"We need more leaders beyond hierarchies"
High performance teams have at least one culture maker
Jennifer, in 2016 you started to work as a staff researcher at Dropbox. What is your job about?
Most of our research is focused on teams and how they work together. I have done a lot of research on what we call heroic teams: groups of people that are exceptional at working together. They were doing all kinds of things. We observed and interviewed cancer researchers, Broadway performers, people working for educational institution such as psychologists and educators. We worked with people that even were building virtual registration software or with marketing teams. It was a vast spectrum of work and roles. And we discovered a hand full of phenomenal things in observing and interviewing those teams.
We can actually work together to create our relationships and that kind of outcomes that we want in collaborative work.
What was the common pattern of success?
There are two things that have an interplay. The first was this idea of a culture maker. Having a person in the team who is actively working to shape the culture that the team is designing. And the other piece of it is that on half of these teams we observed that they were actively co-creating their own culture. They were having conversations about how they want to make decisions together, how they feel at work together, how and when they want to communicate. It tells us that the nature of our team relationships is not inherently inevitable. The relations don't have to go on in a kind of implicit and unconscious way. We can actually work together to create our relationships and that kind of outcomes that we want in collaborative work.
The leader is not always the culture maker
For example, it does not matter who makes a decision, but the main issue is to develop an individual decision-making culture?
Exactly. And this shows us that it doesn't matter what your culture is. We saw a range of cultures on these teams. And I wouldn’t fit in with some of these cultures, but this idea isn't prescriptive to a specific kind of culture. It is simply about the idea that creating the culture together, sharing it and aligning on what you want that culture to be is the most important piece.
And this culture maker, what kind of person might that be? A leader or just someone without official leadership responsibility?
Although we often see a pattern with the person who might have an explicit leadership role – it wasn't always the case. Often there were people on the team stepping up to perform that role of culture maker and there can obviously be more than one. In the best-case scenario, the idea is that everybody is making culture together. For this idea in particular we think that it suggests a different model of leadership. We heard a lot of this idea of humility, the importance and emphasis on people and their relationships.
It is simply about the idea that creating the culture together, sharing it and aligning on what you want that culture to be is the most important piece.
In some cases, we even had the idea that the culture maker or the whole team might go against the grain. These teams believe in something so strongly that they are willing to not necessarily norm with a larger culture, neither within an organisation nor within a context that they are working in. They didn't see themselves as passive recipients of instructions or cultural conditions. They felt empowered to really create their culture together. And it is possible that the leader is the person who is working to empower and facilitate that feeling among the team. It is hard to say what came first – another kind of leadership or the specific team culture – but it is that interplay what is particularly special.
Succesful teams co-create their culture.
Do organisations still need leaders, if they have a strong collaboration culture?
We need more leaders in the truest sense of the word: more people that are willing to step up and lead, not so much people with explicit power in a hierarchy. When we see that interplay with the teams and the process of culture making that's a form of leadership that those individual teammates are embodying. We need more people that feel in power to make decisions and do the work that aligns with the mission that they've agreed on.
It is all about the people
But organisations with leaders like Steve Jobs, that are known for their bruising leadership style, can be highly creative and innovative…
This sort of bruising style based on a fixed ladder power is an older model. Younger people in particular aren't going to tolerate those ways of working and will push for different kinds of culture. We have already seen this in a lot of our big global cultural moments that are happening right now. People sort of push against this unchecked power that certain highly charismatic visible leaders have accumulated using it for not so great purposes. Those older kind of leadership styles don't serve any longer. There is a larger culture shift that is happening towards a more egalitarian and a more collaborative culture. We still will have strong leadership but at all levels of the organisation and across the teams as well.
We need more leaders in the truest sense of the word: more people that are willing to step up and lead, not so much people with explicit power in a hierarchy.
What role do conflicts play for collaboration?
Last year we had a partnership with the school of life. We wanted them to interpret our work from a philosophical perspective and to talk about what makes teams more effective. The study was called “The vices and virtues of collaboration”. As part of this research we found also that particularly here in Germany people were really into embrace conflict and we don't see that conflict is harmful at all. We also observed one team that within their culture making process decided to engage with conflict and to have hard conversations. They stepped consciously outside of the everyday friendly conversation and called this having a ‘red dot conversation’. They brought that idea from a book called "The primes" by Chris McGoff. Being able to agree in advance this was the sort of way that they wanted to have these more difficult conversations. It meant that you set aside a kind of space, an intention for having conflict and it wasn't seen as a bad thing. It was actually a way to move closer into alignment what you are working on or to reconnect something in a relationship that might feel off.
