Getting Your Team Through the Storm

by Layla Foord, GM Microlancer, Singer, Mum.


As General Manager of Microlancer, I’ve had the thrill of building a team from scratch, it’s come with its delights and an equal quantity of challenges. My job has been to get a group of people to work toward a common goal and deliver a defined outcome, really quickly. It sounds pretty hard and I was a little daunted at first, however, there are lots of things I’ve learned along the way that have helped me shape the team and get them to a Blue Sky day.

The following advice has been gathered from my own personal experiences. There are many ways you could tackle the same problems.

“Don’t get bogged down in other people’s teams. Work on your own.”

My team is pretty tight; they enjoy their work and it leads them, motivates them and gets them out of bed every day. However, even if teams look perfect from the outside, there are always problems. Humans are just that, human, and no matter how hard we try, we’ll get it wrong sometimes. It’s important to embrace and work with it, to help people as individuals through issues, whether professional or personal. Ignoring problems is the easiest way to develop a poorly functioning team.

So, what does a performing team look like?

  • Communication flows easily
  • People feel valued as they understand their role in the team and are recognised for what they do
  • There is accountability
  • There is a personal commitment to each other as human beings and not just because we’re paid to do the job – we want to make each other happy
  • We enjoy working with each other, even if we don’t socialise together
  • We respect each others skills, values and contribution
  • We all know the important milestones, data and projects
  • We all know who our customers are and what we’re trying to do for them
  • The team gets through the work efficiently and to a high standard
  • They make you feel a bit dumb sometimes!

How do you build a performing team?

If you understand the way teams form and what might happen next, you can help facilitate their transition to the best part – The Blue Sky. Most importantly, you can be part of a group of people who really enjoy what they do, and do it really well. Usually, that leads to great outcomes for your customers.

Lets start with the organics

Team formation flow is a concept which dates back to 1967, I’ve given it a lick of paint to bring it up-to-date because it really still holds true as we haven’t changed much in the way of being human, even if the things we’re building have.

Team Formation: The Calm – The Storm – The Eye – The Blue Sky

The Storm

The Calm – We’re all getting to know each other, known as forming and we’re all on our best behaviour. We give people the benefit of the doubt and hold back as much as we can. We want to be liked and we want to like others. We haven’t been let down yet and so we have high hopes and we’re excited about the possibilities. Luxuriate in and enjoy this phase, it is such a great part of joining a new team. Have you noticed how the new guy always gets listened to? so if you’re the new guy or gal, speak up and if you’re not – listen closely, you’re about to be enriched. This is a great time to share ideas and think big about what you want to achieve.

‘Tell me your view, I’m all ears’

The Storm – We’ve noticed some behaviours we didn’t expect or we’ve found that a particular problem has forced out some less desirable traits. People start to fight to be heard, bicker and discuss eachothers motivations between themselves. This is a really important phase of team formation and you need to let it happen and gently guide the team to the next stage, don’t force them to get along with a game of ‘catch me and I won’t let you fall’. You need to help them see eachothers point-of-view and come to a shared conclusion. The more opportunity people get to disagree, the more opportunity they get to know each other and can discuss things more quickly in future. Some teams never get out of this phase and it is really uncomfortable.

‘Here’s my view, listen!’

The Eye – Here we are in the eye of the storm, we’ve established eachothers views and have found a balance. We’re working fairly well together and are working toward one goal. However, we’re frightened of returning to the The Storm and so might not come up with controversial ideas, holding the team back from really performing.

‘My view plus your view = our View’

The Blue Sky – Here we are in the perfect place, everyone knows what they’re doing and why and they can challenge each other in a healthy way. They can make decisions autonomously. This is the stuff dream teams are made of, but we don’t always make it this far.

Helping the Team Along

What can you do as a manager to help teams through the natural cycle of team formation? There are no gimmicks really, it is all about making sure that each person knows what they are there to do, why and how they can make a difference to the product and customer and that they’re recognised, heard and respected.

Let the work lead the team

Make sure you all know what you are building and why.

