One Team, One Dream: Using Culture and Purpose to Make Great Teams

Years ago I traveled to the Bay Area to attend the UC Berkeley graduation of a dear friend. Heidi’s father, stepmother, and a crew of aunts made the trip as well.

In the days ahead of the ceremonies we explored San Francisco’s famed tourist attractions. Because we were a large group of boisterous Bostonians, it required a bit of leadership to keep our adventures moving smoothly. Once we had completed an excursion we’d rally to decide our next. Upon consensus we’d proclaim, “One Team, One Dream!”, cheerfully unified on our mission to see everything the great city had to offer. It became our mantra for the trip. So much so that Heidi made us all “One Team, One Dream!” pins as part of her thank yous. For as much as we saw on that trip, it wasn’t Pier 39 or Muir Woods that I remember so fondly; it was the team — and our rally cry, which I still use today.

It’s no surprise the team aspect of that San Fran getaway made a mark. I love being a professional project manager. Helping teams collaborate, solve problems, and accomplish goals never gets old though I’ve been doing it more than 15 years now. It’s no easy task, though, to understand team dynamics and create the right environment for groups to thrive.

A team is not a collection of staff or smattering of complementary talents. A true team is a group of people who trust each other, know they have a responsibility to each other, and are unified in a shared goal.

Last year, our team at Aten Design Group launched a fantastic new website for the city of Raleigh, North Carolina. Raleigh is experiencing massive growth. People are flocking to the City of Oaks for the great weather, new technology jobs, and that southern charm. The city needed a new way to connect with constituents that reflected their emerging modernity without losing the small town, neighborly feel that Raleigh holds dear. Many agencies competed for the chance to reimagine their website. Our team won because “we had a shared vision” and our pitch meeting felt more like our first collaboration than a sales call, according to the clients. I was in the room that day and can attest. It was magic. The teams bonded quickly. It has never felt like a transactional client / vendor relationship with the Raleigh team. That’s why we enjoy a partnership with them today, more than a year beyond the project launch.

We try to recreate that magic with all our project teams. Daniel Coyle’s book, The Culture Code, has been a favorite among project managers. It outlines three keys to get the kind of teamwork that team leads dream of.

  1. Build safety
  2. Share vulnerability
  3. Establish purpose and plan

These steps resonate with a lot of Aten’s project management practices. They’ve helped me to foster team dynamics that drive success, and to communicate more effectively with my team about why we do things the way we do them.

Build Safety

Laying the foundation for a safe space to work includes empowering people to act naturally and collaborate purposefully. If in-person meetings aren’t in the cards, use video technology to make eye contact and interact as you would around a table. Start meetings with ice breakers, highs/lows, or chit chat to get to know each other. Make around-the-table introductions, asking questions if need be to ensure everyone’s role in the project is clear.

When the team is collaborating make sure everyone has a voice. If someone isn’t speaking up, they may not agree with the direction the team is going. That should be surfaced and discussed. Or, they may be timid. Introverts are incredibly talented, too; don’t allow loud people to dominate. There are effective ways to do this. Slack a quiet teammate on the side and see what’s going on. Directly call on them to share and contribute. You could diplomatically ask who at the table hasn't spoken up or shared their thoughts.

We work with client teams very closely. We try to integrate our team and that of our clients into one cohesive unit that blurs the line of client and vendor. We have shared accountability and give our client partners deadlines, just as we do internal stakeholders. We have shared retrospectives and speak candidly when there is an opportunity to do something differently. Before pandemic safety concerns, we traveled to spend time together with clients in person for training or strategy sessions. These small exercises make a big difference. An inclusive environment builds solidarity and creates safety.

Share vulnerability

The Culture Code also underscores the value of something called “the vulnerability loop”. When teammates share their own insecurities or vulnerabilities, it encourages others to do the same and accelerates trust building. Sharing vulnerability is a strength — it creates a team culture that allows everyone to be human and shies away from covering up opportunities to improve. Mistakes are natural, and learning from them makes us a stronger team.

Whether in team meetings with other PMs or in regular project meetings I make it a point to acknowledge my own missteps or reflect on past mistakes. In my more than 15 years of project management I have missed scopes, had roadmaps go off the rails, or skipped critical QA when a project is down to crunchtime. Learning from these mistakes has made me a better PM, and discussing them openly sets an example for shared vulnerability. Teams that share their mistakes and work together to improve trust each other more fully and face challenges together more honestly.

Revealing vulnerability encourages others to do the same. Shared vulnerability builds the trust and honest reflection that drive process improvements, build healthy team dynamics, and lead to success.

Establish purpose and plan

To be successful, teams need to unify around a broad sense of purpose and to execute from clear, detailed plans. An organization’s mission, vision or values are excellent sources of purpose. When we as a team understand not only what we are trying to accomplish but why, each of us can find our own inspiration as well as a desire to motivate others in accomplishing their tasks.

We have clients all over the impact spectrum: they are on the frontlines of truth in journalism, the women’s reproductive rights movement, helping to manage the covid-19 pandemic or educating the next generation of world leaders, among other focus areas. Wherever our clients’ work lies, our team is purposeful and clear in our part of their missions. We help clients build a brighter tomorrow for their communities, and we do that by embodying certain values like creativity, trustworthiness, and productivity among others.

Mantras can be a powerful tool for reconnecting people with purpose. One team, one dream. The phrase explains how we approach our work and partnerships so succinctly. Nike has “just do it.” When I was at Digitas Boston I created a mantra for the PM and Creative teams that appeared on sketchbooks: “You make it rock. We make it roll.” Find a phrase that reminds your team of their shared values and goals, then use repetition to keep that shared purpose at the forefront of their minds.

Once a team is unified around their purpose, rely on clear project briefs to break down the vision, goals, and pathways into a structured plan. Outline everyone’s responsibilities on the team, set expectations, and make sure each team member knows exactly what their next steps are. The plan could be a simple task list, a product backlog, or a robust schedule. Whatever that looks like for your team, they need a clear path to follow. Someone needs to own that plan and hold the team accountable to it, be it a Scrum master, a project manager or another team lead.

Each person on a team has an important role in the project, and clear plans help us to realize those roles. Establishing a purpose and creating a plan creates team cohesion, clarity, and confidence.

There’s your plan, friends. Follow it to success.

  1. Build safety
  2. Share vulnerability
  3. Establish purpose and plan

One legendary NBA coach has this game plan down pat. The San Antonio Spurs leader Gregg “Pop” Popovich’s leadership style has been written about extensively. The culture he has created is something we should all emulate. It starts with getting to know your team and making sure they know you care about them. Popovich knows his players on a personal level. He hosts team dinners after every game where cell phones aren’t allowed.

Popovich is radically candid, emotional when need be, and authentic. He is clear on the team’s goals and ways to achieve them. They put in the work. Pop acknowledges rockstars but won’t indulge prima donnas. Everyone on the team works together as one unit because they have a shared responsibility and purpose. It has resulted in five championships and winning seasons in most of his 26 years at the helm.

Whether you’re running a digital project, spearheading a storied NBA franchise or planning a weekend in the big city, every team needs to work together. With purpose, safety, and humanity any team can unlock its true potential and achieve great things.

Digital Project Management

Read This Next