Better team culture and collaboration in design processes

Team Culture: Developing Habits that let your Team Shine

In this post: We show you a simple method you can use to boost collaboration in a team. As working together is governed by human interactions, many pitfalls can be detrimental to the creative process. In thinking up fitting rules and developing according habits, we can build a team culture in a practice-based way. (Image: Julius Holstein, CC0)

Cold culture kills creativity

Did you know that “culture” is the biggest foe of innovation in every third company? McKinsey uncovered this in a 2016 survey which suggested that cultural and behavioral challenges are the number one reason organizations struggle especially with digital projects. Today, this is probably more relevant than ever before. In a world characterized by constant change, organizations of all sizes are looking at frameworks like Lean Startup, Agile, or Design Thinking to find new ways to create value.

However, engaging in creative work like this means more than just changing up the process. More often than not, doing new things requires new behaviors that strays from traditional organizational ways. And, as you might know, changing your behavior can be pretty hard. To adress this gap, I put together a method for teams that makes developing new behaviors easier. The process is largely based on BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits method, applied to cultural challenges in the workplace. Fortunately, before the pandemic, I was able to test it in a series of workshops. Today, I finally find the time to write up some thoughts about it and give you some pointers on how to try it yourself.

The creative process, team culture and behavior patterns

Can we change our behavior… together?

As you might know from some of my older posts, I am quite interested in behavioral economics and team dynamics. Collaboration isn’t only based on conscious (inter-)action, but also largely on behavior that we perform “on autopilot”. Since acting on autopilot is way less taxing for the human brain than conscious effort, more often than not, we find automatic behaviors running the show in a team. Think for example: people coming to the meeting unprepared, thoughtless or toxic feedback, vague decision-making, and more. I’m sure you know at least some examples from your own work. In order to change these patterns of interaction, we have to start with the underlying behaviors; and this is also where habits come into play.

Image: Working Model of culture
McKinsey Digital survey 2016, Challenges to digital innovation

Culture and behavior seem to be big obstacles for organizations in reaching their innovation goals.

Image: Working model of team culture
Working Together: The complexity of singular actions increases exponentially.

Communication between two people is already incredibly complex. Multiply the people, then what happens? The level of complexity pretty much explodes. When team members interact freely, to equal measure and in all directions, each individual is equally responsible for successful collaboration.

BJ Fogg’s Model of Behavior and a Method to Change our Habits

Changing interaction means changing habits

Before we dive into the methods, let’s take a look at what behavior is in the first place. What follows is largely based on the work of BJ Fogg. His behavior model is one of the foundational works of current behavioral design. Fogg proposes a simple metaphoric formula: “B = MAT”. His main idea: Behavior occurs when a Trigger event, our Motivation and our Ability to perform the behaviour play together in the right way. Once the same trigger consistently lets us behave the same way, we can call that a habit.

According to Fogg, we can make a desired behavior more likely to occur by making it easier to perform – so our ability to perform it is higher. Think about cleaning out the garage: Definitely hard and requires a lot of motivation. But just getting yourself to stand inside the garage with the light on needs less motivation; and you’d be in the perfect starting position to actually follow through on your original intention.


Questions for the workplace

For a work setting, we can now look back to our examples from earlier. For instance, let’s imagine a ficticious team in a ficticious company where people never prepare for their meetings. In the end, coming unprepared will not necessarily hurt the meeting, but the meeting could be much better if everyone was prepared, right? Or this: A team is asked to loosely brainstorm a bunch of new ideas, a task that is especially hard for its more analytical members. Soon, a feedback loop is established where every idea is shot down with concerns and objections and the common sentiment shifts from a creative “How might we?” to a critical “Won’t work…”

In both of these examples, the question becomes: Can we establish habits that change the collaboration for the better? Moreover, how do we pick up a new habit? One that doesn’t come easy to us? And can we automate this?

Image: Designing Habits with Tim Heiler
Last Habits Workshop pre-COVID. I’m thankful that people like the concept, and hope to see you soon in real life again!

Changing habits in practice

Tackling habits: how to shine with a new approach

Fogg’s answer to picking up habits is a process of quite simple steps. It boils down to the following: We identify a situation where we wish to behave in a specific way; we break the desired behavior down to the smallest task to get us started; then, we become aware of such situations when they occur and start with the easiest, very first step of our new behavior. Finally, we reward ourselves with a mental trick that helps make this response a habit. One this comes naturally – and it will –, we’re done.

If that sounds vague, I prepared an example for you. Below is what a typical habit-pattern might look like in practice.

Image: BJ Fogg's Model of Behavior
BJ Fogg’s Model of Behavior: Since it is easier to perform a simple task, we break our new habit down to its first, most simple step.

Image: The autopilot brain
Step 1: To establish a new habit, we need to identify what we want to do. Then we can re-program our usual, auto-pilot behavior.

Image: The woke brain
Step 2: The if-then-pattern: In writing I prefer the more precise “When I (encounter a situation/trigger), I respond by (my new smallest possible behaviour)”.

Image: The autopilot brain
Step 3: For most us, planning to do “everything”, “allways” and “forever” is too much of a behavior change.

Image: The woke brain
Step 4: Perhaps it would be better to start flossing one tooth only, or even just picking up the floss? Or even just laying a finger on it? As demand for ability shrinks, so does the percieved burden.

Image: The woke brain
Step 5:To make it even better, we have to add a little celebration to our new behaviour. This connects it to positive emotions – and our brains just love a good dopamine hit.

“What about that dance,” you ask? It’s all about dopamine

The above pattern helps us reprogram our brain because it reduces the energy required to get us started with the new behaviour. This is quite similar to developing a minimum viable product: you might not start with the full thing, but it is just enough to really get the ball rolling already. Good for us: Our brain also has a tendency to follow through with tasks it has already started.

One of my favorite ideas in Fogg’s work is when he even invents his own emotion: “Shine.” He defines Shine as “the feeling you have when you ace a test.” This Shine is what you want to feel when performing your new habit. The connection of your behaviour to the good feeling of “Shine” will prompt you to do it more. Learning a behavior is all about dopamine. Thus, we add a reward like a little dance, a smile, or a fist bump to our “if… then…” pattern. This will make us want to perform the behaviour more.

Learning good and creative innovation practices

How to apply this at work

I believe that in the context of any creative process factors like team interactions, alignment and psychological well-being are the essential foundation to doing the valuable hands-on work. This is exactly where methods like the above are helpful: We can now consciously introduce new behaviours that in turn actively promote creativity and collaboration.

In this spirit, you can ask: Would it be feasible to get your team together and think about the way you (want to) interact? You could use the if-then-pattern to come up with a couple of behaviors that everybody finds valuable, break them down into simpler steps and work together on establishing them as habits. Feel free to try this out, and let me know how it went. Or, if you want to know more, make sure to get in touch with me.



Bild: Tim Heiler, Designer Director at Iconstorm

Tim Heiler is Design Director at Iconstorm. If you want to know more about this workshop or digital design at Iconstorm in general, feel free to get in touch.

+49 (0) 69 15 32 018 18