First things first, Trust each other

December 5, 2016 Published by Spotify Engineering

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

Ernest Hemingway

Trust is the bedrock of all effective teams. When it exists, team members speak freely, don’t second guess each other and formal hierarchy fades into the distance. Sadly, trust is often hard to gain and very easy to lose. But with some help it quickly becomes the glue that separates performing teams from mere groups of people.

Agile Coaches have large arsenals of tools and techniques to improve the working relationships of teams; from improving our day-to-day processes to making sure everyone has a shared understanding of what we’re trying to achieve. However, it is so easy to forget the rule everyone was taught before they met Scrum or had ever heard the expression MVP: that until people trust each other, none of it matters.

Trust others by default

In some roles and environments trust comes when you walk in the door. I experienced this when I was employed as a consultant and as a contractor, but this is not the case in many working environments. In sales, banking, law, government and many more, you must do your time and wait to be given the trust required to do “proper” work. This could involve making the tea, photocopying or shadowing someone else for months before you’re allowed to actually meet clients, makes sales calls or produce customer-facing work. Age, in the guise of experience, is often cited for this lack of up-front trust; much to the frustration of the fresh faced employee.

As widely reported, millennials have responded to this by moving jobs more frequently than any other generation. For many, this is a search for a company that trusts them by default, giving them the responsibility they crave from the very start. It has led to the stereotype that they are arrogant and aren’t prepared to ‘wait their turn’ or ‘learn their trade.’ But the reality is that you no longer need 30 years of experience to gain a basic level of understanding of the problem at hand and, after that, only doing the actual work associated with that specific job will make you better at it. If you want great people, who want to stay and work for you, trust by default!

Conflict builds trust

It is generally accepted that there are very distinct stages in every team’s development. This concept has been around as long as research on teams has been happening and was famously popularized by Tuckman in 1965 when he introduced the iconic ‘forming, storming, norming and performing’ model. More recent work by Susan Wheelan has written in greater depth about a similar set of stages and one thing is clear: teams can only become highly effective when its members feel confident enough to speak openly and not just silently nod along. Without this beneficial conflict, teams will make poor decisions and always seek a leader to make the hard calls for them.

However, disagreeing with your colleagues is not easy, as we are programmed from a young age to avoid conflict and be deferential to authority. This professional conflict can only occur when fear of reprisal has been removed, by creating an environment in which people trust each other and feel safe. There are many techniques to help build this trust up quickly (some of which I’m going to discuss next), but it is worth noting that in many cases, it will happen naturally over time as long as nothing happens to break it permanently.

“If you have a culture of fear, none of your fancy practices or processes will help you.”

Joshua Kerievsky

Techniques for building trust

A. A map of your life so far

On the face of it, Jurgen Appelo’s “Personal Mapping” technique is incredibly simple. Each member of the team maps out their lives, both professional and personal, on a piece of flipchart paper and then presents them back to the group one at a time. After each member has told their story (topics include family, work, values, hobbies, etc.), the team take it turns to ask more in-depth questions of the presenter. These range from “what book are your currently reading?” to “why is your family not on your map?” The presenter can open up as much as they feel comfortable.

The trust this exercise builds cannot be overstated. Having run it a few times, I am always amazed by how open people are when given the chance and how fascinating their lives are. Listening to your colleagues speak, you get a glimpse into their psyche and things start to click: “that’s why they act like that” or “ah, it all makes sense now” are commonly heard during debrief. If you truly believe people should be the same at work as outside it, this is a great step towards making it happen.

B. Build a mission statement

As a younger man, I didn’t have a great opinion of mission statements. I saw them either as marketing folly or as a lever senior management pulled to get their way. However, I have recently seen the power of teams crafting mission statements that they can all stand behind. These workshops can either be seminal moments, when the whole team gets on the same page and begins to trust they’re all working towards the same goal; or if not facilitated well, they can drift into disagreements and dissatisfaction. My preference is to first help the team agree on what a mission statement is and then let individuals or pairs create their own, allowing clear divergence of ideas. I then seek to find common ground between the members (although sometimes one pair nails it and only tweaking of their effort is needed). Like most workshops, it’s more art than science, but as is often the case, preparation and timeboxing will heavily increase your chances of success.

C. Celebrate failure

Ever been told by someone “you need to get it right first time”? Did it lead to better quality work? Unlikely. Ever heard someone say “with hindsight we should have….”? Of course. Was it helpful? Doubtful. These kind of conversations shatter trust and remove the atmosphere of safety that teams thrive in.

The Prime Directive of Agile Retrospectives states:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

So if you believe that, and many do, then why are we still stuck in that loop? No-one can guarantee they are going to get anything right first time and hindsight has never helped anyone. Once you truly believe that, everything changes. No longer do you argue with colleagues about where the blame lies, or how we could have done it better; you simply gather feedback and do it better next time around. In order to embrace this mindset, I like to get members of the team to talk about a time when they made a mistake and got it wrong – the bigger the better. Not only do we listen (and often laugh), but we applaud and thank them for sharing. Some teams take this one stage further and create ‘fail walls’ where all the fuck-ups are displayed for all to see. From a personal standpoint, if some of my workshops don’t fail occasionally, then I’ve been playing it too safe and need to be bolder with what I’m trying to achieve.

D. Dodge death

The concept of a “pre-mortem”, also known as the anti-problem, was brought to my attention by @MarkDalgarno and @AndyDeVale, but I think they got the idea from Gamestorming. The concept is simple, you ask a strong “anti” question, which helps you think about what not to do. This in turn allows a team to clarify what they should do in order to avoid it.

If you were a leadership team, you might ask “how can we make everyone hate us?” or if you are a product team you might ask “how can we make sure our app gets a terrible rating on the Apple Store?” I often take this exercise one stage further by making teams draw this dystopian world, something which I have found to be both enjoyable and effective.

This exercise builds trust between members, as they have all agreed on a shared vision of what the future should (and shouldn’t) look like.

Assume Positive Intent

Whether you implicitly give trust when you meet someone or it’s taken time to build, sadly it is too often lost in an instant. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When something goes wrong, try to see past that moment, as it was most likely unconscious and without malice. Empathy is one of the hardest emotions to master, but try to put yourself in their shoes and ask whether their heart was in the right place. If in doubt, grab them for a coffee and check. More than likely they will have the same goal as you and that moment can be forgotten before any damage is done.

Trust is the bedrock of teams, so give it freely and if in doubt, believe in the promise that everyone wants to do right by their colleagues.