Fluid teams: the way you'll work for the rest of your career

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June 05, 2014
Fluid teams: the way you'll work for the rest of your career.
thumbnailThis is not a management article. Well, it kind of is, but please leave your agile-lean-workplace-organization-human-resources backpack at the door. We’re here to talk about making things; making them really good with the help of others, and growing as creatives. I say this at the second re-write of this article, having slogged through academic reports, HR consultants’ white papers and the third and fourth pages of Google search results for the term, “fluid teams”. While the concept is increasingly appearing on slide presentations in the corporate world, it can almost be considered an ancient (but secret) tradition for freelancers and small studios. The reason for taking a closer look at this approach is that we are growing accustomed to our globally scattered (or “distributed”) networks of friends and colleagues, and to the hard fact that change will only continue to accelerate. Creating and maintaining this kind of flexibility is now a superpower.

What are Fluid Teams?

In a nutshell, fluid teams are groups that reshuffle regularly. These groups assemble and disintegrate with ease, depending on project requirements and goals. Deborah Mackin, founder of New Directions Consulting, may have been the first to use the term. In a 2008 article on her company blog, she defined fluid teams as, “experts from disparate functions and geographies who must get a temporary project or task up and running, sometimes with completely different priorities, beliefs and values.” In web design and in tech, we talk a lot about something similar: distributed teams. That is, professionals who don’t share a physical workspace, and who partner remotely. The idea of fluid teams is related, except that very often, our distributed teams are only a team for the duration of the project. Some teams refer to each other as partners or peers, no matter who is managing the project. Others have a distinct hierarchy, and clearly delineated roles. But for the most part, small enterprises can afford to be wary of terms and titles. They can afford to keep their team-building, team-making strategies organic, without the need or the desire to put a name on them. One of the downsides, of course, is that the process can be so transparent, the team itself doesn’t know it’s there.

Why we don’t see it

For freelancers and small studios, team building isn’t a formal process. Our focus is rightly on the results, and the team is what happens when we call in reinforcements to help us assemble the ideal skillset. We do it routinely. When a client hands us a project, instead of telling them, “We’ll assemble a team of trusted colleagues to make this project go,” we simply say, “Yes, of course we can do that.” Experience has shown us that many clients balk at the idea of a temporary team, assembled on the fly. Experience has also shown us that really, all they need to know is who they’ll be communicating with (in most cases that should be just one person) and that the project is in good hands. So we obscure the fact that our team is fluid, and instead present the impression of a static organization that has always been there, and that magically has all the skills and talents our client needs right now, today. Even if they suspect that’s how we’re doing things, they don’t really want to know they’re being served escargot in a pop-up shop. We can get so good at this, we even succeed at hiding the process from ourselves.

Why we should see it

Whether or not we tell the world, by understanding that our ability to create fluid teams is a superpower, we are adding to our arsenal of professional and service tools. Creating fluid teams is not a duct tape fix for an inadequate workforce: it’s an art. Fluid team building is a skill worth developing, and if attracting bigger, more challenging projects is one of your goals, it’s a real system to which you’ll want to give conscious attention. Perhaps ultimately, you see yourself in a bustling, light-filled design studio with a permanent, specialized crew of experts. Maybe your dream team is a top notch, but loose, association of fierce independents, forever fluid. Either way, it will benefit you to cultivate a conscious process for bringing together the talent you need, when you need it.

Think long term

Have you got a list of go-to people you prefer to work with? Have you kept up with them to see what new skills they’ve acquired and if they’re still open to projects? Have you let them know what’s changed and grown in your world? Are you building new alliances as the web and your relationships continue to evolve? Brian Casel has some recommended steps you can review in his article, “Building your web design all-star team.” Since this is an art, you may find you deeply, passionately disagree with some of his rules. Establish your own. Even if you’re outsourcing rather than subcontracting, you can still be thinking big and long term by reaching out, learning the names, the culture, even the languages, of the people you’re hiring. Your commitment to them will inspire their commitment, and you’ll get much better results. Commitment, by the way, also means making sure the people you work with feel valued, even when you don’t “need” them. Lunch, thank you notes, hello gifts and project referrals are a few of the gestures that build stronger, more sustainable professional relationships. If you’ve followed Casel’s advice to identify each team member’s “one thing”, and are not using that knowledge to pigeonhole a talented colleague, you’ve got the beginnings of a healthy, long term alliance. And Mackin’s reference in her definition of fluid teams to “…different priorities, beliefs and values,” is another excellent reminder. In the short term, differing priorities can be set aside by a group with professional attitudes. Over the long term, however, as you find yourself returning to the same programmer, SEO expert or copywriter, some time should be spent getting to know what’s really important to them.

Other challenges

Perhaps the biggest challenge of working in the fluid teams model is that it’s easy to lose sight of our personal goals. When we spend day after day adapting to change, we can forget why we chose our profession in the first place. We can forget the original dreams we started with. Granted, dreams change. We may find we no longer want to design highly creative band websites, and life is now all about a truly cross-cultural mobile app. The important thing is to stay in touch, no matter what we’re adapting to today, with the things that really matter to us.

A word about reciprocating

Because they subbed for you, are you obligated to sub for them? Because you shared a project with them, must they share their next project with you? Not everyone is able or willing to operate this way. You may bristle in a secondary role, or simply not have the time. Your favorite, most talented designer may hate selling, and be perfectly happy to remain on the list of a handful of companies, without ever attracting a shareable project of their own. For these reasons (and more), it’s best not to make reciprocation a requirement as you grow your network.

Changeable doesn’t mean disposable

While relationships begin and end for as many reasons as there are people, they can also grow. This gives rise to the kind of flexibility that fosters resilience: resilient teams that can expand and shrink and expand again; and also resilient careers that adapt to the changing websphere with creativity and grace. Professionals I talked to while researching this article have colleagues they’ve been working with for more than ten or 15 years. These are people with whom shared values have been strengthened, differing values are respected, and trust has been carefully cultivated over time. We’re creatives. We make things. We team up to make bigger things. With the still-expanding Internet and ever-better online collaboration tools, there has never been a better time to be our creative, resourceful and fluid selves. Featured image/thumbnail, teamwork image via Pecold / Shutterstock.com

Penina Finger

Penina Finger is passionate about design, real brand and community. She owns the Fantastic Machine design studio and is also a partner at H1Talent. Feel free to say hi, ask questions and debate ideas with her on Twitter @peninasharon.

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