Our Guest This Episode: Stefano Mastrogiacomo
Remote teams are here to stay. The challenge is keeping those remote project teams engaged and collaborating on the same goals. Just like a set of tires, a team needs to be well-aligned, otherwise performance is shaky. Management consultant, professor, and author, Stefano Mastrogiacomo talks to us about how the pandemic has changed the dynamic of teamwork. He is passionate about developing healthy, well-aligned teams. Stefano shares practical tools he has developed to integrate some human elements that are frequently neglected in our teams.
If team alignment is off, this misalignment becomes amplified online with remote teams. Stefano conveys two essential requirements for team success: communication which leads to mutual understanding, and trust which leads to psychological safety. Stefano is the co-author of “High-Impact Tools for Teams.” These are tools to manage the human side of any sort of project. We take a deeper look at one of these tools: The Team Alignment Toolkit. Stefano describes how the five tools in this toolkit help leaders and members align and get clarity on who is responsible for each part of the team's most important activities. The tools he shares are: The Team Alignment Map; The Team Contract; The Fact Finder; The Respect Card; The Nonviolent Requests Guide.
Stefano is passionate about human coordination and he is the designer of the Team Alignment Map, the Team Contract, the Fact Finder, and the other tools presented in this book. He has been leading digital projects and advising project teams in international organizations for more than 20 years, while teaching and doing research at the Universities of Lausanne, Switzerland. His interdisciplinary work is anchored in project management, change management, psycholinguistics, evolutionary anthropology, and design thinking.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
"Mutual understanding and psychological safety, have been at the core of the ...“High-Impact Tools for Teams.” Because these were the missing plugins in my own practice to deliver more successful projects. ...I was missing the human component ...because we’re humans, and language fails, and trust is not always at super levels. ...these are two essential requirements for succeeding as a team."
"I believe in a lot of team autonomy after we are aligned. I believe that alignment enables autonomy."
The podcast by project managers for project managers. If your team alignment is off, this misalignment becomes amplified with remote teams. Hear about tools to manage the human side of your project as we take look at The Team Alignment Toolkit.
02:34 … Meet Stefano
03:17 … Interest in Team Alignment
06:45 … Impact of Pandemic on Team Alignment
09:44 … Mastering Your Technology
13:20 … Challenges to Remote Work
17:34 … Effective Use of Online Communication Tools
21:48 … Hybrid Teams are Here to Stay
24:47 … Wrong Channel Selection
27:53 … Team Alignment Toolkit
29:01 … The Team Alignment Map
32:08 … The Team Contract
34:35 … The Fact Finder
35:43 … The Non-Violent Requests Guide
37:05 … The Respect Card
39:44 … How to Get the Tools
43:56 … Closing
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: And these two root reasons, mutual understanding and psychological safety, have been at the core of the creation of the tools that are, you know, “High-Impact Tools for Teams.” Because these were the missing plugins in my own practice to deliver more successful projects. I think we have amazing tools out there, both Agile, non-Agile, or typical Waterfall. All tools are good, depending on the type of project we have. But I was missing the human component embedded in the tools, you know, mixing both, because we’re humans, and language fails, and trust is not always at super levels. And these are two essential requirements for succeeding as a team.
WENDY GROUNDS: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. Every couple of weeks we meet to talk about what really matters to you as a professional in the field of project management. We aim to bring you top experts in the field, those who can speak to the challenges you face and draw on their own experience. I’m your host, Wendy Grounds; and joining us on Skype is Bill Yates.
I want to take a quick moment to say thanks to our listeners who reach out to us and leave comments on our website or on social media. We love hearing from you and always appreciate your positive ratings on Apple Podcasts, or whichever podcast listening app you use.
Our guest today is Stefano Mastrogiacomo. He is a management consultant, professor, and author. He has been leading digital projects and advising project teams in international organizations for more than 20 years, while teaching and doing research at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. His interdisciplinary work is anchored in project management, change management, psycholinguistics, evolutionary anthropology, and design thinking. And he’s the designer of the Team Alignment Map, the Team Contract, the Fact Finder, and the other tools presented in his book.
