Team Design

Team Culture by Design

"Can you give an hour masterclass on team culture for the Brand the Change community?" asked Anne Miltenburg. You know the famous saying, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast?" Well, I always like to add, "and that's why it makes it through the day."

Influencing team culture starts with understanding how to design a high-performing team. Since I already turned my 7-week program on how to do just that into an interactive workshop for startup founders in an accelerator program, I thought it was a nice challenge to condense it into an hour.

This blog post is a recap of that session for participants who want to go over the exercises we discussed on their own time. I also hope it inspires other team leads who accidentally stumble upon it and struggle with questions such as "What is the foundation for a team performance?" or "What can I do as a leader to improve team performance?"

It's probably quite a bit to digest in one sitting. Take your time. Hopefully, it gives you some extra tools you can use to influence your team culture. Those who went through it tell me it was worth it.

Foundation for high-performance

When someone asks me to step in and analyze the way a team works, I always start by taking a look at the team design. Or, in other words, I look to get a better understanding of the challenge they are working on and the strategy they plan to follow to succeed. 

I have four relatively simple exercises that help me quickly get a grasp of what the team is all about:

  • Strategic roadmap
  • Strategy mind map
  • Team structure
  • Brand thinking

To make it more practical, I follow each exercise with an example from MOYU, one of the projects I'm currently working on.

Strategic roadmap exercise

I like to start by zooming out to get an eagle-eye view of the business. This helps me understand the strategic steps the team needs to take in the coming years. In the end, I want to be able to make a sketch that clarifies the team's:

  • End goal or at least the goal for the coming 3-5 years
  • 3 most recent milestones reached
  • 3-7 milestones needed to reach the goal
Example of a Strategic Roadmap

Strategy mind map exercise

From the eagle-eye view, you zoom in to get a more detailed hawk-eye view of the business. An exercise for this is creating a mindmap you can use as a visual representation of the business strategy. If you get it right, you should have a more or less complete overview of how the team plans to succeed. I like to use these guiding questions as I draw my strategy mind maps. How is the team planning to:

  • Win in the market?
  • Get money into the business? 
  • Deliver the promised value?
  • Make the desired impact?
  • Raise awareness?
  • Grow the team?
  • Strengthen the credibility?
Example of a Strategy Mind Map

Team structure exercise

Next up is getting a sense of the different sub-groups and responsibilities within the team. You could use an organizational chart, but I prefer a Venn diagram if the team size allows it. You can list all the work topics a team tackles and give a name to the departments responsible for each topic. Then, enrich the diagram by writing down the responsibilities of each department and any shared responsibilities between departments.

In the end, you get a nice image that represents how your team interacts with one another.

Example of an Organizational Structure

Leadership style Exercise

Every leader has a preferred leadership style based on their personality, skills, and experience. However, it's good to check in from time to time and decide whether that style fits with what the team needs to improve performance. I typically split a leadership style into two levels. 

The primary level is the decision-making style. Leaders might vary between one of three approaches depending on the stage of the business and the seniority of the team:

  • Autocratic: the leader makes the decisions
  • Delegative: the team rules themselves
  • Democratic: the team votes to align on actions

The secondary level is the people management style. This one will depend heavily on the leadership qualities, but it's good to be able to adjust it based on the needs of individual team members:

  • Visionary - inspirational and progress-focused
  • Servant - humble and protective
  • Pacesetter - motivational and high standard-focused
  • Coaching - motivational and development-focused
  • Transactional - performance-focused
  • Transformational - challenging and communicative
  • Bureaucratic - rules and procedure-focused
Example of a management team Leadership Style

Brand thinking Exercise

The last exercise is to look through a brand lens and write a short narrative format that explains what is at the core of the team. Try to answer these three questions:

  • What is the problem that the team believes is worth solving?
  • How does the team see it being solved?
  • What are they doing to solve it?
Example of a Brand Challenge
Example of a solution to the Brand Challenge

What gets in the way of success

There are a thousand and one reasons that teams fail, but after working with many innovation and startup teams I found that there are three particular ones that leaders should pay a little more attention to.

Lack of a story that gives direction 

Clarity is key when it comes to team communication. Most teams lose valuable time having back-and-forth discussions on the customer, value proposition, product numbers, planning, or needed resources. Tip from my side. Take the time to clarify these topics as quickly as possible, and you'll see how it helps build up your team's work momentum:

  • Customer: who has a problem that is worth solving?
  • Value: how convincing is the value proposition?
  • Potential: what is the market size and product economics?
  • Plan: what are realistic actions for the coming 1-3 months?
  • Resources: who needs to do what, and what budget is needed?
Rating system for clarity of an innovation idea

Lack of development plans that satisfy employee needs 

Finding a balance between delivery, developing skills, and team bonding moments is another area often overlooked when building a team. With week-to-week business pressures, most of the effort goes to improving company metrics and very little to employee development. It helps to schedule one-on-one moments to see how a team member feels within the team. Try using these guiding topics:

  • Success: the energy they get from achieving results
  • Meaning: alignment with team purpose and values
  • Connection: close bond with other team members
  • Growth: development of talents and skills
  • Respect: acceptance within the team
Rating system for employee needs

