Teamwork tip 3: Escape the road to hell by looking at intentions

This is the third article in a series of teamwork tips & tricks. The first tip was about aligning the things you do with the things you want. In the second article I discussed work-life balance. This article is about looking beyond other people’s actions and working with their intent.

I once worked in a team where one of the team members would regularly skip team meetings. And if she attended, she’d only be there for half the time. It felt like she was unmotivated to contribute. At times it even felt like sabotage. The strange thing was that I knew that person as a hard-working and honest. So I decided to investigate and have a chat. It turned out her honest intention was to save the company money by focussing on work she felt was more valuable. Her actions seemed like sabotage on the surface but her intention was to be more productive.

Investigating the intent

What helped in this situation is carefully making the distinction between actions and intentions. Aligning your actions with the things you want to achieve is just as hard for other people as it is for you – see teamwork tip 1. And it gets worse: misreading other people’s intentions might upset you and lead to conflict.

For instance, imagine someone makes a sneer at you. You can let it hurt you. And then you can hit back with something even nastier. You could also investigate the intent. Try to investigate it calmly. Usually there’s an unmet need behind a sneer. The sneering person has probably failed to ask nicely. Try asking ‘What is it you need?’ or ‘What did you want to tell with that remark?’ Avoid asking ‘Why?’. It can be very judging and escalate a conflict.

In the book ‘Effect’, the authors call this the law of heterogeneous substances. Action and intention seems one and the same – in other words: homogenous – but really aren’t. Upon closer investigation however, they are heterogenous. They are made up of different things.

Escaping the road to hell

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I once – naively – believed that if only I was honest and intended well, people would appreciate everything I did. I learned through frustration, conflict and disappointment that this was not the case.

Three strategies will help you get off that road to hell.

  1. Empathize: before you act, try to imagine what impact your action will have on the other.
  2. Communicate: Explain why you are doing things while you are doing them.
  3. Be patient: You can generally assume other people will make no distinction between your actions and intentions. They could react in unexpected ways.

Reputation en relationship

When other people guess at the intentions behind your actions, your reputation is a big factor. And your actions and words make up your reputation. Seeing intent and communicating your intent will improve your reputation. This will in turn ensure that people guess wrong less often.

The same goes more or less for relationships: great relationships are built on shared values and intentions. Building solid relationships will give you the benefit of the doubt when people guess at your intentions.


You will be a better team player if you see the distinction between actions and intentions. This goes both for your actions and the actions of others. And there’s more good news: great relationships and a good reputation will cut you some slack. Now go be a nice team player and share this article!

Effective Teamwork part 2: balance needs and shoulds

This is the second article in my series about teamwork. It is about work/life balance. Ever wondered how you can be part of a high performing team without burning out? Read on!

Long term and short term

There are a lot of things in life that I’d love to do, but don’t. Some examples: just staying in bed when I have to work, eating that whole bag of crisps, binge-watching a Netflix series, just staring out of the window,… These are short term urges and they will get me in trouble in the long run.

These urges come from the proverbial belly. The belly points us in the direction of our needs. Luckily there’s also a proverbial head to keep the belly in check. The head steers us towards the shoulds.

In every team people have stuff they should do for the team, and the stuff they just need to do from time to time. It’s a fact of life. But how can you balance the two while keeping productivity up?

The rebelling belly

When you’re born, you’re all belly. As you grow up you gradually learn social behavior. You get better at planning and long term goals. Your head kicks into action.

The belly does not go away however — and that’s a good thing. The belly stays to remind the head of your bodily needs. It even keeps tabs and can intervene at inconvenient times if you ignore it for too long. The belly rebels against overexertion.

Why is all belly and head stuff so important for teamwork? In the teams I coach, people are using their heads most of the time. They are expected to! This means they tend to ignore their proverbial belly.

Ignoring the belly is a dangerous thing, because having too many unmet needs can make people cranky, stressed or depressed. None of that is good for teamwork. Conclusion? We humans need to balance the head and the belly.

The art of balancing head and belly

“Balance? That’s boring,” you might say: “In our team it’s rock and roll! Stretching limits!” I have discovered however, that balance can be very dynamic and slippery. Take any YouTube video of an extreme sports athlete: their art is extreme dynamic balance!

