Structured communication: Tools you can use to change culture and help your team feel heard
Session facilitator(s): Anika Anand, Eimi Okuno
Day & Time: Thursday, 3-4:15pm
ANIKA: Oftentimes, reporters will tell you, man, I think this is therapeutic. I think this is good to do that. I think it’s good to get feedback that you’re doing your job well. So thank you for doing that. So we are going to do a few different things Todd and Eimi is going to be talking about it.
EIMI: So the first ones are team-level OKRs. And by a quick show of hands. Are you aware of OKRs. Do you do them at work?
AUDIENCE: Can you explain what that is?
EIMI: So they’re objective key results. So I’ll talk about them later. So I was just trying to gauge, like, how much do we actually need to cover. Okay. So this is really good. All right. Turning on. The OKRs, the what, why, and how. What is it? It’s a goal-setting framework per reporter and it’s been popularized by Google and it stands for Object Key Results. And it really means aligning the team with a shared vision. And using the change you want to see by using activities and tactics. The key result is kind of how you want to measure that. So, yeah, why do we want to do this? It sounds like another framework. So as I said before. It sets a shared vision objectives for a team and it sets OKRs for quarterly progress. And this really helps breaking workflows and silos in teams. Like, in my team, we very rarely have any rare communication issues because of the way our work is so we go away for our corners frantically building some amazing project and then we come back together and realize that nothing really works together.
So, like, doing this exercise of setting OKRs has really helped us setting a vision and trying to make sure that each of our projects kind of go forth to that vision. So basically it’s kind of like another Agile workflow. So initially you set the OKRs and this can take from four hours to infinite hours — because you know that’s how it goes and then you can do the check-ins weekly or biweekly and then you repeat the steps one and two per quarter. We won’t go too much into detail in the setting of the OKRs but you basically set the objectives. You can set one to five as many but if you want to keep it tight and not too many, and how this works is basically before the workshop of setting of the OKRs, you get everybody to submit the top objective for the team in the quarter and then you run the workshop. It’s really important that you think as a facilitator outside the team to kind of help with the direction. And you want to group similar ideas together and objectives.
We’ve done this by using surveys because our team’s quite big and as soon as your team is bigger than maybe five people you want to start using surveys to start making things easier for yourself and then you want to pick objectives. The really important thing here is: you debate it out. Like, you completely debate the hell out of it and so that’s why it can be more than four hours sometimes but you basically, you know, disagree and commit. The OKR principle. And then you set the KRs, so you set one to five per objective. So initially you want to use five to ten minutes to kind of figure out what you want to measure and without specifically inserting any numbers and eventually go on to insert actual numbers and then you have the OKRs set for the team. So this is Peter Kappus’s — he’s a massive consultant for the PBC for OKRs and he says, “Debate with the team, debate with other teams and stakeholders, tweak and adjust until they commit and stop debating.” So tips for evaluating OKRs. So you want to make sure they’re exciting to work on.
So imagine that you’re right in the middle of a quarter, right? And you’re going to have to talk about what you’ve been working on which is one of the KRs, and what if it’s really boring. You want to make sure that that’s not the case. You want to make sure that it’s exciting. At the beginning, though, of setting the KRs you want to make sure that you’re 50% confident. You’re not overconfident, or underconfident, you’re basically in a “maybe” state and that’s how you measure kind of the right level of ambitiousness.
And, yeah, sometimes the — what Google promoted was, like, having numbers in your KRs and it needs to align with your company-level KRs, and team-level OKRs, and company-level OKRs. I don’t think this is right. For our team, at least, we were setting out for these KRs, but we didn’t have the numbers, right? So don’t sweat the alignment their actual numbers because you’ll figure them out eventually. It’s just not at the very beginning. These are some of the resources but we’ll share them around. So, yeah, thanks.
ANIKA: So we’re going to talk about a couple of other tools, as well. This is a team health check. This is something that my colleague Rebecca Monson has brought to our team has been super helpful for us. So we have an all-hands moment every week just as a company and then before that, an individual team all hands. So at that individual team all hands, each team goes around and says, whether they’re green, yellow, or red depending on how they’re feeling. Green is, smooth sailing. Yellow is, hey, there are some things, and I don’t want to get to red. Red is everything is not okay. Shit has hit the fan, nothing is good. We need to change something immediately for me to feel good. So what we do is we go around and each person says their color and if everyone is green the team is green if punish person is yellow, the team is yellow, and if one person is yellow, the team is yellow. And if punish person is red, the team is red. And it creates this culture of if you fail together, we fail together. It’s really to flag, I’m not okay and I really need some help. And really I’ve seen this very clearly happen it really helps other people see on the team how can I help and it really incentivizes this team camaraderie that I’m talking about all the time that’s kind of hard to put into practice and then it creates this culture transparency. So at the all-hands meeting every week we used to share out what our team colors were. So I’ll show an example here. So this is our table or board that I showed. But we also use the OKR structure we were talking about. But just before we filled out what our feeling was. And you’ll see, like, our team level one week, everyone was green except for one person. And, you know, that’s important for us to capture and for us to talk about as a company transparently every single week.