Put some basics down
You can do this by ensuring some basic fundamentals exist and have been developed with the team. At the very least, they need:

Job description

  • Make it plain language and a real description of the job to be done – don’t just list tasks
  • Personal goals for the immediate and long-term, don’t be afraid to make these task based if it means it is really clear – they don’t have to be esoteric but do make them specific, measurable, achievable and time bound: e.g. Develop a blog focusing on customer type x, by y (tactical) Develop your presentation skills by attending training/presenting at x meeting (personal development) Develop a customer acquisition plan to increase new customers from x to y (strategic)
  • Regular face time with you
  • Weekly or fortnightly 30 minute updates dedicated to each individual would be ideal, make sure this flows through to all of your team, not just your direct reports
  • Regular full review points throughout the year, use a tool like Small Improvements to help with the admin

Sharing of key data about performance towards goals and results of the product also help to keep people anchored in the outcomes, instead of focusing on who had what idea. Do this by keeping a daily tally of some really important numbers, share as many reports and pieces of information as you can – be sure to deconstruct it for people too – not everyone knows what EBITDA or AOV means and that’s OK, they’re about to learn from you.

Then, together you can create the tools to guide your team such as the Vision, Objectives and a plan to achieve them.

Once you’ve got the basics in place, you can start to get creative.

Get Talking

Hold regular workshops about really important things, leave your opinions behind and really work on bringing out everyone elses.

Use the information to create your strategy and make sure that you credit the people who helped to form it. This’ll provide more than a few benefits:

  • Your team really should have some great ideas, I bet some of them are better than yours
  • Your team will feel involved, actually they will be involved
  • Your team will hear each others views and lots of them, fast forwarding the ‘what’s he/she about’ part of getting to know each other
  • Its a safe place for conflict, because you can help to guide the discussion so everyone is heard and respected

Get Working

Define a small experiment that can be achieved in a week or two. Clearly articulate what outcome you want to achieve and who will be working on it and then let them at it. The team will quickly organise around the work and start getting it done. If they’re still working out the methodology after day 1, you know you’ll need to step in and help them along. The key is not to sweat the small stuff here, tell them it doesn’t matter who does what, just get it done.
This’ll mean they can focus on the outcome, you don’t care if they used Agile or Scrum or Simon Says. They’re forced to focus and get on with each other.

Get Playing

Arrange a casual activity where the team can realise what a great team they already are. A simple way to do this is through a joint cooking exercise.
We had the Microlancer team over at my house to prepare italian meatballs and pasta. We had all kinds of jobs from cutting onions to rolling mince and making the sauce, it was the perfect production line and I’ve never seen such well proportioned balls.
Not only did we have a great meal, we did it together and we had to follow a simple set of instructions in a really short time. The key was that the team didn’t have to think about what to make or buy the ingredients, it was just about getting on with something together, we knew what we were making (strategy) with a recipe (plan) and ended with a great lunch (tested results) which could be tweaked with seasoning (learn and adapt).

The Microlancer team cooking together

Get Celebrating

When something good happens, don’t be afraid to shout about it. Recognise the achievement of key milestones. We sometimes get cupcakes and eat them during a stand-up, sometimes we’ll ambush somebody with balloons or just give them a public pat on the back through company meetings or on a blog or intranet. Your team should be proud to do well.

Celebrations can be big, we’ve started a little karaoke tradition and although it can be daunting at first, by the end of the night everyone is singing loud and fighting over the mic.They can also be small, we play a song each time a feature is released (You can ring my bell) and on our birthday we’re planning something special to share with our Envato colleagues.

Get Empowering

Make sure your team can operate autonomously as much as possible, they should know as much about what needs to be done as you do and be able to make sensible decisions about their area of work. Most of the time it is best to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. If you start hearing apologies too often, you need to recalibrate. Make sure that everyone is really clear about what you’re trying to achieve, it is probably your fault if they aren’t.

To make sure everyone understands, arrange team meetings to discuss specific things in detail. Give the team a chance to get involved in things, rather than tell them later. The whole Microlancer team got together recently to take a look at the way we review Service Providers and as a result we came up with a great new plan and everyone knew how important it was. Nobody was left wondering ‘what’s the point’.

It may sound like we’re in meetings all of the time, but we only run them once every fortnight or so and the time saved in joint understanding and ownership is really worth the effort if you listen rather than tell.

Take Responsibility

Teams can fall apart if they’re led by committee, the burden of decision making is too much and leads to conflict as people vie for control or the loudest voice wins out, or worse, they begin to wonder why you’re there at all. This all leads ultimately to a lack of personal accountability and disillusionment. You still need to own decisions, even when you take input and direction from the team. Make sure you really believe in the team and the decision and it is OK to take input and do something else, as long as you’ve clearly explained why. Everyone doesn’t have to agree with your decision as long as they know why you’ve made it.

There is so much more to share on the subject of forming great teams that goes from your leadership to your participation in a team. The key point is that it doesn’t happen magically most of the time, even if it looks that way. There is always somebody or a lot of people trying to help nudge things in the right direction, quietly resolving conflicts, sharing information and setting the vision.


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