BILL YATES: Wendy, the Team Alignment Toolkit that Stefano and his colleagues have come up with is really impressive. It’s so practical. This is applicable whether you’re using an adaptive approach, a predictive approach, it doesn’t matter – Waterfall, Agile, Scrum, whatever flavor of project management you’re using. You have, at the core, you have people and a team that you need to keep healthy so that they can produce good work. And his tool set gets into that.
WENDY GROUNDS: Stefano, welcome to Manage This. Thank you for joining us today.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Thank you for having me, and welcome to our listeners.
WENDY GROUNDS: Yeah. So you’re Italian, and you’re working in Switzerland. How did that come about?
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: No, I was born from Italian immigrants during the ‘60s in Switzerland, actually. I was born in Switzerland. However, my parents had always the dream to go back to Italy. So when I was five years old we moved back to Italy. I started my school there, did part of my education in Italy before returning to Switzerland and staying here. So I think I have both cultural backgrounds now.
BILL YATES: One of the fun things that we were talking about ahead of time was just the diversity that, even with the three of us having this conversation, we have South Africa, Switzerland, Italy, and then United States represented. And one of the things that is fascinating to me is looking at how do you harness diversity when you bring diverse people together to accomplish something like a project. How do you harness that diversity? Because there is so much richness there, but then there’s potential for conflict, too. So we’re excited about talking with you just about this topic of team performance. What interested you first? How did you end up really specializing in that area?
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: As project manager, my background is really in managing digital projects. And these projects have two characteristics. One, they cross the entire organization. So you have to navigate and learn to navigate through the silos. Now, you were mentioning the diversity in teams. A cross- functional team is diverse in terms of skills. And you get more or less the same potential for creativity and friction because of the different languages, the different practices, the different ways of solving problems. So the first characteristic, which is like these cross-functional projects where you have to jump here and there in the organization and unify these people, align these people, well, I failed a lot in doing that.
BILL YATES: Yeah.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: And I learned from my failures. And I was thinking that I had to, despite the beauty of the tools we have in project management, I was thinking that there was something missing there in terms of aligning in the moment, in the meeting. Lives, or tools for live action, that was the first part. And the second characteristic of digital projects is when we start, there is so much uncertainty in the air. We don’t know. So this is the budget. We have to go fast. You have to deliver that functionality for that whatever platform, wherever in the world, by the end of the month. We’ve never done it before, so by definition nobody is an expert. So not to say that we are incompetent. But we are willing to learn.
And the second characteristics of this project made me think that, as we all discover things together during this collective journey, and new information comes in all the time, we lose our calibration every day. We lose our alignment every day in the team. And I was thinking again, I can’t go back to the project charter or to the user story or whatever if you’re from Agile obedience. I can’t go back to that. I need something right now, right here, whether it’s online in a Zoom meeting or in a real room, to realign my stakeholder instantly.
And trying to improve the daily management and the daily life of my own teams, I developed some plugins, some communication and behavior plugins I was thinking would be helpful. After a few iterations they prove to be helpful, and then other teams starting using them, and so on and so on. And then I will have a book.
BILL YATES: Yeah, there you go.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: That typical bottom-up approach.
BILL YATES: Yeah. It was a reaction to a need. You saw the problem was project teams were underperforming. And you analyzing got it down to one of the key or the root causes was misalignment. So, yeah, I’m looking forward to digging into those tools that really help address that problem of misalignment.
Now, one of the things that Wendy and I were curious about, too, is just given where we are today with the pandemic, how have you seen the pandemic change the dynamic of teamwork?
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Oh, it changed a lot. Part of the journey in developing these tools that are presented in the book made me travel in different disciplines. So my background is in business administration and IT. But to solve my own problems, my team problems, I had to study psycholinguistics, evolutionary anthropology, if you want to understand really how relationships work, social psychology and so on. And there is one thing I have learned during that journey is that the most effective technology on earth to coordinate within a group is face to face.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Nothing can compete factually. It’s measured. Psycholinguistic study really did an amazing work in that regard. Nothing can compete with the effectiveness of face to face. Now, we just lost that. We lost our primary medium of communication and coordination with the pandemic. Luckily, the second most effective channel, if you wish, or setting where humans can coordinate is video conferencing. And video conferencing has made tremendous progress.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: So what has changed during the pandemic is two things. Number one, we lost our primary communication channel, the natural one. And we had to adopt the second best in class. And what changed also is the number of people who had to shift to this way of working. So that video conferencing is not something new. There are plenty of online tools now that help kind of reproduce the experience of being together. You might want to talk about that a little because we’ve seen some best practices emerge.
