For me, there are few joys in life as satisfying as being part of a team of people that have each other’s back, support one another and have a common, shared purpose. Whether that team is made up of family, co-workers or passionate strangers working to combat <fill in your political passion>, collaborating, building, learning and experimenting with like-minded people gets my juices flowing.

But not all teams have the same level of effectiveness. Thanks to the Google research on Project Aristotle, we know that psychological safety is critical when it comes to creating and sustaining effective teams. People need an environment where they are free to take risks, encouraged to speak their mind and not ridiculed for asking what may appear to be a stupid question. In my experience, creating this kind of environment comes in large part from trust within the team. To build trust, you can host a team happy hour, or participate in team exercises like axe throwing and trust falls. When people start to let their guard down and open up a bit more, I believe that it accelerates team and trust building. Here are some innovative techniques I have used.

Personal Maps

Jurgen Appelo’s Personal Maps are very simple, yet powerful. The map starts with your name in the middle and branches off to what is important to you. The categories are items such as Family, Work, Education and Hobbies. These main categories continue to branch out throughout the Personal Map. For example —Work might branch off to the various jobs you’ve had, and those might branch off to related skills or career growth.

When I’ve used Personal Maps, we’ve either taken a few days to create them (“Let’s have this done for our Thursday meeting”), or we might take fifteen minutes in the beginning of a meeting to create them. Then, individuals will present theirs to the team, who follow up with questions to learn more about each other.

Even with extremely close teams, Personal Maps help to learn new things about each other. Personal Maps are a simple, fun way to get to know each other at a deeper level.

Journey Lines

I was exposed to Journey Lines years ago by a mentor, Jeff Steinberg, and found it to be very effective and have used it with many teams. With Journey Lines, you create a timeline across the bottom of the page and add an additional parallel line half-way up the page.

Next you identify different events on your timeline. Events are often work related, but I like to include personal events as well in order to build deeper relationships. Events like marriage, a new baby, a cancer diagnosis or the death of a loved one would be common. Starting from left to right you chronologically identify the events along the timeline. Place positive experiences above the horizontal line and negative experiences below. Label them and connect all the lines.

When doing Journey Lines, we might take a few days to create them or simply provide time in the beginning of the meeting. When everyone has theirs ready, team members walk through their Journey Lines and a discussion ensues. You will surely learn something new about your teammates, and it will be fun and engaging.

For both Personal Maps and Journey Lines, I would encourage teams to hang them up in the team pods or areas where the teams meet. A few teams I worked with hung them up where they met for the Daily Scrum and when people would arrive early, they would look them over and start up new conversations. I’d also recommend that when new people join the team, they create an artifact and share with the team. And it probably wouldn’t hurt if the team shared theirs with their new teammate.

If You Really Knew Me…

Recently, at the Agile Coach Camp in Washington D.C., I attended a session with Olaf Lewitz and Josh Magro that used an exercise that is part of Josh’s P3 workshop. In small groups, we sat in a circle and went around one-by-one finishing a series of statements.

The statements started at a high level, beginning with something along the lines of, “If you really knew me, you’d know that ______”, and each person recited the statement and filled in the blank with their choice of words. This allowed people to respond with a level of candidness with which they felt safe. I considered saying something about my love of tacos but opted for a deeper level and mentioned being an ambivert.

After each individual completed the first statement, a new fill in the blank statement was offered. Each new statement took the responses to a deeper level.  I don’t recall the specific statements, but the progression was something like…

  • If you really knew me, you’d know that ______
  • As a child, what I really needed was ______
  • The part of me that I miss most is ______
  • When I really open up, ______
  • What I really struggle with is ______
  • What I fear you will see is ______

It became emotional  pretty quickly and was interesting to see how far people let you inside some private areas of their life. In the debrief, it was brought up that it almost became a challenge to “out-vulnerable” the previous person. It was a great exercise to build bonds between people. I have never tried this with a team, but from my brief experience, I imagine this would be an excellent exercise to bring people closer together as long as trust and safety is incorporated from the beginning.

I have truly enjoyed incorporating these three team building exercises to build trust and form bonds. Which exercises have you found most effective for building personal bonds within your team?