Lessons from Corporate Innovators

Stefano Mastrogiacomo, Author of “High-Impact Tools for Teams”

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There may be no more important topic in 2021 to innovation leaders than how to think about managing and organizing your team. On this week’s episode of Agile Giants, I sit down with Stefano Mastrogiacomo to talk about his new book High-Impact Tools for Teams.

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Sean Ammirati (00:08):
Welcome to Agile Giants: Lessons from Corporate Innovators. I’m Sean Ammirati, your host, co-founder and director of the Carnegie Mellon Corporate Startup Lab, and partner at the early-stage venture capital fund, Birchmere Ventures. Each week I’m going to talk to guests who are experts at creating startups inside large corporations. I believe fundamentally a startup within a company is the same as one inside the proverbial garage. A group of entrepreneurs, trying to make the world a better place using new ideas and inventions. However, I also believe some of the techniques and processes are just inherently different. This podcast is going to explore the similarities and differences.

Sean Ammirati (00:56):
On this week’s episode of Agile Giants I’m joined by Stefano Mastrogiacomo. Stefano is a Project Management Professor, a consultant, and an author who started with a very technical background, but has become fascinated by human connections. Most recently, he authored the book High Impact Tools for Teams with Alex Osterwalder and the company Strategyzer. We’re going to walk through the book and the five tools specifically that his book covers and unpack along each of these tools, how you can use them in your organization. If you’ve already read the book, I think this will be a great compliment to the reading and give you some practical on the ground tools to apply that, and if not, this becomes a great teaser, hopefully for you to go check out the book after listening to this episode. We’ll include a link in the show notes to the website where you can learn more about the book and Stefano’s work.

Sean Ammirati (01:57):
Stefano, it is so great to have you on Agile Giants. We’ve been talking a lot about teams and how to put teams together. It was a big topic of our forum back in November at Carnegie Mellon, and that’s something that I know you’ve published books on and thought about and researched for a long time. I thought it may be a good place to start is, what you did before the book and the things you actually led digital for a financial services’ company. Maybe start a little bit there and then we can lead into how that deals with teams and team management and teams around innovation.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (02:31):
Yes. Thank you for having me with pleasure and hello to our listeners. When I quit university, I quit actually [inaudible 00:02:42] lab, that’s where I did my masters in business IT. I really wanted to go to work immediately. I started developing team application, at the time it was called Groupware by the way. So I came to actually developing digital services for financial institutions, this is like a Swiss banks, all the banking application with the security henceforth, through the development of internal things first. So I was developing intranet and all sorts of applications that were helping share knowledge inside the organization. It’s while I was developing these apps that I started developing a big interest in teamwork and in the psychology side of teamwork, as I was doing purely digital initiatives.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (03:39):
That was 20 years ago, and that interest has been continuing, growing and growing until now, we have a set of tools and books, mostly designed on the field. These are things I’m a fan of methodologies, especially Agile now, but also the waterfall ones and other strategic frameworks on how to implement ideas. However, I felt like I was missing some components here and there that led me always in some recurring problems in some recurrent situations. I developed over time these tools to help me first and then some people started using them and after a while it became a book and the toolkit downloadable online.

Sean Ammirati (04:30):
Right. Let’s get to the book but, did you get your PhD after your master’s or did you go work and then go back and get your PhD? Just trying to understand the chronology for a minute Stefano.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (04:41):
The chronology yes, I did my PhD while I was leading the team of 10 people in the bank. I did it overnight, so that was a very intensive period. So I managed both in parallel. I never was able really to quit academia because I think that’s a beautiful space to take the time to think. However action is in practice. I’ve never been able to choose between the private sector and academia and I still haven’t. I’m continuing to keep both journeys open. I did my PhD and in a remote teamwork, actually. One of the first application I developed, this is a funny story. I was working with engineers with Caterpillar. This was even before the delivering all these financial apps. I was developing a system that enabled traveling engineers to have the big trucks repaired when there was a problem somewhere in the world and have the parts shipped anywhere in the world in 24 hours.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (05:57):
There was a huge IT backend there and also the connectivity. I remember I spent a lot of time interviewing the engineers so that we developed exactly what they needed. Then we developed the app and rolled it out worldwide. For some time I was checking the lock files and the usage was super low. And that’s where my questioning started, “Hey, I did exactly what they ask. We spent so many hours discussing and modeling and doing the processes and so on. They needed it desperately, and here we go. You deliver the app and they don’t use it. What’s going on?” That’s where my journey in psychology started because technology was clearly not the problem. The app was up and running and all functioning. So what did go wrong with error of course it changed over time, but in the beginning, I had that question and then it continued on over and over. That land me progressively when I moved into the financial institution to come to the conclusion that every innovation journey first and foremost is a people journey.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (07:11):
People are not machines. People are driven by psychological rules, we use language. Then here we go, you have this guy with a degree in economics and the background in IT, plunging, we’ve always been in SQL linguistics, anthropology, and all these disciplines to understand these situations I could not make sense of as I was delivering all my apps, mobilizing the teams to deliver, applying my best practices. It’s not after a while that I realized that most of the tools I was using, they came from military and engineering background. If you look at the project management tools we use, it’s engineering or military. And I was thinking, where is the psychology in here? Now yeah, that was the beginning of that journey and it never stopped.

