question. I think teams that were working well when they were co-located still had elements that translate. It’s not a different team. I think it’s more about different mechanisms for achieving the things that that team already knew to be important. So the teams that when they were co-located had clear purpose, had clear vision, had some sort of guiding north star from the leadership around strategy and roadmap. If those things were in place that we took a bit of time and effort to map that into a distributed way of working, but they’re still critical and important today, just the way you achieve them, the way you communicate them might be a bit different.
Adam: Yeah. So there’s a lot of commonality there. What have you noticed then, maybe I’ll throw to you, Scott, what does ‘high performance’ mean actually in this context now, like there’s some things that are the same and maybe you can elaborate on those, but is there anything that’s different that you’ve started to notice in your experience?
Scott: I think the way people relate to one another has become more important in a distributed context — that reliance on some element of a social connection, the reliance on people and to be able to trust in others in your team was important previously, but I think it’s even more important now. So I think that’s what I’m seeing is that the reliance on people, the social connection, the trust has become more important and the way in which teams develop those has needed to adapt. We’ve needed to adapt to working alone in our homes, spread across cities and countries. And I think that those teams that were already high-performing have probably adapted well. So they’re probably adaptable teams to begin with and they’ve looked for new novel approaches to make sure that they’re able to continue working well together. And so I think that mindset has carried through to working remote. It’s just the way they approach and apply the way in which they want to achieve high levels of trust, or maintain trust and high connection, is the thing that’s changed.
Dan: Yeah. I think that going to a distributed working environment has sort of pulled the rug away from people. I think they had some safety nets there around just implicit visibility of what was going on of seeing their team of things, and if they were using that as the thing that gave them a sense of safety, a sense of trust that ‘I know what the team’s doing’, then that would’ve been a bit of a shock that suddenly that got lost. But, if you already had quite strong trust and connection within the team, then losing some of that visibility doesn’t take as much of a hit. I think people who were trying to micromanage or keep really firm control in managing how their teams worked would struggle a lot more because in a distributed environment, it’s just much more onerous to do that.
Adam: I wouldn’t mind diving into, then, new teams versus experienced teams, or teams that have been working together for a while. And then a question, maybe a little bit with your Managing Principle and the Head of People hat on, and thinking about onboarding people in this new context and forming new teams as well. What are some of the things that are really important that you’ve noticed, that teams that end up being high-performing are doing in those early stages of forming or bringing new team members on?
Dan: We’ve changed our practices at Cogent a little bit around this. And part of that has been having intentional time to get together and discuss ways of working, to get together and set expectations around communication and timeliness. I think the biggest thing about remote is, you can’t see if the person’s there. You don’t know if they look busy or not — just some of that implicit visibility isn’t there. So having team understanding of when I send an email, when I send a Slack, when can I call you so that there’s shared norms around that, helps everyone feel just comfortable about how quickly they need to respond, whether they can have notifications turned off to get a whole lot of work done, that it’s okay to call someone in certain circumstances. It just lets everyone feel more relaxed and understand how to be in the team.
Dan: The other thing I think we’ve done is, particularly with people who are new to Cogent even, is try and get them working on meaningful things with the group of people, as soon as possible. When they could start as a new Cogent employee in the office, they knew they were there, they knew people could see them, there were people around them, it felt like they were at work. But if that same thing happens and they are in their home office, maybe the same home office they were in last week for a different employer, really hard to actually embed that shift of, ‘You belong here and we know you’re here and we’re valuing you.’ And so getting people into a delivery team, a product team, as quickly as possible — even if they’re just shadowing in a team for a period — has been really valuable to people. We get feedback from staff saying, ‘That was really the good, I got a real sense of how people are working together. I know more people.’ And they just kind of get embedded into the organisation much more quickly.
Scott: Just on your point, Dan, where you were talking about the use of tools earlier from a practice perspective, the way in which we use those tools is super-important. A lot of people have Slack or Teams and for sure they enable people to work in a distributed way or in a remote way. But if you’re not applying great practices to the use of those tools, then you’re not necessarily going to have a high-performing, high-functioning team. So, tools don’t make the effective team. The way in which you adopt and use those tools do. So having a good understanding of how and when you can communicate with one another is one of the really core understandings that teams need to come to because we are not visible to one another. And so, just adopting the practices around the tools is the important thing, not necessarily adopting the tools themselves.
