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Two Organizations, One Team, One Goal

Over the past year, we worked closely with the Digital Team at the Harvard Library to help rethink, redesign, and rebuild the digital experience of the Harvard Library. We worked jointly to fulfill the Library’s goal of being endlessly helpful – a challenge, given technology’s impact on the way people search for, find, and utilize information. Our teams approached the project with a targeted focus on meeting user needs, prioritizing key information along each user journey to help students, researchers, faculty and staff complete their tasks with ease and discover the treasures within Harvard Library along the way.  

In order to deliver on this promise, meet our deadlines, and stay within the defined scope, our teams had to work closely together – and often. We used the Agile Scrum methodology as the framework for our design process and met daily, workshopped weekly, completed work rapidly, and held retrospectives to uncover inefficiencies and reevaluate our process every two weeks. Working in sprints allowed us to iterate effectively, but also required that we worked seamlessly as one group: Harvard and Velir. 

We were driven to be a well-oiled machine, but it’s no secret that successful creative work can feel vulnerable and requires diplomacy when balancing the many perspectives within a cross-functional team. How did we do it? We committed to collectively raise our emotional intelligence and keep each other honest about our end goal of user-centricity. 

"To risk and to innovate is inherently vulnerable."

Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness and Dare to Lead

Emotional Intelligence and High-Performance Teams: It’s Not About You

Early in the project, both teams came together to attend a training workshop, facilitated by Richard Kasperowski, board member of Agile New England and world-renowned ‘high-performance teams’ consultant. Richard’s training is based on the research of Michelle and Jim McCarthy, former Microsoft employees, who learned that emotional intelligence and psychological safety are key elements of teams who outperform their peers. These findings have been substantiated in studies by other major tech firms, including Google. 

"Emotional intelligence is when you finally realize it’s not about you."

Peter Stark, consultant, and co-creator of the manager's toolkit

Richard trains teams to “achieve greatness”, fostering self-awareness and empathy through a framework of pre-determined rulesets, called Core Protocols. This approach provides easy-to-follow guidelines that coach trainees to solve issues, make decisions, and approach each other and the work with respect and presence. Richard facilitates his workshops using his book as a companion, The Core Protocols: A Guide to Greatness, based on the work of Jim McCarthy and Michele McCarthy.

The Core Commitments

The foundation of the Core Protocols lies within the Core Commitments, eleven statements each team member personally commits to. Without agreeing to the Core Commitments first, the Core Protocols cannot work. 

We encourage you to read all eleven of the Core Commitments, but here are some we referred to often throughout our process:

  • I commit to engage when present.
  • I will decline to offer and refuse to accept incoherent emotional transmissions.
  • I will personally support the best idea regardless of its source, however much I hope an even better idea may later arise, and when I have no superior alternative idea.
  • I will seek to perceive more than I seek to be perceived.
  • I will never do anything dumb on purpose.

These may seem obvious, but the act of committing to them is what makes all the difference, especially in our distracted digital age.

The Core Protocols

There are eleven Core Protocols detailed in Richard’s book (plus some bonus Protocols for high achievers), but the two that we used most frequently were the Check-In Protocol and the Decider Protocol. 

Checking In 

Some people are highly emotionally intelligent and have no problem expressing their emotional state, while others are not. The Check-In Protocol provides tools and space for people to talk about what is going on with them emotionally, which allows everyone to be on the same page about what they’re feeling while relieving the pressure of having to think about their feelings in-depth. 

At our daily morning scrum meeting, we’d go around the room to give updates, starting with, “Good morning, I’m checking in. I’m feeling...”  Each person would fill in the blank with: sad, mad, glad, or afraid, with or without explanation. We’d end each check-in with, “I’m in,” which is a statement of commitment to the eleven Core Commitments. The Check-In Protocol allows anyone to pass if they aren’t ready or interested, and to un-pass when they feel ready. If someone passes, the team understands that they’re not prepared or may be in a really tough spot emotionally. Checking in is helpful, for example, when a team member shares that they’re juggling multiple projects and need to focus on handling pressing issues in order to be most effective.

During our check-ins, members from both the Velir team and the Harvard Library team would share about their work and personal lives. It may seem uncomfortable to remove the typical personal-life/work-life boundary in a professional setting – especially across the vendor-client relationship – but by understanding each other in this way, we were able to bring empathy and understanding to our work, acknowledging that we’re all human and that our lives outside of the project can affect us during the workday.

Making Quick Decisions 

The Decider Protocol makes it possible to make quick, efficient decisions by taking a vote using hand positions – thumbs up for yes, thumbs down to open discussion, or flat hand to go with to whatever decision the group makes. During the design process, it can be easy to get caught up in wanting to create the perfect solution. ‘Perfect’ is the enemy of done and the Decider Protocol helps move a team towards ‘good enough’ that solves the problems of those we design for and keeps the project moving forward.

We used the Decider Protocol often, especially during workshopping sessions where decisions needed to be made to meet user needs and possible solutions. During a session focused on the search listing page, for example, we couldn’t reach consensus. Despite having user stories as our guide, we kept discussing solutions but were unable to come to consensus. Finally, our project manager called for a Decider Protocol and we voted on her proposed solution. We all agreed the solution was good enough for a minimum viable product, and that we would continue to test our hypotheses after launch with more users. Knowing we all had a say in the decision allowed us to move forward and use the time we had together effectively. 

The Impact of “I commit to…”

The training elevated our collective understanding of the Agile methodology and illuminated the critical value of emotional intelligence in creating a highly-efficient, productive team. Both teams were excited to apply our learnings and from the training forward, we committed to utilize the Core Protocols for every meeting, difficult decision, and tricky situation. 

It required dedication over the duration of the project, sometimes involving reminding each other to do a Protocol Check (one of the Protocols, of course). We worked hard to maintain a safe space for honest discussions, learning that we could trust each other when giving and receiving feedback. By doing this, we were able to thoughtfully surface and evolve creative ideas from the very beginning of our design process in content strategy, carrying through to wireframes, visual design, and front-end. Operating as a high-performance team powered our work and enabled us to accomplish everything we set out to do. 

In Part 2, we share other tools and approaches we used during the Harvard Library website redesign project to create a useful solution for key audiences.

Have you utilized the Core Protocols in your work? Do you use other trainings or frameworks to create high-performance teams at your workplace? Share your ideas below or Tweet us @Velir. We’d love to hear your thoughts.


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