Sean Ammirati (08:11):
That’s awesome. That’s a great story. As someone who certainly straddles both the academia and for-profit word, I certainly understand that there’s living in both camps. But let’s get to fast forward a little bit here. So you get into the psychology of this, and then you start building some really interesting tools around how to keep your teams aligned, and that ultimately becomes a fantastic book that we’ll get to. But sort of, fast forward a little bit, let’s start by talking a little about the tools that your book covers here.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (08:45):
The book is called High Impact Tools for Teams. It contains five tools that I consider myself as plugins that you can integrate into your preferred framework. These plugins, they cover very specific area in which I found myself as a practitioner as having blind spots quite often. For example, you can go through any beautiful manual of project management, and it’s clearly expressed that a project leader has to be a great communicator and that stakeholders’ alignment is key. Yes. Okay. Then how do you do that concretely? What is a great communicator? What is a great question? What is alignment by the way? These are the sorts of questions I try to answer, and the tools reflect that.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (09:41):
So plugins, they don’t have the ambition of replacing or becoming a methodology, its quick tools with the Swiss knife that helps me in specific situations. Let’s start first with the Team Alignment Map. I had very quickly in my career that impression that there was a lot of misunderstanding in the air and that people would forge agreements still thinking differently and being in some sort of illusion of alignment. So the Team Alignment Map was built using user simple poster four columns, where I try to have a super minimalistic approach of projects. I was thinking if there is three, four things on which we must be sure that we understand each other, what would that be for my project to unfold properly? The Team Alignment Map reflects that.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (10:41):
You have very easily, a poster with on top the mission and we must describe the mission together. The whole idea, there is nothing new in what I’m going to say. What is new is the format and the fact that we have to do it together. So we have to plan together, we have to discuss things together. And why am I forcing these discussions? Because they create what SQL linguists describe as common ground. Common ground is mutual knowledge. If you and me have the same information, but also we know that both of us have the information, it changes everything.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (11:19):
Common ground is where collective power comes from. And the Team Alignment Map has any team in any project align quickly on the mission, first element. And then we enter into the four columns. The second column is called joint objective, is where you want me must reach mutual evidence of what we intend to achieve together. And we can describe the deliverables, the tasks, whatever we want, it’s an open space for discussion. But we must seek that evidence that we are on the same page. The second column is called joint commitments. This consists in answering the question, who does what, with whome and sometimes for whom? And we discuss that and it’s a negotiation space.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (12:07):
Then the third column is called joint resources. Every human activity is using resources. We’re using time, electricity, now our computers, well, every project needs that, every contributor in the project needs resources. Yes. Okay. So let’s have a conversation of the exact resources you need to do your part, me my part, the resources we have and those we miss. And let’s put that explicitly on a board. The same with the last column, we know that there are risks always when we enter into a project and especially into an innovation project, so let’s discuss for a while, what can prevent us from succeeding.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (12:50):
Coming from a project management background, I’ve been sitting hours and hours in front of long Excel spreadsheets, where we’re monitoring and logging the risks one by one. That’s when that was not the most engaging activity. So I try to transform that into a playful exercise. And the idea is that with the Team Alignment Map, we identify risks, but we also mitigate them in real time. So I don’t want to enter too much into the details, but it’s a poster four columns with conversations, and that aligns us in a very powerful way because we seek the evidence that we understand each other and because we have to build it together, it’s a co-planning tool. It increases the understanding, the accountability and so on. This is the Team Allignment Map.