So, for teamwork work/life balance means:

  • Creating some room for needs between all of the shoulds.
  • Getting off your butt and start doing something when you’re ready.
  • Making time to unwind when you feel pressured.
  • Getting some proper alone-time when you’ve been talking a lot.

Where’s the threshold? It depends. I try to be mindful of my focus: when my productivity drops I take a break. It’s not hard to notice a productivity drop, but it’s hard to act on it. At first this felt counterintuitive. I used to think that the best remedy for lowered productivity was just working harder or drinking more coffee. Taking a break however, rests the mind. The rest usually brings insight in why the productivity dropped in the first place.

Meditate for 15 minutes per day. If you don’t have 15 minutes, meditate for an hour.

Zen saying

Taking true breaks

There are fake breaks and true breaks. A fake break is just doing something else with your proverbial head: checking your email, checking social media or playing a computer game. This kind of activity doesn’t give the mind any break.

A true break is just doing nothing with the head. Activities that work well for me are:

  • Talking a walk
  • Chatting over a cup of coffee
  • Going to the toilet without smartphone
  • Peeling an orange
  • Mindfully drinking coffee or tea

I try to avoid mindlessly drinking coffee at my desk. I try to make coffee into a true break. Coffe can be something social or something mindful.


Productivity and rest, the individual and the team, the needs and the shoulds: they are all deeply intertwined and need to be balanced continuously.

Does this mean that the team should work less? Should you set your ambitions lower? Not at all! You need to work better. Working your butt off is important to achieve great goals. However, you can only really work your butt off if you carefully tune the balance between belly and head.

About this series of articles

This article is part of series of articles about team work. Together they form a summary of the book summary of ‘Effect’. It’s a book full of from a team of ice skating champions. In the previous article I wrote about how the things you do are often contrary to the effect you desire.

My next article in this series will be about investigating the intent behind other people’s actions and how that helps to create better teams! Are their bellies or heads speaking? Subscribe here and don’t miss the next piece.

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8 teamwork insights from an ice skating champion – summary of the book ‘Effect’

‘Effect’ is a book about effective teamwork. The title refers to the strange fact that your conscious actions don’t always have the effect you desire on other people. The book is written by ice skater J.O. Koss and psychologist B.M. Ihlen. They wrote down their team coaching insights after winning several olympic gold medals.

Their book was originally intended as a sports coaching manual. The ideas in the book however, are relevant for any team. Here’s the first part of my book summary. I summarized the book in eight insights for effective teamwork.

Insight 1: our actions don’t always get us the effect we want

Let’s start with a story to illustrate the basic idea. It’s a fictional story, yet it’s true to life. It’s the story of John. John works as a researcher in an R&D team. John is participating in a team building training. At some point during the training, the trainers ask the participants a very personal question. How much do they like working in their current team? John readily admits he doesn’t like his job, nor his team. He complains that his achievements always go unnoticed. There’s usually no one to help when he’s in trouble. And, most of all, he wishes for more support and recognition from his teammates.

His case is thoroughly investigated during the course. The trainers keep asking him questions about the case. John is visibly exhausted and becomes a little annoyed by all the attention. Then, at some point, another student interjects: “Well, John, the trainers are giving you a hard time. Why don’t we take a break?” John stays tough and replies: “Nah. People who come to a training like this should be able to handle this.”

It’s hard to do teamwork with a team of Johns

Think of the effect of John’s statement. Does it encourage John’s fellow students to give him the support and recognition he craves? Is John fostering effective teamwork with his fellow students? What would have brought him closer to his desired support? I bet you can think of three other things John could have said! His teammates are eager to help, but they probably don’t know how. Making sure teammates understand each other’s needs leads to more effective teamwork.

Be mindful of your intent

In retrospect it’s easy to point out mistakes. It’s not that easy to spot them just before you open your mouth. What helps me is being mindful of my intentions and needs. If you do this, you’re more likely to spot mismatches between action and desired effect. For me two very concrete activities help:

  • Listening to body language and spoken language alike. If something doesn’t feel right, investigate right away.
  • Keeping a diary. It’s great for keeping track of the things you truly want. They’ll be more top of mind. It’s also great for learning from mismatch mistakes.

