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Stefano Mastrogiacomo: “Align and build trust before getting started, and keep aligning more frequently”

Align and build trust before getting started, and keep aligning more frequently. To work with remote teams, especially newly assembled teams of specialists (cross-functional teams), requires strong initial alignment. Poor alignment inevitably leads to execution problems and high effort for questionable results. High-Impact Tools for Teams presents two proven tools for that: the Team Alignment […]

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Align and build trust before getting started, and keep aligning more frequently. To work with remote teams, especially newly assembled teams of specialists (cross-functional teams), requires strong initial alignment. Poor alignment inevitably leads to execution problems and high effort for questionable results. High-Impact Tools for Teams presents two proven tools for that: the Team Alignment Map (to keep a high level of alignment between stakeholders) and the Team Contract (to agree on team behaviors and rules together).


We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stefano Mastrogiacomo, a project management professor, advisor and author. He has a passion for human coordination and is the designer of tools like the Team Alignment Map, the Team Contract, the Fact Finder, all presented in High-Impact Tools for Teams, co-written with Alex Osterwalder (Wiley, 2021, foreword by Amy Edmondson). He has been leading digital projects and advising project leaders and teams in international organizations for more than 20 years (PwC, Cartier, Doctors Without Borders, WEF, etc.). He has also been teaching and doing research at University of Lausanne and at the EHL (Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, HES- SO // University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland) before starting his collaboration with Strategyzer.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I grew up in two cultures opposite in many aspects: Italian and Swiss. To spend one day in Naples and one day in Zurich is enough to appreciate the differences. That made me a person who interprets and adapts to change quickly at work and at home. After studying economics, I completed a master’s in computer science at the University of Lausanne and joined Caterpillar as a collaborative apps developer. My digital journey had just begun. I started my PhD on remote teamwork when I was leading the digital team at Pictet, one of the largest Swiss banks. I was looking for new ways to improve the delivery of my own projects working with global teams. In my attempt to grasp the magic of remote human coordination, I found mind-blowing answers in social sciences like psycholinguistics, evolutionary anthropology and social psychology. For example, I discovered the impact of effective communication on team efficiency and of trust on complex problem-solving. I realized that the project methods I was practicing had mostly engineering roots that could greatly benefit from the integration of more human requirements at their core. Since then, I use design thinking approaches to push more human aspects at the center of teamwork tools and methods.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Probably the power of a good question, as compared to a long explanation. We had been working for months to launch a strategic project, the report was a hundred pages long. At the go/no go decision meeting the CEO asked us: “How do I know you haven’t forgotten anything?” I responded: “Could you give me one example?” He looked at me and said: “It’s OK, I was just challenging you” before approving the project.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A famous quote from Albert Einstein: “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” When I repeatedly face the same obstacle, I know it’s time to seek and integrate new perspectives. I’ve learned to change my outlook first and be more patient when I expect concrete change in my life. In the past I used to do “more of the same”: rush into action, doing a lot efforts often with poor results.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My father has worked in production robotization at Rolex. One day he came back home happy because he managed to automate a complex manual process. I told him, “You’re the best.” He replied: “No, my strength is my team.” He had just given me an incredible lesson. It helped me realize that when I find myself in trouble it’s usually because I stopped teaming up (with the false assumption that I’m going to get there faster). Nevertheless, teaming up isn’t easy and doesn’t just work with anyone. A couple of failed collaborations taught me to be more demanding: rely on the right people, at the right moment, for the right problem. I’m getting better and better at that.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

The most effective communication channel for team coordination is conversation, face-to-face dialog. Psycholinguistic studies and media richness theory have demonstrated that. Other communication channels present one or more technical and human barriers when compared to conversation. We know this unconsciously: it’s more convenient to solve complex problems and crises together in a war room than by SMS. It’s also been measured that a face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email. We just lost that with the pandemic! Good news, videoconferencing, the 2nd most effective channel, has made tremendous progress in recent months.

Communication Effectiveness of Various Media Types (Adapted from media richness theory)

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

We lose a good part of the relationship with our work environment, subtle information cues that are can be key individually and to the team. First, non-verbal information conveyed by the body and by facial expressions when the cameras are turned off, which impact on communication is estimated at 55%. The impact of words is estimated at 7% and the remaining 38% are about the tone of voice. Second, we lose awareness information of what’s going on around us at the office. For example, presence information (who’s there and who’s not), relational information (who’s talking to whom) and peripheral information (things people are saying at the coffee break). Third, we lose opportunities to bump into each other randomly, which is at the heart of Pixar’s campus philosophy: foster more creativity through informal contact and information exchange. To give creativity a chance to emerge spontaneously, rather than planning it. Everything must be planned when working remotely, otherwise nothing happens.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Be smart at channel selection. There is no point in multiplying communication channels if they are not used effectively. One big mistake I see is launching new projects by email or messaging and using online meetings for simple updates. It’s should be the other way around: use remote meetings for anything new and complex (high bandwidth channel), and email and messaging for updates (low bandwidth channels).

Invest in secured hybrid workspaces and high-performance home equipment. We’re not close to giving up the office, as reported by a recent PwC study. Invest in secured hybrid workspaces and high-performance home equipment. The balance between office and remote work that will emerge after the pandemic is unclear and will certainly vary one organization to another and from one team to another.