Sean Ammirati (13:45):
I want you to go over the other four quickly as well. But just for context for people, if you aren’t familiar with this book or these tools, but you’ve used, for example, the Business Model Canvas, this is the same type of canvas style thinking tool. This book was actually published by Strategyzer. If you like that format of like, “Hey, here’s the business model canvas that I can put on a wall and use to organize my thoughts,” These are very similar tools that Stefano is talking to you about that are specifically around helping your team become a high performing team, helping make sure that your team’s aligned and understands how to have this sort of joint. The tagline I see here is five powerful tools to boost joint performance and psychological safety. The first of those is the Team Alignment Map. Let’s talk through the other four quickly, and then I want to get to a couple of pragmatic examples of it.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (14:45):
Thank you. Another canvas it’s called the team contract. It’s another poster of course these both work if we are physically present in the same room, they make a big poster or online in a digital board. The Team Alignment Map is really focused on the work, the activities. The team contract is a circle in a square with the in and out. It took five years to get there. It doesn’t look like that. It’s aimed at defining the rules of the game in the team, especially now, if you’re working in an innovation context with a cross-functional team, different culture, different time zones, and so on, you might want to spend some times in the early stages of the team to discuss the rules and behavior that we want to abide by as a team, especially a newly created team. Also key to ask as individuals, do we have a preference to work in a certain way and make that explicit.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (15:48):
That is the team contract, we negotiate that, in both terms things we want to see it’s called ins and things we don’t want to see in our team it’s called outs. If you take these two tools, the Team Alignment Map, and the team contract together in the very early stages of a project or of a team or where a new person joins the team, the impact on the subsequent execution of things is significant because basically the idea is, we understand how we’re supposed to contribute as individuals, and we also know what the others are doing. We’ve also put in place some values, behaviors, ways of taking decisions and so on that are unique to our team that have been negotiated. And that in terms of subsequent conflict is very helpful. A lot of these two tools have been really the Team Alignment Map and the team contract. They’ve been created out of these recurring problematic moments, I was saying, I was thinking always, maybe there is something we should do in the beginning to about that, to avoid these problems down the road.

Sean Ammirati (17:10):
Before we get dealers, give me an example of that. Give me an example of a problem you encountered that if you would have had this alignment map and the team contract could have been avoidable. Okay.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (17:23):
You and me and the team are engaged into delivering a mobile app at the end of the meeting. We all agree that you are going to take care of the design and I’m going to take care of the specs now, as really it sounds, you and me might have a different understanding of what design means and what spec means. Sure. Okay. Then we say, okay, then you go and do your part, I go and do my part and then in the next meeting, when we meet, they don’t fit together. When was that problem created, when you think about it? At the end of the meeting.

Sean Ammirati (18:01):
Would you, at the end of the meeting, put these two either physically or digitally up and actually clarify what we mean by spec and what we mean by design?

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (18:12):
Yes. The idea is that we must give some ambiguous words, a boost somehow in our meetings. By the way, I hear a lot of bad press about meetings and do you know, the statistics are not great around 50% of meetings are perceived as useless? One thing I say when I teach is really meetings are a blessing, the problem is what we do in these meetings and how much we prepare for the coming period. The whole idea of these two posters is to make that alignment process, both in terms of work and in terms of behaviors, as smooth as possible and as little intrusive as possible.

Sean Ammirati (18:58):
I guess, how would you use those two tools to clarify that? How would the tools uncovered that are definitions of spec and design aren’t the same?

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (19:09):
Well, it appears in the conversation. As we start, for example, in the Team Alignment Map, describing what you will do and with whom and what you commit to deliver to home nine times out of 10 ambiguities is appear. We don’t need to sit together and discuss, what do you mean by design and so on. It appears as if the tools orient the conversation towards the concrete deliverables. Yeah what do you mean by that? Then when you start also describing the resources you need the resources I miss, et cetera. Ambiguities tend to evaporate because we make things explicit and we talk about the requirements of a successful contribution for me and for you. It’s a side effect of that, and the same happens on the team contract for behaviors.

Sean Ammirati (20:05):
Got it. Would you use this at the end of that meeting or are these documents being filled out in these canvases being filled out as the meetings going on?

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (20:16):
There are different ways of using that, but it’s true that I don’t start a project with a new team if I don’t do a very quick team alignment session, having both the Team Alignment Map and the team contract. We start there, we sit and the first question is already super difficult. Now what’s our mission. Why are we here together? Once these two posters are done, I know that we have reached a better level of alignment, and then we can start using other approaches. But I use that to give this initial boost of clarity in the beginning. Then this is one way of using it. Another way, you decide when the idea is that it’s useful each time you need calibration. If we need, sometimes I use them to reboot a challenge project.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (21:10):
You can clearly see that. I don’t know. I have an example that comes to my mind, huge project that had been started. It was the implementation of an ERP, very wide implementation. They’ve been going two years. They almost lost the two thirds of their budget and they deliver 10% of the functionalities and you entered the room and I was asked to help. First thing I did, I asked a few people, what’s the mission of that project. I got 10 different answers. Then I thought, okay, that project needs a reboot in terms of alignment. I used it in the middle. The book presents all sorts of scenarios of how to use this tool concretely.