And then what we would do after that all hands meeting is just the team get together and talk about each of the team’s health and when it was each of the team members giving their health and that was helpful as well because when things were green, we can understand what trends were leading to things making the team being green, and if there’s a team that’s red, it’s like how can we help support you in figuring this out. Yeah, I think I talked through this already. So that is our team health check. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: Have you found that scales? Is there a point at which the team is too big to work?
ANIKA: It’s a great question. Our team was about 30 people total. So we’re a very small startup. I think at the very least, though, it’s something that you can do on a team-by-team basis. It just seems totally worthwhile for any sort of team to be doing it even if you can’t be doing it company-wide. It was really helpful because it ensured that everybody felt they got a voice rather than the loudest voice in the room which is what often happens in team dynamics and it also ensured that everybody could talk about what was maybe stressing them out and, again, the structure/communication environment.
EIMI: Just to add to that. For the check-ins, I felt they were quite similar in the way that I kind of made it scale was by using surveys and kind of doing, like, an aggregation or, like, you know, just saying what’s going well, what’s not gone so well. And if there’s anything that’s very kind of urgent that it’s like a red flag to me then I’ll kind of raise it directly with that person or, you know, so you can use surveys, you can use other tools to do other analysis and stuff like that.
AUDIENCE: Did you ever have an instance where in the group setting someone say like, I’m green or I’m yellow and they’re actually one step below that and you only knew from one-on-one conversations? How do you combat that?
ANIKA: So my husband works for the same company that I work for. So he and I will often have conversations about this because I’m very extroverted. And I’m very happy to share my color very seek and comment on it. He’s very introverted and even-keeled. And he’s that way. The video team is his team. It’s green. And it’s interesting because we would have that conversation because we would say, you are not green. We’ve talked all week, you are absolutely not green. But he’s like, I really think I can solve these problems and as long as my team is green, I’m green. And, you know, that’s, I think, there’s something to that but I think that when his — in general, I think his — what’s the word, like, standard for hitting yellow is just much higher than — or lower than mine is. He just has a greater ability to stay even keeled even though I know he’s going through a lot of shit. So I think there totally is a risk of that where people want to downplay things because they don’t want to be the angry voices but because we talk about this stuff so often, I think it’s still a worthwhile exercise to do.
And his team has been red before since we had that conversation so…
[ Laughter ]
AUDIENCE: Have you ever encountered, like, a situation where if someone is red, it’s because they have a conflict with some individual on the team or conflict with the manager and does it feel like there’s an opportunity for people to honestly voice that?
ANIKA: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So we would do all our one-on-one check-ins from, like, Monday through Thursday. We would try to do all of them on Thursday, actually, and do the team health checks on Fridays and that kind of gave the person an opportunity — and we do one-on-one check-ins — and so that gave the opportunity to have the employee tell a manager, say what pissed them off and work it out in a one-on-one, and they’ll be able to bring it out in a all-hands moment. But by that point, I’m feeling red this week and I’ve already talked about why. But here’s why I want to share, with the whole team. So, again, it’s kind of a personality thing because we’ve tried to create a culture and environment as much as possible that encourages that kind of sharing but it’s definitely, it could be tough sometimes.
AUDIENCE: Do you have particular strategies for helping your weekly, like, team lead conversations will productive?
ANIKA: Yeah, yeah, in terms of each team sharing out their team health and kind of how people are doing and how they solved the problems.
AUDIENCE: So if I understood this correctly. This meeting where you all talk about this in the all hands and then you’re talking in a smaller group without everyone on your team present.
ANIKA: We would basically go through and say, business team, you were red, was there something going on. Or if there was something with the tech team. There was a time to talk with the tech lead. And if it had to do something with the person on the tech team, then that was the time to talk about it. And I think there’s lots of different ways to structure that conversation, right, but I think what was good for us was we were airing that stuff on a weekly basis so it never felt like it was blowing up in meetings and if we were hearing about — if we were seeing things playing out on Slack or if we were seeing things playing out in meetings, it would all be known issues. It would all just be stuff that we would know we would be working on and kind of let the team leads know before getting caught off guard.