The second challenge of the pandemic is the number of people who had to shift, I think, at the speed of light into new ways of working. And there I’ve seen working with teams online during the entire pandemic period is that there is some gap emergent between those that know how to master these tools, not just a video conferencing system, but all the tools around it, and those who are adopting them. And I’m encouraging really organizations to set up the training programs so that these tools become natural for everyone. We shouldn’t be thinking about them, that I don’t know how to zoom in, how to zoom out, and this kind of thing.
BILL YATES: Yes, yes. Stefano, you bring up an interesting point, too. As you and I know, as you work through projects, you develop solutions; you develop products from projects. And then, once you put them out in the wild, once you put them to use, that’s when all the requests come back for enhancements or bug fixes, you know, you put it to the test when you put it out to public. And you’ve got such a great point of video conferencing, you know, it was used. But, I mean, it became a necessity overnight for business.
And to your point, that’s when so many millions and millions of people are using these tools and relying on them for the first time. So we saw continuous improvements made to these tools to make them closer and closer to face to face. It’s still not as effective, but that’s what we have. That what we could use. So it’s interesting both from a technology standpoint and then from a personal standpoint, too. For the teams, okay, what works best for us, and how can we start to master this technology?
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: I totally agree, Bill. I totally agree. And, you know, let me even add more. You know, meetings have been heavily criticized before the pandemic.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: There is this study published by Atlassian, you can google “you waste a lot of time at work,” that shows that 50% of meetings were considered before the pandemic as a waste of time and unproductive.
BILL YATES: Fifty percent.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Fifty percent. That is like $30 billion of lost productivity a year just in the U.S. It’s also on that study. So that was before the pandemic. Now, imagine we have everyone shifting to online conferencing that presents even more barriers. So I remember the early days of the pandemic, that figure might have been even higher because talk, discussing over distance, one of the specificities of talk is that it is evanescent. It tends to disappear. So it’s difficult to remember everything. It’s difficult to build on talk.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: And so I had these Zoom meetings where we were going around in circles for hours. And at the end of them, like during the meeting, you were seeing literally people were staying present, but the cameras were turning off one after the other.
BILL YATES: Yeah, right.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: And then you ended up with a black wall of initials. And, I mean, this was at the beginning. And then I think we learned fast to come back to what has changed during the pandemic. There is one winning combination we’ve seen and one really great practice going on today is when you combine the power of an effective videoconferencing system, and I insist on effective, plus the new entrant in collaboration technologies really is these digital whiteboards, these brainstorming tools where we can co-construct, co-build visually something, anything.
And the beauty of these boards is that you really visually see the progress, and everyone can contribute in parallel. If you double that with tools that structure visually the conversation, then you get to that winning combination that for me really, really gets closer and closer to the physical experience of being in the same room, in a workshop room, with boards prepared and everything. So, yeah, video conferencing, digital whiteboards, and tools to prepare and facilitate visually the exercise.
WENDY GROUNDS: So we want our teams to be successful working like this online and not in person. But what are some of the other challenges that teams have when they’re not working in the same space?
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Well, when I was studying my basics of the PMI, I remember that communication was one of the processes among 13. There was procurement and all the others. Well, communication means in Latin to put in common. Communication is the process that enables sociality and anything we do with other people. So is the process that enables all the other. So in the end, if you do a root cause analysis of many of the problems we experience in projects and the typical 5 Whys question, you mostly end up with always communication issues, and then there are trust issues, which is the other galaxy.
Now to come back to your question, whether it’s online or in the same room, one of the things we’ve come to realize doing also research on project failure is that the typical failure factors like the sponsor is not involved, of a lack of user requirements, if you read the Chaos Report, for example, that are coming every year.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: If you do a 5 Whys analysis on these different points, or a root cause analysis, you mostly end up on the two things I just mentioned. The idea is problem number one, lack of understanding. By lack of understanding I mean perception gaps. And we might be really harnessed, everyone thinking this is how we have to do and so on.
