Chapter 6

Conversation Cards

How do we turn theory into action, talk into practice? Adapted from Hyper Island team development sessions, here I introduce a prototype of conversation cards that can be used for better learning behaviors and greater psychological safety.
A Matter of Conversation
Psychological safety and its tenets of learning behavior are built from having the right conversations as a team. Similarly, many of the industry leaders I interviewed use questions to guide team members toward participation, but with mixed results. When questions are too open, i.e. "what do you think?" team members may respond passively. Specific questions are more effective, because they limit choices and aim toward the essence of a problem. Drawing from our academic insights, here's what we know about conversations.

- Team members need to have the right conversations.
- Team members need to have conversations with everyone sharing.
- Teams members should talk and listen as equally as possible.

These insights drew me to reflect on my experiences at Hyper Island, where our frequent reflection sessions consisted of three simple but specific questions.

  1. What happened that affected your the most?
  2. What did you learn about yourself & others?
  3. What would you do differently?

At Hyper Island, these three questions based on the reflection-on-action model became of the foundation for our creative work. The deeper, more specific, more truthful we shared our answers with the team, the stronger we became as a unit. I believe they are simple questions that when taken seriously, will induce psychological safety. Nonetheless, without the cultural context of Hyper, they seem difficult to adapt for other creative teams. As we learned from the conditions of effective teamwork, having a clear Structure & Design is important. The lack of temporal markers or structure make them hard questions for a leader who wants to try new methods. My goal is to give muscle to these questions, so they can stand on their own and exist as a "mini-cultural" experience.

Rethinking the Project
I'm interested in the life of a task, or what creatives deal with constantly — projects. According to the Project Management Institute, a project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result (2016). The project is interesting to look at as an entity because it is ubiquitous in creative work teams. It is also ripe for change to integrate psychological safety through conversations. So how can we apply it? Let's examine the structure of a project. A project is typically viewed in a linear fashion. We see it visually on Ghantt charts or timelines, with various deliverables hurdling toward the end. It is essentially a line with a beginning and end and milestones in between.

The project, usually thought of in linear fashion, with beginning and end.
Project as Triangle
The problem with this visual mental model is often teams only see the space between the beginning and end. Unfortunately, this means the beginning and end are frequently overlooked as opportunities for team development. Both ends tend become responsibilities of the leader, and this was evident from my interviews in China. Team leaders take on briefing, debriefing, laying out the timeline, resources and purpose of the project. Many try to include team members in the briefing process, but this depend largely on the number of people and client expectations. They also often conclude project reports individually, if at all. Most of the conversations with the team at either point are task-driven without teamwork-driven discussion. I propose visualizing a project as a triangle instead, with three points — the beginning, middle and end — as opportunities for conversations. In this triangle visual, all three points are equally important milestones. Integrating the experiential learning cycle, it also encourages the team to understand a project as a learning experience, so that it is a continuous loop instead of a 100-meter sprint.
Project as a triangle, with the beginning, middle, and end in loop.
The Three Points
So why three points? In Chapter 2 Teamwork, J. Richard Hackman notes that coaching in a team process is effective "especially at the beginning, midpoint, and end of a team project" (2002). Building from his numerous work on teamwork and coaching, Hackman extracted these three temporary markers as having "Specifically, (a) motivational coaching is most helpful when provided at the beginning of a performance period, (b) consultative coaching is most helpful when provided at the midpoint of a performance period, and (c) educational coaching is most helpful when provided after performance (2005)." Hyper Island and other design consultancies use similar check points for check-ins with the team.

To this purpose, I've adapted reflective questions used in Hyper Island specific to the three temporal markers into usable cards addressing the beginning, midpoint, and end a project. An additional set of cards are used interspersedly in the beginning of team meetings, casual conversations, group outings and more. The conversation cards distribute authority by asking every team member to reflect on and share their thoughts instead of having an authority figure pose the question.

Questions use the reflective-learning and feedback models from Hyper Island as a foundation. Borrowing roleplaying gaming terminology, which Chinese creatives should be familiar with, the questions are divided by HP (health point) questions and MP (magic point) questions. HP questions are essential questions that must be answered during the project once at the beginning (orange), midpoint (green) and end (red). MP questions are not required, but answering them at any point of project will make the team more "powerful." These questions are focused on understanding each team member's background, values, and motivations. They are designated blue cards.
- What are your expectations for this project?
- Define 3 helpful vs. 3 hindering behaviors for this project team.
- What do you want to learn through this project?
- How can the team support you in this process?

- What affected you the most in the project so far?
- What did you learn about yourself and the team?
- How can the team better support you?
- Dear _________, One thing I appreciate about you is _______, one thing I want to see more from you is _________, signed ________

- What affected you the most in this project?
- What did you learn about yourself and the team?
- What would you do differently?
- Dear _________, Start _______, Stop ________, Continue __________, signed _______
- What are 3 things that shape who you are today?
- What's the best thing that happened to you this week, this month, this year?
- Where do you think you'll be in five years? What about your teammates?
- How many cities have you lived in, and which one was your favorite?
- Name 3 things you are good at.
- If you had unlimited budget for this project, what would you do?
- What would this project be like without you?
- Use 1 word to describe this team.
- What affected you the most about the last project your worked on?
- What did you like about it?
- What could have been better?
- Are you comfortable with your role?
- What's the hardest thing about being on a team?
- Who are 3 people that has influenced your craft.
Visual Culture Wall
A key feature for the for the conversation cards is that they are not used as flashcards. Drawing from MethodKit cards, they are workshop cards where team members can use write down keywords around each question. The artifact in the end becomes "visual wall" that is both a journey and culture map for the team, and a physical reminder of the progress they've made.
Mock up of a Culture
Wall from conversation
How to Play
Adapted from Hyper Island team development sessions and learning behavior models that increase psychological safety — what researchers have shown to be one of the most important conditions for effective teamwork, Better Teamwork Cards start the right conversations for your team at the beginning, midpoint, and end of your project.

Find a vertical surface — a wall, a whiteboard that can be used for the duration of the project. For every question the team answers together, put up the card and learnings in keywords around it. This becomes your culture wall.

HP questions (cards in orange, green, and red) are questions you must answer in three separate sessions in the beginning, midpoint, end of a project.

MP questions (cards in blue) are optional questions the team should answer informally (beginning of a meeting, at the coffee shop, when you're stuck) to become a stronger team.

For the HP questions, take your time, find a quiet corner, get your journal, and write down your thoughts. Team members should be allowed 10-15 for reflection questions, and time for feedback questions depending on team size (no more than a group of six at best). Finally, find keywords to put on your post its for sharing and to put on the culture wall.

For the MP questions, be easy on time and do the same for keywords.

Sharing is an essential part of team "discussions." Be aware of the following:
  1. Understand this is a confidential space
  2. Keep it in the "I." This is not a place for judgement.
  3. Share with the group one by one, make sure everyone get a turn to speak.
Better Teamwork cards are available fore download below. Because creating a climate of openness is so crucial for their usage, in its current iteration, it is recommended to be used only by experience leaders, coaches and facilitators with a deep understanding of teamwork and culture. They should be treated as companion tools to an introduction of what effective teamwork and culture is. Such is my endeavor in the next chapter.

Download Cards

Hackman, J. R. & Wageman, R. (2005). A Theory of Team Coaching. Academy of Management Review 30 (2): 269–287.

Project Management Institute. (2016) [Online] [Accessed 02 Mar 2016]
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