Align and build trust before getting started, and keep aligning more frequently. To work with remote teams, especially newly assembled teams of specialists (cross-functional teams), requires strong initial alignment. Poor alignment inevitably leads to execution problems and high effort for questionable results. High-Impact Tools for Teams presents two proven tools for that: the Team Alignment Map (to keep a high level of alignment between stakeholders) and the Team Contract (to agree on team behaviors and rules together).

Go visual and use team tools to structure meetings. Conversation is evanescent, words fly away in face-to-face meetings and even more online. We have all experienced the pain of long unnecessary meetings. Meeting time is precious, meetings should be prepared in advance with visual tools, topics time-boxed and collective work performed visually in a shared whiteboard or app to boost productivity when we talk.

Train the less technologically savvy members. The collaboration technologies we’re using during this pandemic are not new. What is new is the number of people who had to migrate to these platforms at the speed of light. Invest in training so that they’re not marginalized and can continue to actively contribute to project work.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

I have experienced the challenges of my corporate clients. The issues I have seen weren’t so much related to the use of cell phones, most of my clients have company phones, or related to technology. They were mostly organizational:

  • Accelerate the decisions related to remote work practices and equipment, which caused security policies to be reviewed.
  • Agree on new practices to balance private and professional life, not obvious when you have 10 back-to-back meetings.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

The combination of a powerful videoconferencing platform (like Zoom) with a top-notch digital whiteboard for complex problem solving (like the Strategyzer app or Miro). Lined with 1 or 2 large monitors. I personally use 2 x 27-inch monitors, one for the videoconference and one for the digital whiteboard. I can’t think of any other combination that makes me feel closer to being in the same space.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

As mentioned earlier, I would heavily invest in secured hybrid workspaces and high-performance home equipment. The perfect communication system for me is the one that offers the most flexibility.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

I believe so, and this is why I follow Microsoft Teams actively. Most features have better competitors if taken individually. But the potential of Teams is huge, thanks to its available and forthcoming integrations. I’m not surprised that the number of users grew from 20 mio (2019) to 115 mio (2020), outperforming Zoom’s growth. Teams will be a key player in the months and years to come.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

I think these technologies are promising but still far from changing the lives of millions of teams. Experiences must become truly immersive, recreating the relationship with our environment through our own eyes, without going through avatars or the like (I think about the interest then disinterest in Second Life, the virtual world). I see the adoption of these techologies happening more quickly for personal than collaborative use. For example, I really appreciate the information displayed on the windshield of my car, I receive key information (speed limit, direction, etc.) while keeping my eyes on the road, mixed reality is real progress.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

Not for the moment, at least in terms of team collaboration.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

All my client activities are now online! Keynotes, workshops, training and coaching. I use Zoom and Microsoft Teams for video conferencing and webinars. Miro.com and the Strategyzer platform to run workshops and live training sessions. Monday.com and Trello for coaching project teams and Slack channels for communication updates. I’ve also set up Calendly to help my clients schedule meetings with me. I’m also currently testing Kajabi as a one stop shop to market and sell new digital assets.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

I designed two tools to help teams manage criticism constructively. First, the Team Contract, a template to define and agree on the team behaviors together by answering the following questions:

  1. What are the rules and behaviors we want to abide by in our team?
  2. As individuals, do we have preferences for working in a certain way?

I recommend doing a Team Contract at the start of any online collaboration. Constructive criticism is considerably facilitated when behaviors have been specified beforehand on the Team Contract. It provides a reference point for turning relational problems into learning opportunities. We recently established a Team Contract with +100 participants simultaneously online, it’s been a wonder to see.

Second, the Nonviolent Request Guide (based on Marshall Rosenberg’s work), a template to express constructive criticism in a constructive manner precisely, and avoid being perceived as issuing a personal attack, which will likely result in self-defense or counterattack behaviors. In case of overdue work for example, the result will be very different if the constructive criticism is expressed like:

“You’re always late! I can’t count on you.”

Or

“When you tell me at the last minute that your work is not ready, I feel furious, my need is to respect the deadlines we’ve committed to, would you please inform me in advance in case of a problem?”

I use it personally when my emotions run high, both on-line and face-to-face, and can confirm Marshall Rosenberg did an amazing job in that regards. Give it a try.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

Involve people actively from the very start of your projects, and structure meetings with tools! In a study I participated in, we measured the impact of mutual clarity on the performance of three teams. To our surprise, participants reported higher levels of personal motivation although we did nothing specific for that. We were focused on measuring the effectiveness of what would become the Team Alignment Map. Today I see motivation as a consequence of continuous mutual clarity and active contribution. I believe the same applies to accountability, a sense of camaraderie, etc. I believe these are consequences of repeated opportunities to contribute actively to something meaningful. This also signals trust and psychological safety in the team, that members can speak up without the fear of being punished or humiliated. Which greatly reinforces a “we’re-all-in-this-together” mindset.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d like younger generations to benefit from stronger teamwork skills earlier in their career. I’m currently developing a teamwork kit for teachers with an amazing group of volunteers. We share the vision of creating a ready-to-use use kit with content, games and other materials that help teach effective communication and collaboration techniques in schools, college and universities. Don’t hesitate to contact me if this resonates.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My work is published on www.strategyzer.com and my latest news is available on my blog: www.teamalignment.co.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.


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