But ambiguity is a property of language. And if I ask you, will you take care of the design, and you tell me yes, and then next time we meet I thought that the wireframes would be part of the design, but not for you, it was just illustrations. Then we had a coordination problem. You see, but you’ve done your part; I’ve done my part. But this is called a typical coordination breakdown. And it happens because of misunderstanding, the fact that we don’t have sufficient evidence, mutual evidence that we’re on the same page. So this has been amplified online. That’s why I encourage to use these visual tools online, as well, in parallel to the video conferencing system. So mutual understanding was the first issue.
And then the second issue is related to trust or the willingness to cooperate, and in particular the amazing work done by Amy Edmondson on psychological safety. Now, most projects are today of innovative nature. So that means there is a lot of uncertainty in the air. And you want maximum creativity in the room.
Now, if people don’t speak up because they’re afraid of something or they have a good reason not to speak up, this will not trigger or spark collective intelligence. You will have like everyone doing their own part, but reproducing the status quo. To have that fertilization of ideas, you need the belief that the team is a safe place for everyone and, in case of error, that you won’t be punished or humiliated in front of others and so on, what is called “psychological safety.” And that second aspect, it’s a cousin of trust, if you wish.
BILL YATES: Right.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Doesn’t mean we have to love each other in the room, but we have to trust each other enough in the room so that we feel encouraged to explore. And these two root reasons, mutual understanding and psychological safety, have been at the core of the creation of the tools that are, you know, “High-Impact Tools for Teams.” Because these were the missing plugins in my own practice to deliver more successful projects. I think we have amazing tools out there, both Agile, non-Agile, or typical Waterfall. All tools are good, depending on the type of project we have. But I was missing the human component embedded in the tools, you know, mixing both, because we’re humans, and language fails, and trust is not always at super levels. And these are two essential requirements for succeeding as a team.
BILL YATES: Yes, I agree. You said it so well, Stefano. Communication leads to mutual understanding. Trust leads to psychological safety. Those are imperative. Those are must-haves. Something you mentioned earlier, I want to dig deeper into that because it’s like those two components are essential to a project team being successful. And as you said, face to face is by far the most productive effective means of achieving those two goals.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Coordinating.
BILL YATES: Yes. So we didn’t have that during a pandemic. So other tools emerged. You know, some were already there, and others became stronger and emerged. In one of the talks that I heard you give, you had a nice list of tools. I just want to mention a few of those because you’ve mentioned collaboration tools and digital whiteboards; communication tools like Zoom, Slack, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, all those; and then project management tools. So, it’s like we have communication tools in one silo. We pick the communication tool that works well for the team.
Then we may use project management tools like Basecamp or something more like Smartsheet or Wrike or Asana. And we’re referencing our files, so we have file sharing that takes place, and it may be something as simple as Google Drive. For security reasons it may be more complex. We need to go with something different.
But then to put it on steroids, you brought up a great point. Now, what if we use something like Miro or Mural or some other collaboration tool so that now we can see faces, and we can interact with these tools together, move things around. It’s almost like we’re standing in a room working on a whiteboard together. I’ve seen you actually demonstrate those, as well. They’re very effective. And I’ve seen you do that with really large crowds. It was a good demonstration of those digital whiteboards, that combination of digital whiteboard and some of the other communication tools online. Are you seeing project teams kind of overcome this problem of no face-to-face communication by using those tools to be effective?
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Yes. Yes. And it’s true that it’s an evolving area.
BILL YATES: Yes. Very. Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: And I still wonder when the pandemic is over – because that thing is going to end, it has to end – if we will continue as remote as people say, or where is the balance. I have a strong belief about that. I believe we are social beings, so we need to connect. And one KPI I use is when the lockdowns end here in Europe, I see the parking’s in front of organization are completely full. So until the next lockdown. So people like to go to the office. And there is this PWC study actually showing a paradox. So remote teamwork is here to stay, and we’re not ready to give up the office yet.