What’s your most successful strategy to get the things you want? How do you get along and do effective teamwork? Share it in the comment section!

Team coaching with more Effect

When coaching a team I try to be mindful of other people’s mismatches. When I see friction, I quickly try to make the mismatch explicit with direct evidence. After the friction is resolved, it’s a great moment to discuss this insight with the whole team. This way more than just two people can learn and the team can quickly become more effective.

For brevity I’m splitting the summary in 8 separate articles. In the next article I discuss balancing your needs and shoulds. Be sure to share this article with whomever could benefit from it!

Choosing by Advantages in 6 steps

I have seen many decision making methods. Of all of them, the Choosing By Advantages method by Jim Suhr stood out as the most effective and rational. Here’s a step by step guide.

Choosing by Advantages (CBA) is a decision-making system that acknowledges all decisions are subjective. It guides users however to collect, prioritize and compare facts before choosing.

Jim Suhr, the creator of Choosing by Advantages: “First, we teach people how to use correct data. Second, we teach them how to use data correctly.”

The basic idea of Choosing by Advantages

The basic idea is to look at differences between alternatives instead of weighing criteria. Classic choice methods use ‘positives’ and ‘negatives’. Every positive is a negative however, depending on the anchor you choose. CBA therefore advises to use clear anchors and compare the advantage of a difference.

CBA redefines some terms in decision making in a more precise way. Before I can explain Choosing by Advantages, we first need to be clear on those definitions.

  • Alternatives: Things, plans or ideas from which you will be choosing one.
  • Attributes: A property or consequence of an alternative. For instance: color, weight, estimated ROI, carbon footprint,…
  • Advantage: The difference between the attributes of two alternatives. One of them is the anchor – usually the best alternative.
  • Factor: An attribute that is important to the decision. You don’t factor in every attribute to a decision. That would be messy.
  • Criterion: A filter to select alternatives that meet minimum requirements. Not used when comparing alternatives.

Example of Choosing by Advantages: my family’s summer holiday

Let’s look at an example here: choosing where to go on holiday with the family. We have to make a selection out of a couple of alternatives – considering my family doesn’t want to stay at home. The point here is that Choosing by Advantages facilitates the discussion with me and my stakeholders – that is: the rest of the family.

I kept the example relatively simple in order to be able to explain the method. The complete method has some extra bells and whistles to deal special cases.

Step 1: Select Alternatives

We have several criteria for the trip. The criteria we have for a holiday are:

  • Wide open nature
  • Different staying locations
  • Some city trips
  • Reasonably accessible for families

So no extreme mountain climbing. We came up with two trips that satisfied our criteria: a canoe trip in Sweden or a tour of the national parks in the north west of the USA. After the selection of the alternatives, the criteria are not helping us any further — they don’t make any difference anymore. So we move on.

Step 2: Decide on the factors

The next step is to select the deciding attributes of the trips – the factors. As factors my stakeholders and I considered:

  • The number of unique natural wonders (like geysers, canyons and sequoia’s)
  • The number of interesting cities on the trip
  • The carbon footprint of the holiday
  • Swimming possibilities
  • The probability of there being great food to taste
Alternatives and the factors for comparison

Step 3: Gather data for attributes

The gathering of data can be math and research, like the calculation of the carbon footprint. However, it can also lead to interesting discussions between the stakeholders and a fruitful exchange of views. Take, for example, the Unique Natural Wonders. What counts as one? What doesn’t? We decided the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Geyser and Sequoia’s counted, but lakes didn’t.

Overview of relevant attributes (data) in each factor

When all data have been found and decided on, it helps to underline the least preferable attributes. More isn’t always better!

Step 4: Calculate advantages

Now CBA starts to shine: we’re going to look at the differences between the alternatives. When they are numbers it’s simply a matter of calculation. When they are statements, it can be another comparative statement.

Advantages in each deciding factor

Step 5: Value advantages

We’re almost there. Now starts the difficult task of comparing the value of all advantages with each other. For this we start with the most important advantage and rate it 100. Next we discuss the comparative value of the advantages with the kids – our little stakeholders. They decided for instance that seeing one natural wonder was comparable to swimming and playing in the water for week.

