How team agreements can change your productivity culture

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] February 28, 2019

Efforts by law firm employees to improve their personal productivity outcomes can be wasted unless the productivity culture of the entire firm is addressed, writes Dermot Crowley.

During the past few months, I have been working with a number of teams in a new and novel way.

Traditionally, the work I do is focused on personal productivity, which changes habits and behaviours. However, my recent work has been more focused on creating a more productive culture within these teams. It is a very different approach to productivity training, but I believe it is critical if you want to create a sustained boost to productivity in your team.

This shift came from a growing frustration with the fact that I was working with lots of people on their personal productivity habits and systems, but although they loved it and found the training ‘life changing’, they were often going back into a culture that just killed their productivity all over again. It was hard to change the habits of a lifetime when they were getting 200 emails per day, spent a lot of their week in meetings, and were constantly distracted by urgent issues. The productivity culture in their organisation ultimately led to them getting swamped and overwhelmed again, and therefore at risk of not adopting their new habits over the long-term.

A fraction too much friction

The issue at the heart of this dilemma is what I call ‘productivity friction’. We cause friction for others, and they cause friction for us, every time we communicate, congregate or collaborate. We don’t mean to, but because we are busy and going at a million miles an hour, we can become thoughtless about how our poorly written emails, poorly planned meetings and poorly executed collaborations have an impact on the productivity of others. These constant blows to our productivity, although all small in nature, build up into a death by 1000 cuts.

So how do we change the culture of a team or organisation and begin to reduce the email noise, the constant distractions and the endless meetings? For me, it starts with having the team members adopt a set of qualities that they aspire to demonstrate when working with others. The four qualities that I believe have a direct impact on team productivity are:

1. Being purposeful, and ensuring that every communication, every meeting and every collaboration is driven by a clear purpose.

2. Being mindful, and managing not only your own attention, but also being aware of how your actions impact others.

3. Being reliable, and ensuring you do what you say you are going to do, or renegotiate if you can’t.

4. Being punctual, making sure you turn up on time, and deliver on time.

Committing to such qualities is a great starting point for any team. The challenge is that it is hard to measure if people are behaving according to these qualities, and hard to keep each other to account on them. So, for me, the real key to creating a cultural change around this is to create a set of team agreements that influence everyday behaviours.

I believe that agreements create a link between our good intentions and our actual behaviours. We all have the best intentions to work productively, but can fail when we become busy or stressed. However, when we have a set of team agreements in place, which we have been a part of creating, we are more likely to uphold those agreements and do the right thing. The four qualities inform our good intentions and, in turn, our behaviours influence the culture of the team. Culture is just a set of group behaviours. It looks something like this:

Qualities >> Intentions >> Agreements >> Behaviours >> Culture

So, what does a team agreement look like? For me, it is a simple thing, and can be created by any team relatively quickly. First, it should be an agreement that solves an existing productivity issue for a team. A team I was working with recently felt that email noise was their biggest issue, and team members identified several specific issues that created high levels of email noise. However, they felt that meetings in their team were not that big an issue, as they did not have to attend too many due to the nature of their roles. Therefore, we focused on creating agreements to solve the email issues they had identified.

I reckon the best agreements focus on an overarching issue, and then specify behaviours that, if executed by the team, result in the agreement objective. A team I worked with before Christmas came up with this agreement to solve an issue around email volumes:

Agreement Objective – We agree to strive to reduce email overload by 20 per cent

Agreement Behaviours – We will do this by doing the following:

1. Limit the use of Reply All to exceptional circumstances

2. Be mindful about who needs to be copied on emails

3. Reduce the number of emails by having more conversation

4. Reduce one-liner responses that do not add value

5. Use other communications methods if email is not the best tool.

This team agreement is focused, clear and easy to measure. It was created by the team themselves, so they have ownership over it, and are accountable to it. We also agreed that it is not up to the manager to police it – everyone should hold each other to account.

For many years I have taught people how to manage their personal productivity; how to get their inbox under control, and to manage their task list; and how to plan and prioritise. This work is still central to my practice.

However, I am truly excited about the potential if we also turn the friction into flow within these teams by agreeing to work together in a more productive way.

Dermot Crowley is the director of Adapt Productivity, and the best-selling author of two books, Smart Work and Smart Teams.