Adam: For follow up on that, Scott, I’m wondering there’s almost an implicit thing there that you’re talking about there, around the team’s ability to be willing to experiment and try things and learn. And I’m just wondering about that idea of creating a culture of experimentation and learning and feedback, and what you’ve noticed about high-performing teams and their ability to do that kind of thing.
Scott: Yeah. We’re definitely paving new ground right now. Globally, we’re paving new ground. And so it deserves experimentation. It deserves space to try and figure out how we work in the best possible way, because we can’t really look to many other examples around how other people are doing it, how other teams might be doing it, how other organisations might be doing it. There are some forward-thinking organisations and teams out there, but still, to try those things on in your own team is what’s needed. You can’t grab a culture that you see on the internet or you hear about and try and just lay that into your own team. Every team is different. And so experimenting with, or trying ways in which it might work for your team is going to deliver better, longer term results, as results would be more sustainable because they acknowledge that your team is unique.
Dan: If I can add just to that a little, I think the last 12, 18 months, I think what we’ve seen is, teams taking the practices that they had in the past and trying to map that onto the more distributed tooling as best they can, as a sort of like-for-like mapping. And some of the things we see in the Product Report is people being, for instance, less happy with standups in particular, compared to other meetings.
And I think what we need to see in what some companies are starting to do is, the next 12 months, is saying, okay, we’ve done the mapping from what we had to new tooling and distributed, but actually questioning that a bit more. Why were we doing those things? Why were we having a standup? And if now it’s a Zoom meeting and if that drags on or has so many people in there, and it’s hard to have side conversations, maybe that’s not the right format. What other things could we do? And just being a little bit radical and trying different things. What if we don’t do this at all? What if we do but we make it asynchronous? What if we make it shorter? What if we change it to one-on-ones? And I think we’ve just got this new repertoire of both tools and ideas and challenges, and we just need to keep an open conversation to keep evolving and trying new things.
Adam: One of the things I think I remember you saying in the Report, Dan, was on that, is being really aware and intentional about the purpose, every time we do get together and keeping that as the thing that’s forefront rather than the form itself.
Dan: Yeah. I think for people who are new to certain rituals within the team, it’s good to just do it verbatim for a little while, but then to reflect on, okay, what was this supposed to be achieving? Is it really achieving that? And then thinking about, with that purpose, agreeing that it’s a valuable purpose for this team, what other ways could we achieve it? And, I think having courage in a team to speak up and say, ‘I’m not sure this is working’, or ‘This is limiting my effectiveness in the day. Can we try something else?’ is really important. Again, it comes back to safety. It comes back to trust within the team that everyone’s got the same purpose in mind, the same, sort of, valuing the effectiveness of the team and will raise different things from what they can see.
Scott: One of the big factors I think of now working distributed that we didn’t necessarily have when we’re sitting in the same office together was this notion of asynchronous work or asynchronous communication. And because this is an option now, when we’re all working independently in our homes, the way in which we apply synchronous versus asynchronous communication or get together synchronously is a question that we’ve never really had to consider before. And I think that layers on an additional level of complexity to how teams ought to work together because all of a sudden, you’re not working together face-to-face. You’re working together independently and asynchronously with one another, still in the pursuit of a common goal.
So that new consideration, I suppose, is something that teams need to start factoring in. And going back to your question earlier, Adam, about experiments, this is the time to really experiment with that, to see what’s going to work. So, that’s pretty exciting for us. We’ve got lots of teams that are working and experimenting with asynchronous work today, and it is an exciting time working through, trying to figure out what is this new, improved, more adaptable way of working?
Adam: Yeah, it is super-exciting. I think maybe, one of the things that seemed to come out in the report too, was this disparity between the perception of how leaders might think a team is performing and how the people in the team itself. Scott, you’ve done a bit of work — a part of your role with clients is to help them improve their ways of working. What do you put that down to?