Advantages scored for relative value

After my family and I decided on the relative value of each advantage we could simply add up the scores.

Step 6: Decide with the budget in mind

The trip to Sweden is the clear winner here. But what about the money? Doesn’t cost of an alternative matter? My family doesn’t have a limitless holiday budget. Price however, is a special factor. That’s because money, like time, carries an opportunity cost. I can spend my time and money only once.

CBA choice table fully filled out
Completed CBA choice table with cost

The trip to Sweden is not only the most advantageous, it weigh less on my budget too. Even if the US trip would have won, the price difference here means that it would not allow us to go skiing next winter. The whole holiday budget would be taken up. That would have led to another interesting discussion with my stakeholders: are these great US national parks also worth skipping a skiing holiday? I guess not.

Anyway, our choice is clear: we’re going to Sweden!

Video explainer of CBA

Here’s a reasonable video explainer, although it’s a little slow.

Ideas from Peopleware

In 1999 Tome Demarco en Timothy Lister published their second edition of ‘Peopleware’. Their insight is that software development projects fail not because of technology, but because of communication. Yet what managers do is manage technology, not the communication in the team.

Why? Technology, stuff, procedures, and such are tangible, orderly and easy to influence. When comes to communication the problem becomes hairy, impossible to analyze (because analysis changes the situation) and chaotic. Hence the title of the book: peopleware, as opposed to software.

Good analysis, dated suggestions

I really like their basic insight, though many of the “solutions” they suggest are a bit dated or not well researched. For instance they suggest switching to email for all communications, because it doesn’t interrupt your work. In the meantime everybody knows email leads to a lot of misunderstanding. And with the blackberries and outlook tray icons email too is interrupting your flow. Some ideas, though, I found really valuable.

Noisy, windowless workplaces are a waste of salaries

About a third of the book is a crusade against noise. Open space is the worst for productivity. People need quiet to do thinking work productively, and a window. The symptoms are that people work late “in the quiet hours”, book meeting rooms or just call in sick to get important work done. From my own experience I really recognize the loss in productivity. My philosophy was already not to give precedence to the phone when I’m talking to somebody live, but now I also reduced the number of rings of my phone to 1. And I require of my people that they turn outlook off during the four hours of the morning.

Productive hours vs. hours of bodily presence

We all have experienced a state of flow: deep productive concentration where time seems to fly. It takes at least 15 minutes to get into. So the real productive hours are the uninterrupted hours. It is amazing how little really productive hours we have if you start looking at it like that.

Give high performers what they want

Some people don’t want more money for their performance, but just the means to perform even better. They are highly intrinsically motivated and should be supported in that. The book tells of a company that sponsored a complete home office at the request of a high performing employee. That made me think. I now put much more effort in providing the high performing people reporting to me with the tools they ask for. I don’t care if it’s company policy, or “what would happen if everybody started to ask for that” – an often heard objection.

Music makes you perform better on focused tasks but makes you miss out on the big things.

A nice experiment with two groups of programmers. They were asked to write some number manipulation algorithm. Groups working with and without music both completed the algorithms within about the same time and with the same performance. But only the group without music noticed that the net result of all the manipulations was the same is the input! To this I also can ascribe. When I do production, stuff I know from experience I put up music. When I need to think wider, shift paradigms and integrate a lot of ideas I need absolute quiet.

Let people move in the office

There is a lot to say in favor of letting people choose their place in the office. They can collocate with the people +they+ feel they need to work most with. It creates real short communication lines. But the extreme version of that, flexible offices, where nobody has a fixed desk but only some drawers on wheels doesn’t work either. Here you have no place to ground, to install yourself, feel at home and get stuff done.

Change and creativity is born out of chaos

Now that is an obvious one. But the insight here is to see brainstorms, pilot projects, war games, trips, conferences celebrations, retreats, training experiences is injections of chaos, as breaking out of the ordinary.


The authors frown on bureaucratic procedures and the high disregard of human capital with high turnover rates or downsizing. And they touch on the subject of teams and communities as means of making work fun and productive.