So the future for me will belong to hybrid teams where, no matter where we are, we can contribute to the team. And if we’re remote, we get really, really closer and closer to the physical experience. Now, to be successful at that, I really believe there are a couple of dimensions to be integrated because we don’t know where the balance will be. Is it like more at the office? More at teamwork? So you’d better be good at both sides so that whatever combination is okay for you. If I start from the office perspective, rooms have to be equipped now with large beamers and connection with remote people. So we might have like three persons in the room, two online. They should be visible, and they should be able to contribute to the same workspace.
BILL YATES: Right.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Which is easily enabled by a digital whiteboard.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Now, at home, you can’t do this on a 13-inch laptop. And excuse me for being so, so precise, extreme pains I have every day. No, if you want to contribute on a large digital board because we’re doing a user journey for developing our next step, this takes real estate, it’s big. So we need a large screen at home to really be part of the meetings, see others, and also co-construct with them. This is important.
BILL YATES: These are such great points. And I see for project leaders you’re saying something that is just resonating with me. Hybrid is what we need to prepare for as leaders. So with that, there are expectations we need to set, both for those who are physically together in terms of how they’re going to track those decisions that are made in the room, and make sure that others who are joining remotely have the same access, the same voice as those in the room. Otherwise someone in the room could easily dominate.
And to your point, if I decide, okay, well, I’m going to work remotely on this project team, if I’m in a coffee shop, that may not be the way to do it; right? I’ve got to have the tool set, like you said. I need to be able to fully participate. That means a large screen. That means perhaps a better microphone or a room that’s quiet. So I think it’s a challenge for project leaders that we need to look at and just face the reality that hybrid teams are going to be here from this day forward. Therefore, we need to prepare for it, both in terms of technology and expectations with those team members.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Absolutely. And I look at my own practice now as a project manager or project leader. It’s dealing with hybrid teams required again. I’m back to what we were mentioning before to increase my visual facilitation skills, create that sense of unity, that space where everyone can collaborate, no matter the distance, and contribute to the same level. So the digital whiteboard will give you the shared space, but then what do you put inside this digital whiteboard? And the larger your toolbox, the better. Some of the tools we present in “High-Impact Tools for Teams” are tools to manage the human side of an innovation project or any sort of projects to be sincere. But that’s what they do. Every tool has a function.
And of course we all know all sorts of other tools. You might go to a retrospective. You might need a Kanban board, a user journey. I mean, maybe you want to do brainstorming. So the more tools you master, the more you are in a position to make hybrid teams’ life easier and more productive by structuring, timeboxing, explaining in advance how everyone can contribute. And it’s a different practice, really, because this will have an impact when we go back to the office.
You know, if you start really getting the most out of people remotely, it’s true that, once you start working with timebox exercises where everyone is focused, the problem is clear, the agenda has been prepared, you can feel the productivity. It’s quite important. So when we go back, I guess this will end, you know, the meetings where we were just like, no agenda, and everyone is talking. You know?
And one other thing, or so I noticed, we have a post about hybrid teams coming out like this month on Strategyzer.com. One of the big mistakes we’ve seen and learned during this pandemic is that some teams use meetings for updates, and some other teams use messaging apps to start and manage projects. This is what we call “wrong channel selection.”
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Not all communication channels offer the same bandwidth. And it is also known from media richness theory, you can google that, that again face to face offered the richest bandwidth. So all information can fluently be transferred between people. You can ask a question if you don’t understand. I can draw something for you. You know, that is a very high-bandwidth channel. Now, on the other hand, messaging apps offer a very small bandwidth. So the problem with small-bandwidth channels is that there is not enough contextual information, so people have to start guessing the rest of the message. And this is not good for perception gaps.
And so to close that parenthesis, online there is also this idea now of learning how to use the channels accurately. I’ve met one team that – because that turns also into ideology. So we’re a zero meetings company. Okay. So, and I discussed with some members of a team like that, and all projects were late and over budget. And people were complaining about the messaging app and were honestly several on the verge of burnout. Why? Because they’re using a small-bandwidth channel for launching and managing projects that requires a lot of information transfer.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: But on the other hand, the other end of the spectrum, you get almost the same situation for teams that mostly rely on videoconferencing and are not adopting the other channels. They complain about a long series of back-to-back meetings, that they cannot concentrate on their own tasks, and so on. So one of maybe the takeaways for project leaders post-pandemic, dealing with hybrid teams, is to be smart at channel selection. Use high-bandwidth channels for complex tasks, and low-bandwidth channels do perfectly the job for simple tasks – notify about updates or sharing reporting if there is no major problem – because they allow a lot of flexibility, freedom. I can look at them when I want and so on and so on. So this is another takeaway for a project leader. Be smart at channel selection. One advice we’re giving teams quite often is don’t be mono channel.