Sean Ammirati (21:56):
Perfect. Okay. Again, I encourage you guys to pick up the book. Let’s just quickly go through the last three. The next one is the fact-finder?

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (22:05):
Yes. The fact finder. I wish I had that tool many more years ago, but this is probably the one tool I use the most every day. And it helps us good questions. That’s it. It’s built on a Non-N L P engine neuro-linguistic programming engine. Basically what I’ve known is tried to simplify that to an extreme. The idea is simple. What is a good question? A good question is a question that bring us in our conversation back to the concrete facts that we can both relate. Why is it important that we have some mechanisms that brings us back to the facts? Because our sense-making process is pushing us all the time in weird directions. Based on a fact, you and me we’ll see someone coming later to meeting, I might enter into a judgment of what’s happening, or you might enter into a generalization. He is always coming late. Okay. I believe the powerful thing that I was able to integrate from NLP is that there are five common traps in which we all enter spontaneously because of our sense-making mechanism and these traps are assumptions, generalizations, judgments, also limitations.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (23:40):
Now I can’t. Also, there is the last trap, by trap, I mean communication trap, is incomplete facts when we report things that miss key information. The fact finder is not a poster, this is a card you put in your pocket that if you’re able to identify in a conversation with another person, one of these traps, you just ask simply one of the questions listed below, and it brings the conversation back on the right track. Example, no, we don’t work like that in our company, it’s not in our DNA. It’s impossible. We don’t do that. This is what is described as a limitation in the fact finder. So instead of arguing, why not just ask, what’s preventing us from trying? Or you can ask, what might happen if we did? Okay. It’s very diplomatic. That was the example for limitation. By the way, the definition of a limitation as we provided on the tool is imaginary restrictions and obligations. It’s fun to practice. I practice this tool everyday, asking good question. Maybe you want to move on to another tool or-

Sean Ammirati (24:58):
Well, I think there’s a lot of power in that because I think the right questions are often more important than anything else. That’s awesome. I think the last two tools are both around respect. So you have your respect card and you have your year none violent request cards. Maybe hit both of those quickly and then we can talk about few other things before we wrap this up.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (25:20):
Okay, with pleasure. All of us who work in delivery teams, we know that when the train is around full speed, emotions can run high, a lot of pressure in there and that’s okay. I mean, we’re humans and cooperation and conflict are part of business of everyday life. But the things become problematic in terms of when emotions are in hive. If we become somehow destructive in our relationships, you want to preserve that, and you want to not ignore conflict, but transform conflict into something constructive because it’s a source of ideas and creativity also. The idea there is I was not literate in how to transform conflict into something constructive. I took some time looking at some various disciplines on how to improve that. One is so basic, it’s called the respect card. This is a very simple checklist.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (26:28):
There are little attentions that have a huge impact. If people worked late in the night, the next day, just say, thank you. It doesn’t cost a lot, but the impact on the team is so important. One of the complaints I hear the most is like, there was a lack of recognition in the air. We worked so hard. What is recognition? What are the different ways of expressing it? I looked deeply into a field of linguistics called politeness theory, to create that simple checklist that you put in your pocket, and that gives you ideas on how to express that. So no huge ambition, but just like lubricate of everyday relationships, that’s the respect card.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (27:21):
Now, the other one, the last tool of the book is called the non-violent request guide. That is something when emotions run really high. I had to find a way to express my disagreement in a nondestructive way, in a non-judgemental way. There was this amazing body of knowledge of nonviolent communication from Marshall Rosenberg. By the way, if you Google that chances are that you will find the articles and blog posts about Satya Nadella, because one of the first thing he did when he wanted to turn Microsoft toxic culture around was offer the nonviolent communication book to his close colleagues. He attributes a lot of the cultural transformation of Microsoft to that way of dealing with conflict. Concretely how does it work? Well, the idea is that when I disagree, if I can express my disagreement in a nonjudgmental way, actually even in an empathetic way so that the other person can understand my position without feeling accused, then the other person does the same then we are opening a reparation space.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (28:44):
The nonviolent request guide is a template that helps you prepare for this conversation. The idea is simple, you have to build a sentence. When you fill in the observation, do something when you come arrive late, or when you do not deliver things on time, or when you do not respect other, whatever. Then you continue, I feel something and I learn about you, but it took me some time to learn how to describe my feelings, so to facilitate that I provided a huge list of feelings on the left, so that it’s easier to build that sentence. I mean, we can be more than just sad, happy, disgusted. There are about like 50 of them. Then once you’ve expressed your feeling, then you express the need you have and also the tool provides a list of needs and then you conclude with a request to the other person.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (29:45):
If I find a quick example, I have a whole series of examples presented in the book. “You’re always late. I can’t count on you.” Let’s say If you say yeah that is an attack to the other person. Now, what if I tell you, when you do tell me at the last minute that your work is not ready, I feel furious. You can express strong emotions. My need is to respect the deadlines we’ve committed to. Would you please inform me advance in case of problem, that is a world of difference. Now, if you work with an innovation team, a lot of uncertainty for deadlines that helps it’s a protocol for transforming negative energy, which is still energy into some more positive energy.