Scott: Well, one of the stats that came out of the report was the influence a Product Manager might have on goals and what gets delivered, and teams that reported Product Managers is having higher influence, also reported higher levels of team effectiveness. And so I think about, why is that? And what starts to come to mind is that Product Managers, in the most part, perform a leadership role in a product team. They’re leading a product team. And, so it’s those attributes of leadership that help to improve those teams. And so they’re things like, the mentoring and development of people, the social connection, the establishing vision and purpose, great collaboration, obviously getting things done and achieving results. It’s those kind of leadership skills that come in that help teams be effective.
And one of the other parts of the Report suggested that leaders outside of product teams felt developers were more influential about what gets delivered, but those teams reported lower levels of team effectiveness. So, what I’m thinking is that having those leadership attributes brought down into the product team, and having those valued by the team, can really influence how effective a team might be.
Adam: Dan, do you have any thoughts on that as well?
Dan: To be honest, I was a bit distracted by the previous comment around synchronous and asynchronous. It’s been sitting with me for a while.
Adam: Do you want to dive back into that?
Dan: Yeah, well I think because we’ve always had the option of synchronous and asynchronous and if you go back to more conservative organisations, there would be, I write a document and I send it to you and three weeks later you send it back and I’m just sort of reflecting on what’s really shifted. What’s the catalyst, why now? And I think the answer is, online synchronous communication is a bit more effortful, is a bit slower than in person. So, if before we had the choice between synchronous and asynchronous, synchronous was cheaper and really right now, synchronous has got a little bit more expensive, not a heap more expensive, but a little bit more expensive.
And I think that’s the thing that’s making us question, where you could have sat in a room with people and the emotional, cognitive load of working in person was not that high and you could have worked through a whole day together. But doing that online, there’s less body language, there’s latency in the call, it’s harder to do turn taking… These little things just make it more tiring to be synchronously online. So it’s forcing us to question again, what can we do asynchronous versus synchronous? And, I think that’s the area where teams are getting more effective.
And if I think about, What does a high performing team look like? And the simplest thing to me is you ask someone to think about their team and they just smile a little bit, there’s a little bit of joy. Or if we’re forming a new project team and you go, ‘Okay, you’re going to be working, this is the product we’re going to deliver, so and so, and these four people, they’re going to be in the team together.’ And if people have worked with those people before and there is just a little bit of a smile going, ‘Oh yes, I get to work with these people!’ What is that? It’s like, ‘I trust them, they’re capable. We communicate really well. I know there’s going to be this sense of flow and focus, and all that stuff can happen.’ And I think that’s sort of the crucible of a high-performing team — getting to that space. But it’s not just completely dry. There’s a bit of emotional, like something that makes you smile about being in there, working in that team.
Adam: Yeah. I love that. I’d love to do a whole episode actually on just cultivating that group flow and that implicit sync that can happen in a really high-performing team. But yeah, we don’t have time for that now, but I do actually, and we’re starting to wrap up as well. So there’s a couple of things I’d like to just talk about to wrap up. And one is, there might be some people listening, thinking I’m actually in a really poor-performing team. There’s no smiles on my face, when I think about my team at the moment. Where do I start in helping to improve this team and just take them to the next level? Maybe, we can’t get to high-performing, but maybe we can at least improve things a little bit.
Dan: Yeah. I think the first step there is, usually if people are not feeling they’re in a great team, they’re starting to also feel a bit disengaged that they’re not, and that means they may not have autonomy or clear purpose in what they’re doing. And I think one of the simplest things that help people feel committed and having a bit of autonomy is to be part of shaping what they’re doing and why. I think the most disempowering thing is just to be told what to do, maybe without even context of how it is important. And to flip that around, to what Scott was saying before, if there can be a bit of product vision, and a bit, how does that connect into the business strategy? But then approaching that to the team with an open, ‘Okay, what options do we have? What solutions are possible to achieve this outcome?’ And letting everyone have a voice and hearing those voices and making sure they feel valued for their contribution.
