Teamwork: The Lightning Round

Advice from The Sherwins for October 2018



Welcome to the Ask The Sherwins Advice column for October 2018. We’re doing things a little differently this month, because our new book Turning People Into Teams: Rituals and Routines That Redesign How We Work will hit the shelf in just a few days. To celebrate this, we dedicated this column to the questions people have been asking us about the book.

What’s the book about?

D: It’s about teams. And rituals.

M: *nods*

What’s a ritual?

M: There’s usually a yeti involved. And some fire.

D: Chanting. Lots of chanting.


D: But in our book, a ritual is a specific set of actions that people do together for a higher purpose. The purpose is important—it’s about intention. A team can’t do a ritual blindly or it loses its meaning. Its purpose shifts.

M: Or worse, the ritual only benefits a few people. There are a lot of rituals in workplaces that have become dogmatic. They haven’t been examined in a long time.

D: That’s one of the first things in the book that we ask teams to do: talk about the rituals they already have in place. Why do you do what you do? Is it working the way that you intended, or are you going through the motions because that’s what you’ve always done?

Why did you write this book?

D: We started teaching teamwork formally about five years ago at CIID and were encouraged to write the book by the students. And we realized at one point that they’re facing the same problems that our clients are. So we started using our classroom content classroom with our clients, and things took off. We’d worked with so many teams that just weren’t getting what they wanted at work. They had a lot of issues around decision-making and ownership, just like our students had. The rituals in the book were helping with that.

M: Everyone wants a better team experience. And they also want to get things done. There’s a lot of team-centered content out that’s nice, but isn’t grounded in the actual work. Like sure, we all want to get along and listen to everyone’s input, but what do we do with that? How do we go through that process as a team? We felt like what we had hit all of those buttons.

D: Top-down approaches are getting less and less successful, because the actual work that teams are doing is too nuanced from project to project. It’s easy to listen to a sweeping initiative, but if teams really want to change how things work, they need to start with themselves. With their day-to-day interactions. Almost everything from the top is too abstract.

M: Teams really don’t have the time to translate what comes from C-suite, and managers are in a bind as to where to focus. The team needs to decide. They need to choose. So each ritual in the book is about that, choosing to make a decision, choosing to generate useful critique, choosing to change behaviors that don’t contribute.

You said it started about five years ago. What took you so long?

M: It’s hard to write about what you do when you’re busy doing it.

D: And we needed to make sure that we had a chance to test everything that’s in there. We were using the rituals with our clients, and we kept finding little things to adjust.

M: I had an advisor in college who told me that the hardest part of any major project is knowing when to stop.

D: So true. And before we had a book contract with a real deadline, it was hard to draw a line around what we considered done.

What team situation do you get asked about the most?

D: “Our team is a few months into the project, and we’re stuck. Now what?” This leads to a bunch of “What did we miss, and how can we fix it?” process questions. In those conversations, there’s an implicit assumption that if they had seen and done one thing differently, everything would be fine. And that I have the answer for that. But the answer is usually not what they want to hear: they didn’t give the team enough agency to anticipate and prevent issues for themselves.

M: I get asked about what I call “bros at boards”—one of the ways that a lot of work on creative teams and product teams gets done. “Let me stand in front of a whiteboard with some sticky notes and be loud about my ideas.” Sadly, people feel like it’s part of work culture at this point, and it spawns all kinds of issues. The rituals in the book have some different ground rules to specifically address things like inclusion of perspectives, bias, and behavior change.

Does it have pictures?

D: It has simple diagrams. They help teams not get lost in the process. You know exactly where you are and where you’re going.

M: Diagrams are important, because teams need tangible output from their activities to hold themselves accountable. It’s a central place to track everyone’s contributions and the decisions that the team made together. Otherwise, it’s just talk.

D: For each ritual, we tried to include the best visual output that works for a wide variety of situations. We worked to make them of a piece as well, so teams don’t have to remember a million different formats. There are a lot of fussy activity templates out there, and really, your team does not need 14 more canvases.

Tell us about the cover.

D: We kinda have a circle thing going on. We’ve tried to keep a throughline visually for all our books.

M: I used to work at a bookstore, and a lot of people ask for books by the cover when they can’t remember the title. “It’s blue with a boat on it.” or “It’s red with a yeti.”

D: Right, so “the black one with the circles” is a Sherwin book.

M: Really, it’s just clever, clever branding.

Anything fun in the book?

D: Nope. Not even the audiobook is fun.

M: Absolutely not. We took the audiobook very seriously.

D: We’ve seen teams do a lot of wild things with some of the rituals, so I think it’s like anything else that we suggest in the book: it’s the team’s decision.

M: The book has nothing about Steve Jobs, so it can’t be fun. By definition.

Who is the book for?

D: Everyone who works on a team.

M: We’re both accustomed to working with design and creative teams, so that’s the first circle. Product teams, service design teams. But we’ve used some of these rituals with not-for-profits as well. And of course, we teach them to our students, who are from all sorts of backgrounds.

D: So far, we haven’t had anyone read the book and say, “This is useless.”

M: At least not to our faces.

Turning People into Teams: Rituals and Routines That Redesign How We Work is out on October 9th from Berrett-Koehler, distributed internationally by Penguin Random House. If you live in the Bay Area, drop by Bay Grape on Wednesday, October 10th from 7–9 pm to say hello and buy your own signed copy.

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