Sean Ammirati (30:37):
Yep. This is great. These are the five tools, and if people want to really dig into this deeply, they can get your book to dive into that further. Where can you find the book?

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (30:49):
The book is available in all major online bookstores

Sean Ammirati (30:52):
You just started shipping out. [crosstalk 00:30:57] couple of within the last few days. It’s called High Impact Tools for Teams. So I encourage you guys to check that out. Maybe just as a fun way to wrap this up Stefano, I thought it would be interesting to think back to another type of group who listens to Agile Giants a lot, which is people who are leaders of leaders of teams. So we have a lot of folks who are chief innovation officers or vice-presidents of innovation, and they don’t just have one team working for them. They have a team who report to them who each have their own teams. If you were going to encourage them to do one thing, based on what you’ve observed around high-impact teams and how to create a culture of high impact teams, what might you encourage them to do?

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (31:39):
I would encourage them to also believe in organic alignment. What do I mean by that? Staying closely aligned, seek evidence like aha, yes, nodding, validating the fact that my close managers or leaders we are on the same page and then ask them to replicate that with their own teams and so on. Working in large corporate environments, the beautiful projects in which I was involved, succeeded. I have failed also but if I look at the successful ones, they came out of this constant search for mutual clarity and keeping everyone on the same page. I mean, the team is large and you have like, I don’t know, 80 teams and you’re total of 400, you can’t go one-on-one with everyone.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (32:42):
It’s like these circles of alignment and keep that constant. The direct consequence of that constant alignment is a lot less execution problems. It’s not been measured at a project level or a program level, but it’s been measured at the task level, staying closely aligned, discussing, making sure we understand each other makes to take people contributing teams up to 14 times faster and more efficiently. This is an experiment that is very easy to replicate. I do that in my trainings. What’s the cost of it just like pick up the phone, do prepare for that meeting, but I would insist really on that mutual clarity, staying on the same page.

Sean Ammirati (33:34):
Awesome. Then I thought as a fun one to end on, we often ask for career advice and things like that, but I thought a fun one to end on with you as you were personally mentored by David Gray, who started Skellig. I’m sure his influence on your career is huge significant, right? If you were to just boil it down to like one thing, though, that you learned from Dave gray, that you might encourage others to apply to their career, what might that be?

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (34:02):
Draw and put it on the wall, make it visible,

Sean Ammirati (34:04):
Make it visible [inaudible 00:34:06]

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (34:05):
Make it visible. Don’t keep it in your head, put it out there for the others to see. This is one of the learnings being learnings with Dave gray. There has been immense inspiration all these years. Again when something becomes visible, talk is a vanish cent. It disappears after a while, so then it depends on what you remember. Whereas if you start drawing and putting things visually all of a sudden it gives a lot more options and possibilities for others to react and boost that mutual understanding. Yeah. Make it visible. This is one of the great learnings I have from the Dave Gray.

Sean Ammirati (34:50):
That’s awesome. All right. Well, Stefano, I really appreciate you joining us today. Again, if you guys have not gotten it yet, please go out and get his book. I am sure. Given the number of questions we get around how to manage my teams, how to optimize my teams. I’m sure there’s a lot of practical takeaways for you and the book. Thanks so much Stefano.

Stefano Mastrogiacomo (35:10):
Thank you at all.

Sean Ammirati (35:16):
I hope you enjoyed this episode of Agile Giants. If so, consider sharing it with a friend and if you think it’s worth five stars, which I hope you do, please go to iTunes and rate it so that others can find this content as well.

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