Team 1 and Team 2… Boring…

I have helped many teams and organizations to set up distributed teams. In most cases, it concerned a multi-site team setup. Two locations and team members at both locations.

When you have teams at different locations (cities, regions, countries or even continents), there will be a culture difference. I believe this should not be a problem, after all wouldn’t the world be a more boring place if we would all share the same culture? As long as you are aware that the other team members may have a different culture, you are already half way of dealing with these differences.

Furthermore, it is very important to have a strong team culture. When there is no team culture, people will fall back on the culture of the organization. When there is no strong organizational culture, people will fall back on their home culture. You can imagine that in some countries you would prefer a strong team culture to minimize the impact of the country culture. For example, some countries are quite hierarchically oriented and do you want that in your team?

Now how do you build a strong team culture? There are many tools and approaches but one thing that I personally find important is to have a team identity.

I find it boring to have a team Red, a team Green and a team Orange or team A, team B and team C. C’mon… you don’t name your kids child 1, child 2 and child 3.
workout_ImageIn his book #Workout, Jurgen Appelo talks about Identity Symbols what they are and how they can help your business. According to Jurgen: identities are crucial for purpose definition and value creation. A team, a business unit or a company has only really achieved an identity when people are eager to associate themselves with its symbols. Management can take an active role by inviting groups of workers to create symbols that represent their shared identities.

At one of the organizations I worked, we had distributed teams in The Netherlands and in India. We started with teams called Alpha, Beta and Gamma. Yep, pretty boring indeed. However, as soon as we had to make some changes to the teams we asked the teams to come up with their own team names and team logos.

They came up with their own names and logos, some nice examples:

  • Team Galaxy. Why Galaxy? Because they said they were the best team of the Galaxy and loved to play Super Mario Galaxy.
  • Team Atlas. This team was providing support to the other teams. They maintained the build environment, databases, etc. They were carrying the other teams on their shoulders.

These teams turned out to be strong in their team culture. They had clear working agreements and they were proud to be part of their team. For the fun part, they had competitions with other teams about how often they broke the build 🙂 It helped the team members to get closer to each other.

In another project, a group of team members were working within a service provider. Again it was a distributed team. So half of the team in The Netherlands and the other half within a service provider at a near-shore location. We focused less on building the distributed team identities but more on the making sure the team on the near-shore location would feel as part of one big team. We put a big company flag in the room, put up some banners and ordered a lot of orange coffee mugs. It was not only putting things on the wall, but also about going out for lunch and having dinners regularly in the evening.

However, the team adopted the color orange as their team color. They clearly established themselves as a separate team within the service provider. However, be careful not to overdo it. You should also respect their local identity. When the Dutch soccer team played in the World championship in 2014 we gave the team members orange caps as part of a Dutch marketing campaign. This proved to be a bridge too far… within days, caps of their local team popped up at the office.

You cannot force people to accept a certain identity, it should come from the group itself. The group must want to belong to that identity. As a manager you should facilitate and support the team when they have ideas to set up and grow their own identity.

We also had discussions with higher management. They believed that the names of the teams were not professional and it could make the company look bad in the eyes of customers. I don’t believe in this statement. When you explain that your team came up with the names themselves, that they are proud of their names and logo, that it strengthens their team binding, then I do not believe any customer will think what a weird company… I believe they will even have more faith in the company.

At one organization we discussed upfront if we should set guidelines for the team names and logos. Why, I asked? “Do we really believe that teams would come up with names like F#$* you or AMC sucks or a logo with a middle finger?” We decided to let it go, people will share their team identity also at home, with their kids, family and friends and I don’t think any team member will tell his children or parents, hey I proudly work in a team named: F you. Also within another organization we discussed what if teams use the swastika. Again,

I told them let’s wait and see what they come up with. It turned out of course that no team used such a symbol, so it was good thing we didn’t limit the teams in their thinking. As a manager you should have trust in your teams, they will use their common sense and a group of professionals usually is able to clean and repair itself in that sense.

But what if you as a manager want your team to come up with cool names and logos and they don’t? Should you decide on their name and logo? Nope, just leave it. You cannot force them to come up with a nice, meaningful and cool name if they don’t want to or if they are just not that creative. What you can do is maybe to share this blog, or just ask them why it is not important for them? Maybe they feel too much pressure from management and therefore don’t feel comfortable to take time to think about a nice team name and logo. But if your team comes up with a name, make sure you use it in all communications and reports. Show them that you as a manager are ‘committed’ to support and market their team identity.

The final test for you, when teams have their own team names and logos. Order sweaters or T-shirts per team, with their team name and logo… now will they wear their shirts or not…?

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