AUDIENCE: How do you get these practices started on teams where about 80% of the check-in meetings are canceled?
AUDIENCE: Sh… that sucks.
EIMI: I’m not sure I have a great answer but I think basically on my team, everyone is adamant to pick up the OKRs. Like, Tom would say, have you seen our retros? This is our problem. And this is a problem that could be solved by doing this by showing up to team meetings. So I think a little bit of pressure here and there kind of helps. Maybe that’s not the best answer.
ANIKA: Like, I would ask people why they were canceling the meeting? Is it a time issue? Do they feel like they’re not productive? Could you give them better questions in the check-ins so that they feel they’re getting something better out of it? If it’s a time thing. We’ve had so many conversations about the number of meetings we have. Whether we need to scale one down, how we need to change them and we’re always trying to solve that problem so that people are not trying to feel overwhelmed but we say that the one-on-ones are the most important meetings that you have every week. So I think it’s partially a culture thing.
EIMI: I remember seeing a talk by some person… this is a really bad reference but he basically said that the worst behavior that you can see from your team is from the top. So basically if your boss behaves in a certain way, if he’s willing to behave in this certain bad way, you can see that trickling down to the team. So I think one thing could be talking to the person at the top and talking about that, as well.
ANIKA: We’re going to talk about one more tool real quick and have you guys break into groups again. Here’s user manuals. Have you guys heard of this? We borrowed this idea from this post that Abbi Fayelich wrote about and it’s basically a template that everybody on your team or company fills out and it’s a guide for how people can work best with you. It is so obvious that we should have something like this. When I first heard about this ≈ I was like, of course, I should give people a rundown of values and how to communicate with me. It’s super THOEFL clarify what you value. I actually just did this exercise of writing out all this stuff to be helpful and reminding me why the work I do I find fulfilling and where my trigger points are. And it also addresses moments of pressure — you don’t think they’re such an asshole. They told me about this particular thing and it gives you more context about that person and that behavior. It’s also a really effective way to onboard new team members. I think onboarding is one of the things that we get so wrong in HR in journalism and this is a way for a team to get to know people by reading their user manuals and also being able to write their own and it’s also an opportunity to get honest feedback from your teammates. So this is you do it. You can create a template with your team. What kinds of questions you want everybody to be answering. You fill it out, and you share it with people, and I feel it’s really important to revisit it, and make updates to it. So this is a sample template that we use at, what my style is, what I value is, what I don’t have patience for. How best to communicate with me. How to help me. What people misunderstand about me. What energizes you and what drains you. We gave a sample for how you guys would answer these things. We’ll drop a link to it in the etherpad. But this definitely takes another culture moment where people need to feel like they can be really transparent and honest about who they are. And how they work. And I think, you know, if you don’t have that off the bat I can see why this is often difficult to ask people. But more often than not I see people I work with light up when given the opportunity to bear their soul and tell them exactly who they are and what they care about.
EIMI: So I guess remember these are just tools. So remember these individuals and interactions over processes and tools, that’s from the Agile Manifesto that’s used over and over in the tech industry. You want to make sure that it’s adapted to your team.
ANIKA: Yeah, so we just offered these examples as things that we’ve seen work in our newsroom. I think there’s a lot of ways that you can take the concepts here and adjust them for what’s gonna work best for your team or company. And that’s kind of what we we want to do next. So we have an activity here — I should ask — any other questions on any of the tools that we talked about? OKRs, team health checks, and then user manuals.
AUDIENCE: What if like, someone wants to edit their user manual. Is that a heavy process? I could imagine a more junior person wanting to be more cavity in a different way than when they have more experience.
ANIKA: I can see the part where people want to make edits and people are regularly having conversations about this. What we did is when we first introduced this was we had everybody write their user manuals and we came together, and then we had everybody reach each other’s. And then we came together as a team and have the team leader facilitate a conversation, who wants to talk about what they value? Who wants to talk about what drives them nuts? Okay, that’s good to know. Maybe we should do it this way as a result. So I think that facilitation conversation is important. I would say it’s probably useful to have that conversation twice a year for people and maybe that gives people an opportunity to edit based on how things their work style’s changed.
NOZLEE: I had a follow-up. I love those questions. What is it like if the team is working on something and something has to happen and it’s not the way someone prefers to work. What’s that conversation is like? Even disclose what you like, but on the basis of capitalism, you sometimes have to disclose what you don’t like.