BILL YATES: Yeah, right.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: And don’t enter into these ideologies. They’re all good. And be strategic in using them.
BILL YATES: Absolutely.
WENDY GROUNDS: Stefano, you designed the Team Alignment Toolkit. Now, this is described as five powerful tools to boost joint performance and psychological safety. I want to hear about the toolkit. Can you walk us through the five tools and when a team should apply those tools?
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Well, if you agree, Wendy, let’s do this the way it happened.
WENDY GROUNDS: Oh, yeah.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: So years ago I was in meetings, and everyone were agreeing about their roles and what they would do in the project. But I had the intimate feeling that they were disagreeing.
BILL YATES: Ah.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: And so everyone was saying, okay, okay, okay. But the body language was just the opposite. And sometimes also someone sharing some roles and distributing roles to different people in the room, and people just saying “okay” rapidly. But I was thinking, but is that a strong okay or a weak okay? I don’t feel like there is really sufficient understanding in the air. And inevitably, that turned into problems weeks later because people agreed on perception gaps.
So the first tool I designed is really this idea there is nothing new in there except the fact that I want to reach evidence of understanding on four key components of a successful contribution in a project. So the idea is that everyone now with a quick alignment session – and you really have to see the team alignment map as a plugin that works with any project management method; okay? It’s just something you use once to measure alignment, or when you need it. And the idea is that we answer together. It’s a co-planning tool. What matters is the discussion. This is a tool to facilitate a conversation, and it contains four questions, four plus one. What came first? What’s the mission? And already there you can start seeing some iterations.
BILL YATES: Is that what we’re doing? I thought we were doing something else.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Yeah, no, no. But I have funny stories to tell you, like about missions and people disagreeing about the mission, and then agreeing about the mission. But the poster sort of fosters that conversation that we have to put things out there, make them visible for everybody so that we have a chance to react, and we increase mutual understanding. And the four other topics of Team Alignment Map sessions are the joint objectives, so what do we intend to achieve concretely together? And we respond to that. Then the joint commitments. I didn’t call that “roles” but it’s more like the commitment that, yeah, I do this for you, you do that for me.
BILL YATES: Yes, right, right.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Maybe comes from my Italian roots. I want like a people-to-people connection. And then we talk about the resources we need, and then about the risks. And the originality of the poster is that I also find a way to turn light risk mitigation to gamify risk mitigation, where we have to discuss the resources we miss, or some risks that are open, before we conclude the session by transforming them into new objectives and new commitments.
So an alignment session there is two moments. There is the forward pass where we describe everything, and then there is the backward pass where we do the risk mitigation. And that turns into a 20, 30 minutes exercise. But what matters is really the visual facilitation of the conversation because we want to reach evidence that we’re on the same page because that’s where the collective power comes from. It’s what psycholinguists call the “common ground.”
BILL YATES: You call this the Team Alignment Map. Is that right?
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Yes.
BILL YATES: And so the goal with that is for the team to be on common ground. That’s so practical.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: To be on common ground for that project. And it’s called the Team Alignment Map because alignment is the process that helps us create good common ground for that project.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: So when common ground is good in the team, you start seeing beautiful execution.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Because people mutually predict each other. I know what I’m supposed to do, but I also know what Bill is doing. And so I can include Bill’s part in my own part, and so on. And that’s how you enter into a better execution.
BILL YATES: You described this as a journey, Stefano. What tool came next for you?
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: The tool that came next is that sometimes I was in team alignment sessions, and nobody would speak up. So you ask a question, and you have silence. And then basically you have many options. But you can say, okay, no questions, wonderful. But you’re not in a good shape if you do that. Or you can actually understand there might be a sign that there is a lack of psychological safety in the air, and that people are not confident to speak up. Then you know that you have to do something on that side because you want to sparkle that collective genius.
