Microsoft and IDEO released a guide to effective collaboration at work – Business Insider
  • Microsoft and IDEO studied what makes a successful team.
  • Now they’ve created a free guide to effective collaboration, featuring five key takeaways.
  • The guide taps into the increasing importance of teamwork, and the fact that most companies haven’t gotten it right yet.
  • It also fits with Microsoft’s ongoing culture change, and its emphasis on growth mindset.
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Things you can count on me for.

Things I may need help with.

Ways I’m looking to grow.

These are some of the prompts that make up the “profile of me,” one of several worksheets from a new guide to effective collaboration at work. Purple text below a simple pencil icon encourages you to imagine that you’ve just joined a new team and want to let your colleagues know how you work best.

The guide is a product of a two-year-plus partnership between Microsoft and the global design consultancy IDEO. Executives from both companies were tasked with analyzing the most productive teams across industries and figuring out what makes them tick — and how other teams can replicate their success.

Microsoft released the guide, titled The Art of Teamwork, in November. It’s free for everyone, and not just Microsoft customers.

A series of slides walks you through the fundamentals of collaboration, plus stories about teamwork among astronauts on Mars and fashion designers at Oscar de la Renta. Managers can download instructions for team-building exercises like “values train” (translate the team’s values into behaviors) and “tension tour” (talk about what causes moments of tension on the team).

Under “my best/my worst,” team members jot down the conditions that facilitate and hinder their performance.

The Art of Teamwork/Microsoft

Microsoft isn’t making money from this guide, or at least not directly. (The company said it won’t disclose how much it spent on the research and design processes.) The company’s investment in the science of teamwork makes sense only from a longer-term perspective. The Art of Teamwork capitalizes on business leaders’ growing realization that collaboration is less a squishy nice-to-have and more a key to success in the future workplace — and most organizations still haven’t gotten it right.

The Art of Teamwork also fits nicely into Microsoft’s ongoing company-culture change led by CEO Satya Nadella, and its efforts to be seen as an employer that’s more collaborative than cutthroat.

Over time, the two companies anticipate that the guide will serve as a clever form of market research. Execs at Microsoft and IDEO say they plan to build new digital tools for Microsoft Teams — the workplace collaboration app that has 20 million daily active users to Slack’s 12 million — based on the feedback they receive from companies that use the resource.

Mark Swift, a partner director of design at Microsoft Teams, told Business Insider that The Art of Teamwork guide is but a small piece of the company’s broader effort to improve its customers’ work experience. “It’s really just the beginning,” he said.

The most successful teams make it safe for people to mess up and ask questions

Based on their observations, Microsoft and IDEO concluded that there are five key attributes of successful teams: team purpose, collective identity, awareness and inclusion, trust and vulnerability, and constructive tension. The Art of Teamwork guide covers each attribute in a different section.

The fourth attribute on that list — trust and vulnerability — is related to “psychological safety,” a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson to describe an environment where team members feel comfortable taking risks. In a psychologically safe workplace, employees aren’t scared of making mistakes, sharing new ideas, or asking simple questions.

A few years ago, Google led similar research on effective teamwork and yielded much the same findings that Microsoft did, especially on the importance of psychological safety. As Charles Duhigg wrote in the New York Times magazine in 2016, Google learned that a team’s dynamics were more significant than how smart or competent the individual team members were.

Microsoft has been undergoing a culture shift rooted in ‘growth mindset’

Kathleen Hogan is Microsoft’s HR chief.

Microsoft has been exploring the psychology of work since Nadella took the reins from Steve Ballmer in 2014. At the time, Microsoft’s performance was stagnating; the company is now one of the most valuable on the planet, with a market cap of $1.2 trillion.

Nadella has used a company-culture transformation to help power Microsoft’s turnaround. His leadership team has overseen a shift from competition and workaholism to collaboration and the willingness to learn.

This culture shift has been grounded in “growth mindset,” a concept in developmental psychology that describes the belief that skills can be developed through hard work and that failure is an opportunity to learn. That’s in contrast with a “fixed mindset,” where talent is assumed to be innate, and failure a signal of incompetency.