ANIKA: This is true. In my personal opinion, I don’t think there’s a right answer to this. In my personal opinion, I prefer everything to be out in the open. So at least there’s an acknowledgment, I know this is not how you like to work. I get this is going to be hard for you. Here’s the reality of where we’re at. Tell me how we can make this as painless for you as possible while still getting the thing done. I think just being as thoughtful and empathic and really that’s what these user manuals are about: cultivating empathy for users on your team.
TIM: So there are some information sponges at some organizations and sometimes it feels very invasive when people who are information sponges and basically knows everything that’s happening in the company and know something very personal about yourself, how do you structure your user manuals and provide prompts so that it doesn’t feel like there’s possibility of harassment or abuse from them.
NOZLEE: Or boundary setting.
TIM: So how do you both provide this as a way to be you, available for everybody, but also carefully constructed so that it forms a safe environment for the team?
ANIKA: Yeah, it’s a great question. I mean, there are so many questions around how to just prevent against workplace harassment in general. My personal opinion, again, comes down to the culture and the conversation that you’re building around it, and really emphasizing that this personal information is not to be used in any other way other than just to understand each other better and if you have someone using it in another way, maybe they shouldn’t be working for your company… that’s… that would be by my harsher answer, I guess. But I totally hear you. It’s a challenge and to really encourage people to open up because of challenges like that can be difficult. Cool. So what we were hoping to do was have you guys break up into groups of four to six and choose one of these tools to talk about a little more. So, again, going back to the three tools we talked about here. And these are the prompts that we wanted to give for each.
So on the company and personal OKRs, you can take one thing that you learned so far at SRCCON that you might want to bring back to your newsroom and try writing it out in that OKR format that Eimi was talking about…
EIMI: Good luck… just kidding. I’m sure you’ll be fine.
ANIKA: Yeah, and just write — if you decide to work on that OKR, just raise your hand and Eimi can come and coach you on what kind of structure that needs to take. And I also mentioned that the slide deck is in the etherpad. So for team health. If you want to talk about how you can take a team health check and apply that concept to your team. It might not be green/yellow/red, it could be numerical, or something else. When would you have someone on your team do it. Or what are the right kind of metrics for your team. And for the user manual if you want to get together with some folks. Try writing out your own user manual with that template that we provided or come up with other prompts that you would think would make sense for you to have at your company and, again, talk a little bit about how you might take this back to your team. Cool. Any questions? All right. We’ll give you guys ten to 15 minutes to get in groups and kind of take a stab at this and then we’ll give you guys some time to work on this individually and come together as a group and then we’ll do a quick shareout at the end.
EIMI: Just to add to the team OKRs, and company OKRs, it doesn’t have to be something you learned, it could be something you want to learn, as well.
[ Group Work ]
ANIKA: So maybe we can do something like if you’re interested in OKRs, come to this table, some tables in the front, if you’re interested in team health stuff, go to these tables on the right here and if you’re interested in user manuals, there’s some tables in the back. That works.
[ Group Work ]
So everyone’s having really interesting conversations and we have only about 15 minutes so I’m hoping to hear from some of you and I’m going to put Ashley on the spot for a second because she had a really interesting thought about body communication if you want to share about it.
AUDIENCE: So we were talking about just anybody who’s done body-language training — that makes sense. But it’s not on. I feel like a cabaret singer. But there’s four different body positions. There’s earth where you have four feet on the ground and you’re rooted, and there’s water, where your rear is on the chair, learning position. So if you think about how you’re in a lot of these sessions, you’re there, you’re receptive. And there’s air, which is like this, and if you’ve seen some of your male bosses in this position, it’s a very male, kind of casual, dominates that they’re asserting, and then there’s fire, which is like, I’m really into this conversation, I’m leaning forward and I’m direct in it. And this exercise that I’ve been doing now several times recently that I would encourage you to try with some of your colleagues especially if you’re having conversations about how you communicate is you pair up and you have one person that’s gonna have a one-person conversation but to the other person and so your partner will transcribe everything you’re saying, so imagine it’s a conversation maybe you made with your supervisor or a colleague and you do it the first time in water and you do that, and he transcribes everything and then you have the same conversation in fire. And then if you and your partner each go through this process and read back what you say, it’s pretty amazing the way that the different body language changes your verbal language and how you can start to sort of shift through that if you’re trying to communicate because there are times — and I say this as — I mean, my voice is lowered now, but it’s mostly never this low, is that I come across as younger than I am or not having the responsibility or the power that I have.
So when I move into this position, I do. Another thing that this one and I were talking about is when you are on a lot of conference calls, just the way your verbal language will change if you do the conference call standing up and it allow you to be both more present in what you’re sharing and how you’re being heard.