And to do that there is another tool in the book called the Team Contract. And using the Team Contract consists in sitting together, always together because we want this to be part of our common ground, defining our team rules of the game and behaviors. So it consists in answering two questions. What are the rules and the behaviors that we want to abide by in our team? And we do that together early in the process. And, as individuals, do we have preferences for working in a certain way?
That second question, I added it dealing with diverse themes. And here again, the idea is to stop presupposing. Just let’s put it out there. We do it together. Let’s make that a fun session. But at least it’s there. We can negotiate, clarify. I significantly lower the level of conflict within the team during the project, just by doing this simple exercise as the beginning.
BILL YATES: Stefano, do you see teams refer to this at later stages in the project? Do they have to kind of go back and refer to it again?
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Yes, of course. Especially in case of noncompliance.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Imagine if you don’t have it. And in case of noncompliant, there’s nothing to refer to except like some maybe HR guidelines and stuff. But, I mean, teams have their own culture. So I’m interested in the local culture for the team for that project, especially now that we have teams assembled overnight worldwide, different cultures, different skills, different backgrounds. And it’s good for every team. I never start now a project without a quick Team Alignment Map session and a Team Contract. Later we can move on to user stories, Kanban board, project charters, anything. But I want that level of initial alignment on the tasks, the Team Alignment Map, and on the behavior.
Then maybe I can describe very rapidly the other three. The other three are individual tools for me to become a more competent team member. And one is called the Fact Finder. And it’s a tool to help us ask good questions when we’re in a meeting, and especially when we feel lost in the conversation. On innovation projects we tend to make a lot of assumptions or judge ideas and so on, well a good point is that we can be circling forever in assumptions and judgments. And you might want to ask questions that help the team come back to observable facts.
So the Fact Finder displays the five classic traps in which we all fall and suggests a way of bringing diplomatically the conversation back to facts. It’s really based on NLP techniques, Neuro Linguistic Programming techniques. What makes you think that? When did that happen? You know, it’s always coming back to the facts. So the Fact Finder, a tool to ask good questions, which presupposes that we’re listening.
BILL YATES: Yes. Good point.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Now, there is another tool called the Non-Violent Requests Guide. So I haven’t seen a group of committed people committed to the team and the mission working hard that don’t go into conflict.
BILL YATES: Sure, yeah.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: And you want that. You want divergence, as well.
BILL YATES: Yes, yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Now, and it’s totally okay to have conflict. However, what is not okay is to damage relationships. But you want a way to manage conflict constructively. By “conflict” sometimes I mean actually also disagreement, strong disagreement. So when my own emotions run high, I use that tool myself. It’s a tool that helps you prepare before you go and speak to the other person. And the idea is how can I be assertive, express what I think in a non-aggressive way, and that is not also judging or attacking or is perceived as an attack by the other person. That gives the space to the other person to react, and we can start building up together.
This is one of the first things, non-violent communication, that Satya Nadella did at Microsoft. There are quite a few articles about that. He changed the way people talk to turn the company toxic culture around. So I did a template with that, that is using case of strong disagreement or conflict to manage that more constructively.
And the last one is called the Respect Card because I noticed that when you run a series of projects in a row, and if you move from sprint to sprint to sprint to sprint, it’s good sometimes to thank people.
BILL YATES: Yes. It’s a practice.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: So I was thinking that, yeah, there was room for a tool that shows a way of being tactful in communication, what are the tips and techniques for being tactful, and also for recognizing people’s work. It makes a world of difference saying thank you to a team who have been working hard than just jump in with the next challenge and rush. So these are the tools presented. And they’re really plugins to be used when needed to help make the human side of our work as project leaders, both in innovative projects and less innovative projects, more human. We all know that. And our tools mostly come from engineering and military routes.
BILL YATES: You’re right, yeah.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: So, yeah, so I was thinking now it’s time that these simple tools help also integrate some human basics that are sometimes neglected.
BILL YATES: Right. You know what I like about this, Stefano, is there are, on a project team, let’s say you have 10 team members. Half the team, this may come naturally to them. They naturally know how to engage. If there’s a sense of misalignment, they know how to ask questions and do it respectfully. But there may be team members who just don’t have that. They don’t have that emotional intelligence. They haven’t had that experience, perhaps.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Exactly.