A growing body of research supports Microsoft’s focus on growth mindset. 

A recent paper published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that people were more committed to their employers, and more likely to trust them, when those organizations valued a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. (To identify growth and fixed mindsets, researchers asked employees to indicate how much their company encouraged behaviors like working together or cheating by cutting corners.)

Other research suggests that companies with fixed mindsets tend to have a few “star” employees whose contributions are recognized and appreciated. Employees who aren’t stars may worry about failing and may avoid taking up innovative projects that could potentially benefit the organization. At growth-mindset companies, leaders are more likely to say their employees are innovative and collaborative, and that the employees show management potential.

To cultivate a growth mindset among its employees, Microsoft has changed its approach to people-management, performance evaluation, and hiring. In a previous interview with Business Insider, Microsoft’s HR chief, Kathleen Hogan, said the company got rid of stack ranking, which rated employees against each other. Now managers track how much employees helped others succeed, in addition to their individual impact.

Hogan thinks effective collaboration between colleagues translates to the success of the overall organization. “Instead of just operating in your silo and just optimizing for your team, it’s really optimizing for team Microsoft,” she said. “And that belief was if we did that, we would best be able to serve our customers.”

Collaboration will be a key skill in the workplace of the future

Across industries, it’s becoming more important for people to work well together. 

Business professors say the workplace is quickly moving away from specialists working alone and toward collaboration between colleagues in different divisions, and often different time zones. Soft skills like effective communication are in demand as technical tasks are increasingly automated. Meanwhile, hiring managers say they’re having a hard time finding candidates who are good collaborators.

An image in the guide illustrates how teams achieve constructive tension.

The Art of Teamwork/Microsoft

Microsoft isn’t the only top tech company to pick up on this trend. Kyle Ewing, Google’s head of talent, previously told Business Insider that she’s wary of hiring someone who doesn’t appropriately credit their team for an accomplishment.

Oisin Hanrahan, chief product officer at the $4 billion IAC brand ANGI Homeservices, previously told Business Insider that hiring managers test almost every job candidate on their ability to work collaboratively. When the candidate starts to present a solution to a problem, an interviewee will interject with another idea.

“If the alternative solution being proposed is better, and the candidate recognizes that, it’s generally a pretty good sign,” Hanrahan said.

The Art of Teamwork will help Microsoft understand the biggest problems teams face today

Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

Microsoft and IDEO kicked off their partnership by studying teams in settings beyond conference rooms. They spoke with doctors and nurses in training at a medical simulation center, an alpine search-and-rescue team, and chefs at award-winning restaurants. Once they’d identified some common themes, they tested their hypotheses by observing and interviewing teams in different contexts.

Over the next year or so, Microsoft is going to pay close attention to how companies use The Art of Teamwork. Those observations will help execs decide which collaboration tools to build next.

Swift, the partner director of design at Microsoft Teams, said he wants to develop tools that facilitate belonging and a “strong collective identity,” even among distributed teams. Swift manages more than 100 Microsoft employees across the US, the Czech Republic, and India; some are researchers and some are designers.

Right now Swift is thinking about ways to digitally replicate some of the social cues that are obvious in a physical workspace. In person, you see someone wearing headphones and scowling, and you know they’re trying to focus. Online, that can be trickier to discern. “These are really hard problems,” Swift said.

Ultimately, Microsoft’s teamwork initiative suggests that it might be possible to digitize the more abstract, fuzzy parts of work that seemingly defy quantification.

“Some of The Art of Teamwork is about understanding the emotional impact of what it means to be a team,” Swift said.

Sure, tech companies can build and sell tools for chatting with your coworkers and collaborating on a project report in real time. Now they’re also building tools to help you feel like you belong and to better understand what work means to you.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Maybe both; maybe neither.

Swift drew a direct link between The Art of Teamwork and Microsoft’s broader emphasis on growth mindset. “No one team or organization is the same, and everyone has a different perspective on what makes a successful team,” he said. “The goal is to take this work and continue to learn.”


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