Building Traditions to Strengthen Your Team
I’ve been thinking a lot about team-building and traditions lately as our team has grown. It has been really exciting and challenging to see how each additional team member brings their own needs, strengths and ambitions to Pomello. When you’ve been working so long with one person – shout out to my awesome co-founder, Oliver – it can be easy to get set in your ways. And so it is refreshing to have new perspectives and personalities.
Now as a team focused on company culture we can’t just let go about our jobs like cogs in a machine. One of the ways that teams can build their culture is by building traditions. Traditions are repetitive acts that have meaning to the people who carry them out. And the meaning is where your traditions can build on your values. To talk through this in a bit more detail I thought it would be helpful to walk-through some of the traditions we’ve been building at Pomello.
Team Lunch on Fridays
Oliver and I started this company in the cafeteria at graduate school, and so the concept of a team lunch isn’t foreign to us. In fact, we spent so much time in that cafeteria that we thought about putting an unofficial plaque on one of the tables to mark where it all began. After we graduated we didn’t have office space for at least a year and so we worked out of the cafes with the best wi-fi, again over food.
Now that we have an actual office space with desks and a few more people working with us, we decided to institute our team lunch on Fridays. It’s a bit of a battle because we are all busy, but most weeks we make it happen. We are still battling to keep phones and email-checking at a minimum during this hour – our front-end engineer, Juanita, keeps us in check and makes sure we photograph our expeditions. Basically, we have figured out a way to all eat fried food together and laugh.
What it means to us is an entirely different matter. We get stressed out, we disagree, we agree, we change our minds, and then we do it all over again. This is in some sense unavoidable at an early-stage company, so we have to make sure that this pattern doesn’t damage our team dynamic. Trust is a funny thing in that it tends to be taken for granted until it’s gone. It also isn’t the sort of thing that you always build directly. Sometimes you build trust by letting down your guard and reminding yourself that everyone you work with is multi-faceted. Everyone has something else going on outside of the office. Once you start to see people as multi-dimensional, whether it’s over lunch or not, it is harder to write them off when you do find yourself in conflict. For us, team lunch on Fridays is a reminder to take that time and see each other as whole individuals.
As a non-technical founder, I wasn’t familiar with the concept of a weekly retrospective before bringing on our Director of Engineering, Afam. After a few meetings and projects threatened to get off course, and worse hurt the team dynamic, Afam suggested we do a weekly retro on Fridays.
We’ve only been doing it for a few weeks, but I can say it has made a real difference in our ability to work together rather than butting heads. I think it works because everyone is in a calmer state of mind at the end of the week, and we are able to distance ourselves a bit emotionally and look objectively at how we could have done better, and what we did that was awesome.
The role of this tradition in my mind underscores our belief that we need to collaborate heavily on all aspects of our product and business. There really are very few dividing lines between what we all do at the end of the day. I can’t say to sales or engineering that something isn’t my problem or vice versa. We generally have one problem that we are trying to solve, and each person on the team is focused on how they are working towards a solution.
A little off the beaten path of typical traditions, I’m thinking of starting something called cookie time. Basically inspired by a couple of conversations I’ve had with our VP of Sales, Michael, after particularly ‘animated’ meetings, I’ve decided that sometimes the solution is to take a break and walk across the street to buy cookies together.
I even have a theory as to why this works scientifically speaking. I tend to get what some would call ‘hangry’ when my blood sugar is low, which increases the probability of a heated discussion. I’m not proud of this character trait, but I’m human and I’m working on it. The role of the cookie break is to get everyone out of the office to recharge and get that blood sugar back up. It’s also really hard to be vehemently grumpy while snacking.
In all seriousness though, the idea behind cookie time is to support our need to step back from conflict but step towards each other. In a previous life, I might have backed away from conflict, but I also often let that work relationship suffer. Cookie time is mechanism to prevent that distance from developing.
In the Future
In the next few months, I expect us to have overhauled our product in many regards. I also expect us to have grown closer as a team. I’ll keep you posted as our traditions develop and evolve-Juanita I’m looking at you for an update on that engineering mascot.