3 min read

Trusting Your Way to a Better Design Team.

There is nothing like working with a team that is in total sync. Once you have well-established relationships grounded in trust everyone is…

There is nothing like working with a team that is in total sync. Once you have well-established relationships grounded in trust everyone is more productive, faster about their work, and, in my experience, genuinely happier. Getting to a high level of trust between individuals is key to a successful team — especially between different practice groups (i.e., designers and engineers).

A few days ago I came across an interview in the New York Times with Tobi Lütke, CEO of Shopify, a SAAS e-commerce company that continues to grow quickly. When asked about his companies culture, Tobi replied:

“We’re very honest about everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. We even post them on our internal wiki. Everyone is invited to do it, and they can explain how they like to work and what they value. It takes a year of working together until you sort of understand people. We’ve always been looking for ways to accelerate this.
Another concept we talk a lot about is something called a “trust battery.” It’s charged at 50 percent when people are first hired. And then every time you work with someone at the company, the “trust battery” between the two of you is either charged or discharged, based on things like whether you deliver on what you promise.
Humans already work like this. It’s just that we decided to create a metaphor so that we can talk about this in performance reviews without people feeling like the criticisms are personal.”

As a former studio owner and employer both of these ideas resonated with me:

  1. Growing a team through shared transparency of everyone’s strength and weaknesses.
  2. The concept of using a metaphor to quantify the level of trust between individuals and the leadership.

In my second week on the IBM Studios team, we all took the Gallup Strengths Finder test and reported the results to the group. While that exercise doesn’t specifically call out weaknesses, it was easy for us, as a group to chart out where we have some deficiencies in our abilities to work well together and, frankly, get things done. It’s healthy for each of us to be aware of where we can fast-find trust and where we’re going to possibly put more effort in to help our team as a whole be more productive.

The idea of Tobi’s “Trust Battery” is intriguing because not everyone is equipped to received criticism (constructive or otherwise, depending on the personality you’re dealing with, feedback can be hard to consume). I found more details on how Shopify uses the “Trust Battery” in an interview published by the The Globe And Mail a few years ago:

“When I hire people and work with them closely, I have this weird kind of thing I talk with them about, which I call the ‘trust battery.’ You meet someone, and then you trust them about 50 percent, because you have not a lot to go on. Then you interact with them, and maybe you have positive experiences when you work together and they do something really well, and then it sort of slowly charges; it might go up to 60 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent. Something magical happens at around 80 to 90 percent, where the need for communication actually starts reducing significantly.”

Further, once an employee hits 80 percent, they are able to work autonomously. Shopify employees are aware of that number and what it means to their career at the company.

In closing here are two additional thoughts about trust from the two-part Truth and Consequences episode of the NPR Ted Hour — I encourage you all to listen to both episodes.

The first program is a conversation with orchestra conductor Charles Hazelwood. He talks about the absolute need to build trust between himself and the one hundred or so musicians. In the second episode, they talk to Simon Sinek the author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action and Leaders Eat Last. The had each had a great line that, when put together, respectively, provide absolute clarity on the need for trust in a team.

“Trust is actually the most fundamental gel in every single human relationship, and without no relationship can flourish,” Hazelwood says. “Until we feel that we can rely completely on the person to the left of us or the person to the right of us,” said Sinek, “then we can’t really achieve anything great.”

I can’t say it any better than that.