And yes, you might still end up, even if you end up with the same thing you thought you were going to end up with — as a leader, like we have to do X. If you get there by everyone feeling that they helped get there and their voices were heard, you’re starting with a very different point of commitment, I think to that. And then everyone’s working on something they feel a bit more invested in. So all the other stuff about trust and connection and flow, I think that can come second, just having a step towards the direction of feeling involved and committed and valued.
Scott: Yeah, I think those small steps are important, Dan, like just picking up something small to begin with. If people are feeling as though they’re not working in a great team, there can be this compulsion to try and change everything, but that doesn’t normally work out all that well. But, starting with small things and yeah, I agree like, trying to find opportunities to give people space, finding opportunities, space to be heard, giving opportunity to making sure everybody’s voices are heard and are included in meetings. And so structuring meetings starts to become a little bit more important. So that facilitators or people who are leading those teams are actually drawing in those voices and creating opportunity. Simple things like check-ins and checkouts, is a great way to start. It’s something that teams can start tomorrow, but the effectiveness of those check-ins and checkouts might take some time to be realised just as trust starts to be developed in teams. Don’t expect people to be fully open from day one, if you’re not in a very trusting team to begin with.
Adam: And Scott, what about then those teams that might feel like they are, they’ve got through the basics, they’re going pretty well, but they want to take it to the next level. They want to maybe dive into a bit more flow or generate more innovation or creativity in their teams. What sort of things can they start to look at?
Scott: I think that’s when collaboration starts to become more important, and creating opportunities for people to work really closely together, so that everybody has this sense of contribution to the bigger picture. So, once teams have a good base and level of trust, then I think when it comes time to really work closely with one another, the value those individuals and the team gets from working together is just so much greater, because it’s underpinned by that kind of trust that’s been developed over time. So, bringing the right people together to work is probably the thing that’s going to take teams to that next level.
Dan: If I can add one thing to that, I think it’s useful to remember when you are working in task and when you’re stepping outside of task. I think of a very delivery-focused team can be always working on task, like what’s the next thing to do, and you’re smashing it out, but finding that reflective mindset makes finding moments to step out of the task as a team, and think about what you’re doing and why, is helpful. It’s a human thing in the brain, the need to have that perspective for other things to become apparent. Whereas, if you’re in there concerned about just getting it done, it’s a different mindset and you’re very focused on moving the work forward, but not maybe changing how you do the work.
Scott: Constantly look for better ways.
Adam: Yeah, totally. Well, that’s pretty much all we’ve got time for, but I just wondered if there was a final thing that you might not have got to mention, that you would like to mention before we wrap up. Is there something, Scott, that’s on your mind, or Dan, that’s on your mind?
Scott: I feel like we’re at this really important moment right now. And as a collective of individuals in product teams, we’re on this kind of journey of trying to figure it out, figure out how to work better with one another. And, for many people, we’ve been on this journey for our entire career, but it’s not over yet. And I think that’s a great thing, continuing to improve and figure out better ways to work with one another, relate to each other, achieve goals, deliver results — all of those things — is super-exciting. And to have this massive curve ball thrown at us, to see the bright side of that is a pretty exciting prospect to be looking towards.
Dan: I think one other thing we have, it’s probably a whole other conversation, but the direct customer connection was something that also stuck out in the Report. And I think that’s something that we can be more mindful of, being distributed. The team needs to feel connected to something and needs to be meaning and purpose. And part of that is connection into, who am I having impact on? Where’s the customer? How can I empathise with what they’re trying to do? So, I think that’s another thing to bear in mind, especially well distributed. How can you get that empathetic connection to the customer, to the purpose of the work?
Adam: Awesome. Well, yeah. Thank you both. Thank you, Scott. Thank you, Dan. It’s been awesome to chat with you and I’ve hoped you’ve all enjoyed listening as well. If you’d like to hear more about, or read more about, how teams across Australia and New Zealand are doing things, you can download the Report from our website, it’s free and you can just go to cogent.co/podcastreport Thanks for listening.