Getting the best from your distributed teams

From ticking off deliverables to goal-based working

In the design business, to cite Blair Enns, we ‘sell’ one of three things — INPUTS (our time), OUTPUTS (our deliverables) and, if we’re well-positioned, OUTCOMES (the future value we bring). Truth is, most of agencies will be charging clients for the time teams spend on producing deliverables according to a plan that’s looked after by a project manager.

In a typical working environment, the distribution of work occurs through some method of task distribution. Agencies rely on stand-ups, Kanban boards, meetings (though at Else, we keep them short and focused) and, critically, the studio that allows face-time and inspires happy accidents as designers communicate throughout the day. But, since Covid continues to disrupt our lives, we can’t rely on the studio anymore.

This phase of forced remote working gives us all an opportunity to think about how we organise ourselves and our work so that we not only continue to produce great work, but it feels great to do. To make the transition successful, we need to shift to goal based working.


How we discuss and organise our work is critical to teams having a collective understanding of what a ‘good day’ looks like and, as individuals, helping them understand their role in it.

In his book Drive — The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink makes a case for a new model of workplace engagement. He calls it ‘Motivation 3.0’ swapping the carrot and stick approach to motivation for ‘intrinsic motivation’. Here is a brilliant article (11minute read), that introduces you to those concepts. But you should, of course, read the book.

To more or less quote that article, intrinsic motivation is what we wish to cultivate, and it has three components:

Autonomy: the need to direct your own life and work. To be truly motivated, you must feel in control of what you do, when you do it, and with whom you do it.

Purpose: those who believe they are working toward something larger and more important than themselves are often the most hard-working, productive and engaged.

Mastery: the desire to improve. If mastery motivates you, you’ll likely see your potential as being unlimited, and you’ll always seek to improve your skills through learning and practice.

Our current global situation not only creates an exciting opportunity to apply this thinking, it’s actually critical that we allow teams to work in this way if we’re going to sustain high levels of output and handle the contextual shift that has taken place.

So how can we create the conditions for purpose, autonomy, and mastery?

It starts with MVAs. Not MTV’s Music Video Awards but ‘Most Valuable Activities’ — a concept introduced by productivity expert, David Crenshaw.

At ELSE, we define MVAs at project stand-ups at the beginning and end of each day. It’s a simple but effective way to get people thinking about what a good day at work looks like for them, and where they can best contribute to the overall project goals for the week.

This is not about micro-management; it’s the self-setting of goals and objectives which drives accountability and autonomy. It starts with a simple “If I got three things done today, the most valuable things I could achieve are…” and this ceremony does several other things for the individual and the team:

• At the morning project stand-up, I share my 3 MVAs for the day.
• In doing so, I share my intention, my plan that I understand a clear finish line for my day — I know what a good day looks like.
• I’m committing to getting to a certain point.
• It increases team transparency and empathy.
• The rest of the team understand what I’m doing and I know what they are doing.
• The Project Manager is assured of progress across the team.
• Any synergies, dependencies or blockers can be picked up in the stand-up, but followed-up afterwards.
• At the end of the day we wrap-up with a 15-minute project ‘Checkout’, we state how far we got, and a sense of collective satisfaction is felt by all.

At its core, using MVAs is about being purposeful in our day, having a plan, and sustaining our attention with the explicit intention of closing those objectives.

We don’t need to sit down each day and cost our tasks, but in the context of a given project, we should be able to intuitively understand where our most valuable efforts need to go.

Goals and objectives

One of the most important ways team members can define their MVAs is start by defining collective and individual goals and objectives. A goal describes a desire to get somewhere, essentially closing a gap between where things are and where we would like them to be. An objective is subtly different from a goal — a waypoint in the completion of a goal, effectively allowing us to break down achieving the goal into smaller sections.

For example, if my goal is to get better at basketball, you could see me having three objectives I need to complete in order to meet my goal:

Objective 1 — Improve my shooting
Objective 2 — Improve my defence play
Objective 3 — Improve my fitness.

In the ELSE design studio, we can translate to a live ELSE project:

Our goal this week is to create a first draft of the product and service strategy presentation, so that we can do a dry-run on Thursday, consolidate our feedback and update and finalise by the end of the week

Objective 1 — Complete the experience strategy
Objective 2 — Complete the near-future user journeys 1 & 2
Objective 3 — Complete the future state user journey 3
Objective 4 — Develop the interaction design language and toolkit to apply to the above
Objective 5 — Dry run, capture changes, update.

Teams can now self-organise around these goals as they see best, most valuable first.

Whether you agree with the precise use of language to define goals and objectives, what’s important here is in how we distribute work. If a Project Manager can adequately describe the collective project goals at the start of the week, then individuals can self-organise, create their own daily tasks and objectives in pursuit of that wider calling. This sets everybody on the path to developing their own sense of purpose, autonomy and mastery.