BILL YATES: Or it could be, you know, I’m an engineer pure and simple. I deal with science. This is a framework where now I can look and go, yeah, yeah, I can relate to this on the Respect Card. And this is how I felt. And this is how I wanted to react. But then I thought, you know what, I probably shouldn’t. I should talk with the team first and see how we should respond to this email from the customer. This is just a great, helpful framework for teams to be healthy.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Oh, thank you. We did a lot of work on the usability of these tools so that they become really accessible by everyone, actually.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: We think also in terms of project management that, as projects become more and more complex, and our backgrounds are more and more diverse, and the skills required are more and more different, that it becomes a shared responsibility to take care of the success of the team and the success of the project. And that’s why we designed a tool for every team member.
BILL YATES: Yeah. I’m so glad you said this applies regardless of the methodology you’re using, whether it’s adaptive or predictive or some hybrid in between. It doesn’t matter. These are applicable tools. The other thing I want to point out, you’ve made these available. These are a download from your website.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: The PDF versions of the tools that you can print or integrate into digital whiteboards are available on my blog, TeamAlignment.co – not dot com, dot co – on Strategyzer.com, as well.
BILL YATES: Thank you for the value that you’re adding to project management just through thinking through these things and seeing how they impact teams.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Oh, thank you. I encourage our listeners to try the Team Contract. It’s a rapid exercise. But again, stop presupposing. Let’s put it out there. Let’s agree together. And the very fact of discussing it, agreeing on it, creates a moral bond. You can go and look into the amazing work done on “Joint Commitment” by Margaret Gilbert, an English scholar. It doesn’t look like, but simple exercises where we stop presupposing, and we put it there, we negotiate, then relationships change.
BILL YATES: Yeah.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: But then of course we have to walk the talk as a team. Okay?
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: That’s true.
BILL YATES: If you have that environment of psychological safety, then I’m okay if people call me out and say, “Hey, Bill, you know, we had an agreement, and the way that I just saw you reacting with this team that’s supporting us, it doesn’t align with that, you know, let’s have a conversation here.” Because we have that sense of trust and psychological safety, I’m fine being called out. I want it to happen because, if I get misaligned, that takes away from the efficiency of our project team.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: It’s true, Bill, that one of the side effects of visual facilitation with tools is that then you have a reference point.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: You can go back to it. So you can just take a snapshot. I’m a low-tech guy. I mean, I use high-tech tools. But when it comes to administration, I’m really super low-tech. So what I do is take pictures, you know. And then, because we did it together, also one positive aspect for that, so it’s a reference point. Then it’s not just one person telling another.
BILL YATES: Yes.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: It’s the team. And I believe in a lot of team autonomy after we are aligned. I believe that alignment enables autonomy. And it’s small plugins. This is a great addition, I think, from our editor, Richard Narramore. He said that these are high-impact tools for teams. He saw the impact of these short sessions. Just to give you an example, one leader recently asked me, “What’s the best way for my teams to be efficient remotely, as we all have to work from home and so on?” And I just replied, “Why don’t you ask them?” So we did a Team Contract. What are the rules to be super effective running remote teams? Because I don’t know their own culture, I don’t know.
The beauty again of these online tools, you can have up to 200 people together simultaneously. And then of course you cannot use the result like that. There has to be some clustering and improvement and so on. But it was just amazing. Just ask them because they will find the right balance between what’s available, but also security policies, et cetera, et cetera, which is different from one team to the other. And this was done like in 15 minutes at a department level. So I think we have great possibilities today, but we have to use them in a smart way. But we can have great impact in a short time, yeah.
WENDY GROUNDS: Stefano, thank you so much. This has been really a great conversation. We’ve enjoyed hearing so much about the toolkit. And I think it’s just really positive. You know, so often we look at the negative of we’ve all got to work remotely, and COVID has been so terrible. But there are so many positives that have come out of this, and it’s really exciting to hear what you’ve been doing and about your work. So thank you very much for being our guest.
STEFANO MASTROGIACOMO: Oh, thank you, Wendy. Thank you, Bill. It’s been a pleasure.
BILL YATES: Thank you, Stefano.
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