If you work in a team environment, you’ve likely heard of Atlassian’s suite of productivity software—Trello boards, JIRA Cloud, Confluence Cloud, Bitbucket Cloud, HipChat messaging, and more. The Australian company’s continued expansion has come with its own growing pains. So what does a company built to foster collaboration do to hone its own work teams? It creates a playbook, or mechanics guide if you will, to guide routine, quick, and productive tune-ups. Company futurist Dom Price chatted with Fast Company about the team playbook and why it’s giving it away for free. Atlassian, with its nearly 2,000 employees, took in $457 million in revenue last year and has a market capitalization of more than $5 billion.
Fast Company: How did you become a work futurist, and what is that?
Dom Price: I was originally hired into program management [in 2013]. As a 450-person organization, we were small enough where everything could be [handled] informally through conversation and relationships. But we were about to hit a pivot point in size where that informality wasn’t going to work anymore. We were adding multiple locations, new products teams, new customers, and new competition. [And we asked ourselves,] How do we keep the processes that helped us stay innovative at scale? So that was my role because I’ve worked in larger scale product development teams before. The theory was there, it was a loose theory: Having seen fire fighting, I should be good at fireproofing.
So we created our own stuff, which we call the team playbook. It’s these three things we call health monitors.
FC: So what are health monitors and how do they work?
DP: It’s built like recipe cards. You just click through and there’s the exercise. We have five minutes for this, 10 minutes for that. It spells out the entire thing for you like doing a recipe for the first time. It’s almost idiot-proof.
They are tools to essentially try and raise self awareness. [The monitors consist of] an exercise for the team. A no-laptops, no-phones, low-fidelity exercise. Questions like, Do we have the same shared understanding of why we’re doing this? You vote with your thumbs and then discuss. Yes, no, or indifferent.
So basically we landed on three team types: project teams, service teams, and leadership teams. The health model worked to help raise up self-awareness and identify where the struggle is. And then as our teams navigated out of those struggles, out of those troughs, we documented and codified those ways of working and we called [the various exercises] plays. Like me going and seeing a fitness instructor: ‘Dom, you’re a few kilos overweight and your diet’s not great, try these exercises.’
FC: What does this do to make a team healthier?
DP: When our agile team knows what they’re doing but not why, they never course correct. They ignore all the signals that the business world throws at them. They don’t change, they’re like, this is the thing I have to do, and I’m going to run really fast toward it and I’m not going to stop.
FC: So how did you start doing these for other companies?
DP: So we ran with this for like 12-18 months across 400 teams internally, and it went really well for us. And then last October we open-sourced it [online]. In the first two and a half months we got 200,000 visits. Since we’ve launched it, a whole bunch of customers pinged us and said, “We would love to find out a bit more.”
FC: Can you describe how these exercises usually go down?
DP: I let [team members] read the question and then get them to vote. Once they vote, they share. And then I’ll ask questions. So if this one guy [puts his thumbs down], I’ll go, ‘So what did you see that made you go like that?’ And he says, ‘Well I don’t think people understand who is accountable for what.’ Then I ask why and he’ll say, ‘Mary was doing this and I was doing that and we were both doing the same thing.’ So I’m looking for examples of problems teams are encountering.
I just want them to share with each other. I care less about what the different ratings are . . . what I want to see is the rich conversation. And then normally someone in the room goes, ‘Ah I didn’t realize that.’
FC: So you’re asking people to air their work grievances? That sounds dangerous.
DP: It’s interesting because then you get people saying things like, ‘It’s not that I distrust you, I just don’t trust you yet.’ And then my question is, How do you build up confidence in each of them? We’ve had some brutal conversations. I’ve had tears in one of these.
FC: What do people have the most difficulty understanding about your program?
DP: I was showing our office to a COO at a bank in Australia the other week. We’ve got white walls everywhere, and everyone is on the whiteboards and engineers and designers are arguing with each other. He sees the arguing and says, ‘Oh that’s awkward.’ And I said ‘Oh no, no, no, that’s sparring, that’s good. That’s them having a debate. And when they commit to a solution, I’m confident they’ll get the right solution. I want to encourage that.’ And he gets his little notepad out and he writes, “whiteboards,” and I said, what are you doing? He said, ‘We don’t collaborate enough in the bank, so when I get back to the office I’m going to hit up the facilities guy and get more whiteboards.’
FC: Pretty funny that he thought the answer to being more agile was whiteboards. How do you help institutions like banks stay competitive?
DP: It’s an industry with so many traditions, and they have so many sacred cows that you can’t challenge. There is a whole compliance side there as well. What I said to him was, If you try and focus on any one of the ingredients and double down on that in lieu of the rest, you’re not going to get that mixture right. You need the technology, the workplace environmental stuff, the practices of collaboration, the sharing, the crowdsourcing, and getting stuff wrong, having heated debates, putting your opinion forward, but be willing to be wrong and back off—that needs to be permissible and encouraged in your environment, otherwise you’re not going to get the collaboration.
FC: How many do you do a year?
DP: Six hundred. I would say about two-thirds of the sessions I do internally, because we’re still scaling and growing teams, taking on bigger projects.
FC: What’s the benefit of doing these for free for other people?
DP: The real, real benefit is it’s helping me evolve the playbook. The playbook will never be static. So since we are seeing new team types coming up, we may build a new health monitor for new team types. We are seeing new ways of working every week, and we might start codifying and documenting those and adding new plays. Since we launched in October, we’ve added five plays. If I just do that in the Atlassian world, it runs the risk of becoming a ‘drink the Kool-Aid’-type book. That isn’t going to work for us. This needs to be a broader experience.
FC: Have you ever been pressured to share what you’ve learned about a company’s internal problems with Atlassian in order to boost sales?
DP: Doctor-patient confidentiality!
FC: So why does that matter? Why do you care whether these companies get it together or not?
DP: We’ve got a mission to unleash the potential of teams. Our products will go a huge way to doing that. Our products used badly or in poor cultures won’t do that. So the more people understand practices and how they work together, the more value they’ll get from our products because they just work smarter. So it’s a products sale, but the product sale is that if you can teach people how to work correctly, then your products will work better.
FC: Last question: What themes have emerged from this work?
DP: One of the things that was kind of fascinating to me was the answer we got when we asked people how they identified in terms of company, team, and as an individual. Over 50% of people said they identified strongest with the team and then individual and company were like 25% each. So there is this team identity. It’s funny, because whenever I talk to CEOs or senior leaders, they believe the company has this huge role to play, but when we speak to the people doing the work, they say, they’re motivated by their team. So companies need to just grapple with teamwork and accept that it is the way work gets done. How we’re dealing with that is, we’re talking to these people and asking, ‘What are the barriers to you being successful in your team?’