Lack of a culture that reinforces team needs

Figuring out how to make the team click is another one of those time-consuming tasks that often gets overlooked. It's something more suited for a left-side-of-the-brain approach. It's paying attention to the fluctuating emotions within the team and figuring out how to influence the team dynamics. If it helps, here are five topics I take into account when analyzing team dynamics:

  • Results: focus on achieving team goals
  • Accountability: get the team to embrace responsibility
  • Commitment: get the team to be involved
  • Conflict: master team interactions
  • Trust: build an environment of sharing
Rating system for team needs

How to influence team performance

Let's assume your strategy, organization structure, leadership style, and brand story are clearly defined. What now? What do you need to move the team performance dial? The design is not going to magically work miracles on its own. The next part of the work is to start improving on the elements that take performance to the next level.

Team design foundation versus team performance enhancers
“If you do the same thing, you’ll keep getting the same results.” - Albert Einstein

Quality of deliverables to improve results

A business strategy might be spot on, but it will never work without the right quality of deliverables. There are two things you should take into account when coaching a team to improve the quality of deliverables:

  1. Effectiveness: what to do differently to get better results
  2. Efficiency: what to do to deliver the same results at a higher pace
Quality of deliverables = effectiveness + efficiency

There's always something to improve when it comes to deliverables. The struggle comes when prioritizing what to fix first. I like to use a very right-brain-type exercise I learned in my consulting years, the team-deliverables effort matrix. 

It's mapping the team deliverables against the team roles in a matrix and filling it in with the time estimate to complete the deliverables. It's a way to create an overview that helps spot if the workload is unrealistic, and if so, think about what you can do to save time and allow the team to focus on improving the quality rather than the quantity of the work.

The exercise looks complex, but it's simple:

  • Draw a matrix
  • Fill in the deliverables on the left side of the matrix
  • Fill in the roles and number of team members on the top of the matrix
  • Fill in how much time you estimate each person needs to spend on each deliverable during the week
Example of a Team-Deliverables Effort Matrix

Reliability of workflows to run a sustainable business

An organization structure can look great on paper, but the test of running a sustainable business is the reliability of the workflows. You can think about two aspects when working on the reliability of your workflows:

  1. Pace: maintaining the effectiveness of the work over time.
  2. Endurance: maintaining the efficiency of the work over time.

Nowadays, the most common way to improve the reliability of your workflows is by finding the right technology to simplify or even automate it. There are many ways to tackle this. Let me walk you through a tech stack mapping exercise using marketing & sales work around a customer journey as an example.

Sketch out four columns and then fill them out:

  • List the stages of your customer journey in the first column
  • List the customer interaction touch points for each stage in the second column
  • Write the work your team does within each stage in the third column
  • List the tools you use to improve the reliability of the workflow in the fourth column
Example of a Customer Journey Tech Stack

Strength of team dynamics to bring energy into the group

One of the hardest things to manage is the interactions within a team. The different personalities, levels of skills, and personal ambitions within the team, combined with the pressure of getting business results, create many types of tensions. The challenge is to forge a routine that allows the team to vent, bond, and stay energized as they chase individual and collective milestones.

Rating system for team dynamics

The best way I found to influence team dynamics is to experiment with team meetings to find a communication rhythm that works for the team. A good exercise for this is to define a governance structure: a set of meetings you use to direct, motivate, and manage the team.

It's good to keep these meetings as lean and mean as possible. Nothing drains the energy out of a team more than useless or unnecessarily long meetings. Balance your meetings by taking the time to decide:

  • What are the goals?
  • What is the frequency?
  • Who are the participants?
  • What is the preparation needed?
Example of a team meetings Governance Structure

Agreement on guidelines to reduce friction within the team

And last but not least is the mentality of the team. What can you do as a leader to encourage the right mentality? It starts with the team members knowing what to expect from one another without hesitation.

A fun exercise is to take the time to agree on a team code. And by code, I mean a set of principles your team agrees to work by. How does it work? Block a couple of hours to sit with your team to do the following:

  • Brainstorm the type of behavior you expect to see within the team
  • Choose the top 3-5 most important expectations
  • Write a title, 2-4 words, for each guideline
  • Write a short explanation, 5-10 words, that will make sure the team understands the guideline in the same way
Example of a Team Code

In conclusion, influencing team culture is a long-term game

I can imagine this was a lot of information to process in one go. And, even though the exercises might seem relatively easy, you will see they take up quite a bit of time. I suggest taking an iterative approach to them, making a first draft, and then periodically circling back to improve them until you hit the spot.

One important note is that this is not something to outsource to someone. You can hire someone to facilitate the process. But you and the management team should be willing to do the groundwork for these exercises to be effective. How much time? In my experience it will take a good six months to properly design the team, embed the changes, and start working on systematically improving performance.

Example of a Team Design Trajectory

At the moment, I'm working on setting up the basic team design for MOYU as a first step to scaling the business. If you're interested in learning more about the challenges as I progress, you can read more about it in my monthly journal entries: Taking MOYU from Startup to Scale-Up.

Want to learn more about building high-performing teams?