With Conflicts emotions arise. How can we use emotions for good team work?
One important part of it is having individuals with emotional intelligence, with a certain awareness and understanding when strong emotions come up and what might be going on for those people. You need someone who is able to articulate emotions out load. For example, I am not always the first person to know that I am angry, people usually read it on me before I can. I incorporate that into my work-life by putting it in my so-called work-with-me doc. That is a document that is transparent for everyone within Dropbox. And colleagues know that's how I usually relate to my emotions. Sometimes I just need a space to express those emotions that are frustrating to me.
Some people say that diverse teams have better results. Do you agree or do you see even more reasons for conflicts?
Diverse teams don't work better together from the start. The idea of that difference needs to be discussed and navigated. Particularly when we look at our research with superpower teams it was a theme that came across every single one of the conversations how important it was to cultivate the different point of views for the quality of work. One specific story we heard was from one of the cancer researchers. He referred to his team like a band of misfits. They would often get into conflict with each other. They were from all over the world and had all very different points of view, different kind of contexts, of religions. But that difference that they brought to their research made the work even stronger. So if you are looking for easy, that's probably not the right way, but it's worth trying.
Diverse teams do not work better together from the start.
One finding of your study with the school of life was that we waste one third of our time with e-mails and meetings. Why don’t we simply change the way we communicate?
This is a hot topic of many organisations. It's this idea of work about work. It mostly falls in a category what we call coordination, work to build relationships and all the things in order to facilitate the work getting done. Within our inquiry we wanted to understand more about the things that people would like to stop doing or do more of. Regardless what role this person is in or what their job is, everybody wants to do the work that is creative, that uses more their individual strength and makes them feel that they make a unique contribution to the organisation. Algorithms or machine learning can support people with those things that they explicitly want to stop doing.
Why group flow is so important
Could you give an example of these kinds of algorithms?
We spend a lot of time retrieving documents that we need for meetings and different other tasks. We know that retrieval is a really important part of the creation process. People don't just start their projects with a blanc page. They first look if they find other things that they have done before that match. When they go to a meeting there is a sort of documents that are likely relevant for certain kinds of conversation. So we are trying to use machine learning to do that. If an algorithm has access to your calendar it can anticipate what you might need for a conversation, what you are trying to do or what your interest is.
This might replace non-creative, repetitive work. But which kind of office setting is needed to be creative and innovative?
When you are doing team and collaborative work being able to get in a kind of group flow is really important. Any kind of interruption or distraction erode our ability to focus. Right now, we are really curious if not obsessed about how we might organise a more enlightened way of working. We see people – especially in open offices – wearing headphones as some kind of external signal to say, “I am working, please don’t disturb”. So for example, at our own culture we set aside blocks of maker time. This is true for the design team on Monday morning from about nine to noon. It is sacred time where everybody in the design organisation can work with their head down and focus. And we have no meetings Wednesdays. This sort of social contract can facilitate that kind of group flow. In addition, we know from our research that working on things that are purposeful and that create joy generates creative energy. Joy really brakes down to a concrete idea. For this kind of joy, we also need autonomy and being able to define when and how we work. Organisations can support that with a lot of different things. But there is also really a delicate balance here because too much support of structure actually inhibits or hinders individuals.
About Jennifer Brook
For the past 10 years, Jennifer Brook has worked with organizations such as Art + Feminism, The New York Times, Apple, Vice and O'Reilly. She recently moved from New York to San Francisco to lead the Dropbox design research team. Previously, she lived in New York and ran her own consulting firm (2012 - 2016). She is best known for her design work at The New York Times (2009 - 2011) and her live demo during an Apple press conference in 2010. From 2003 to 2008, Jennifer ran a creative art program on a farm in Asheville, North Carolina. She also promoted the self-determination of older teenagers in foster homes and built a tree house in which she lived for some time.