ANIKA: That’s awesome; thanks. Any things? Any other takeaways. Anything that you guys want to share. Anything that you guys talked about in your groups? Yeah? Cool.
AUDIENCE: We just — I don’t know, this is kind of short but we had talked about kind of the importance if you were doing a user manual to have it be something that everybody participates in. So not just a manager getting to his people under him or just the people under him giving the thing up but yeah, so everybody that kind of to do that. And also, like, um, tailoring the questions to your team and making sure that, you know, it doesn’t too general or too broad. Maybe having a categorical approach, or maybe a gradient, 1-5 how do you feel like you fit here? Or possible options with, like, an other just in case people are hesitant to say, oh, I like direct communication because everybody thinks I should…
ANIKA: Cool. Anyone else?
AUDIENCE: Um, we talked about talked about, like, team health checks and one of the things that came up was for reluctancy for people to say how they’re feeling. And at the end of the day it’s pretty much a culture change for this to be effective. So we were talking about setting up that culture of it’s both a managerial responsibility for managers to be open and transparent about how they’re feeling but also setting up the environment for their direct reports and other people on their team to be open and honest ≈ and making it intimate and virtual that you have this space. This is like a — whether it’s like a team health check or a whatever else, this is a thing that we’re doing every week. We’ll hopefully create, like, a comfortable atmosphere so that people feel like they can share and be it yellow or red, and adjusting that to teams. So whether that’s, like, you do numbers, and, like, everybody’s a three or whatever else. Scaling it to your team. But it’s starting with an entire culture change.
ANIKA: Yeah, one more thing I’ll add to that that someone was asking earlier about incentivizing earlier about people being honest about things. I think one thing is team lead showing that they’re trying to solve a problem when they’re yellow or red. When a deep member is being open and honest with you when they’re not completely 100%, that’s really important, as well.
TIM: So we were talking about how the culture of the company, what an acceptable emotional range sort of impacts what — actually, everything. Like, all these exercises. Is it acceptable for people to be grumpy and angry at your company? We can have people who are actively unhappy with products at our company. That is great to hear. It’s good to know that people are that. So there is a large emotional range that is acceptable. There’s less happiness that is displayed and, like, in other companies, it’s like well, this person, I need to be on for them and, like, your job depends on you proving that you’re happy and satisfied with your job and your happiness. So you might not be as able to be as expressive. So I think there’s a lot of less with trying to to do things within your organization and the power dynamics and the like.
ANIKA: That’s a really great one, too. Great, anyone else. Anything else around communication not even talked about here, mentioned here? Any other tips? Some people earlier in other groups… I’m sorry, I’ll come back to you. Some earlier in other groups talked about one-on-ones and different types of questions that you can ask.
AUDIENCE: Something that we talked about and came out of the user manual stuff which is that it’s great to collect all this data but if you’re not showing people that it’s using in some way, it could have the reverse effect. Think about the looper exercise that we were doing earlier and how much cosmic benefit we could have a supervisor or a coworker or manager know you were heard. If you’re going through the effort of reporting happiness scores or filling out this user manual and then it’s just like, great, it’s gone into oblivion, it didn’t go into effective. Ally was talking about using the Slack info box and when you have one-on-ones, one-on-one Slacks with someone, pinning that there, you’re able to put it in place where you’re able to use it as a supervisor or a coworker that’s, I think, going to help that cycle of, “We heard you, things got better.” That creates the permission to say more and speak honestly to hear better and react.
ANIKA: Yeah, so ensuring the visibility around all this stuff. I think we’ve got time for one more. So I’ll come back here. And then, please, again, add any resources that you have to the etherpad and we can all learn from each other.
AUDIENCE: So one of the tools that came up when we were talking about team health checks was this thing called 15Five. It’s like one-five, and the digits spelled out in letters. I don’t know what that means. So don’t ask me. It’s something that I used with my boss and I think my boss uses a lot with people one-on-one that is it’s kind of like a structured way to have people how they’re feeling on a scale of one to five and asks a series of structured questions that helps you think about how you’re feeling about the work that you’re doing and sort of crucially how you’re managing people so it’s not just like I’m feeling terrible; it’s like you have the space to say, I’m feeling terrible and a part of that prompt is, you know, what can I, as your boss do to help you. Or is there something that I can stop doing, or is there something that I could start trying doing to help you. So it’s a moment to start synthesizing ways of helping you, that puts the person being helped in a really empowered position. So that’s something that I really enjoyed.
ANIKA: Cool. I loved that. Thank you guys so much for coming here. And talking about this stuff. Like, I said, check out the etherpad and add to the resources and have a great conference.
[ Applause ]