My User Manual: a tool to learn about your team (and yourself)

My User Manual

As one of Reaktor’s coaches and trainers, I work with a lot of groups — facilitating kickoffs and team building activities and overseeing workshops on leadership, teamwork fundamentals, and the like. After 13 years in this role, I came across a secret weapon for successful teams. It’s easy, literally doesn’t cost anything, you can start it immediately, and most people actually enjoy it. Oh, and it actually builds stronger, more collaborative teams. It’s called the My User Manual. 

Back in 2017, one of my coworkers, Arto, and I noticed something: we were expending a lot of energy and time putting out fires. We would get a message about a problem some team was having and then we’d go into action to address it. It was a very reactive way of doing things. We thought there must be a way to be more proactive — to get ahead of the issues before they arise. What we wanted to figure out was how to build teams that didn’t run into so many problems in the first place. And when they did, could we equip them to solve the problems themselves?

With that, we launched the Team Success Project. The goal was to focus on what makes teams great, and then to develop some tools around that. One thing we did was analyze books and studies on team performance. While each highlighted different components, there was one common theme: trust and psychological safety were always on top of the list when it came to determining a team’s outcome. 

It was during this time that I saw something on Facebook that caught my attention. (I remember this so vividly because I rarely find something on that platform that seems to be of value for my work.) The post was by Leah Fessler about a tool called the User Manual, who had in turn learned about it from what a couple of executives, Ivar Kroghrud and Luc Levesque, did. The general idea is you write down things about yourself and share them with those you work with, much like manufacturers explain to consumers how to use their products. Initially, it was suggested for those in leadership positions. But I thought it would be great for a team setting in general, with everyone filling it out. What I especially liked about it was that it was immediately implementable and it directly addressed the specific building blocks of trust and psychological safety. So, to give it a go myself, I brought it to my first team kickoff meetings.

Here’s what a My User Manual (MUM) looks like. Over the years, we’ve tweaked it a few times, and every team has the opportunity to adjust it for their needs. (As you’ll see later.)

My User Manual

First, people get the worksheet and spend about 10 minutes filling it out on their own. Then, each team member shares their answers with the group in the kickoff.

A great tool for changing & non-homogenous teams

One thing we constantly do at Reaktor is set up new teams. We’re always in this team creation mode. The MUM is the perfect resource for this scenario because it’s designed to skip the relationships ahead several steps. In most situations, you’ll find things out about a person if you work with them long enough, say over a year. But as a consultancy the sprints or projects may not last that long. And even if you do have time on your side, it takes some trial and error to learn each other’s nuances. The MUM bypasses those potential tension points and starts building good dynamics right away. You learn how best to interact with each other as soon as the team is built.

The MUM is great for when you’re bringing in new clients, but it’s ideal for internal teams, too. Especially as organizations grow, you typically see more diversity of all kinds. For instance, at Reaktor we have dozens of nationalities, and misunderstandings can occur simply because of cultural differences. The MUM mitigates those. There’s also a range of neurodiversity. We don’t expect everyone to work or approach things in the same way, so this exercise lets each person put their preferences out in the open. The MUM even accounts for differences in personalities. For instance, introverts may not naturally talk about themselves in this way, but the MUM provides a more comfortable forum for them to do so.

Not totally unique — just better

There are admittedly a lot of different exercises out there for team building, and some are similar to the MUM. One that comes to mind is the desert island exercise. In that, each person is asked, “If this team would land on a desert island, what skills and properties would you bring, and what would be your weakness?” Some might respond with survival skills, providing entertainment, etc. That’s a fine team building exercise as well, but it’s still a step away from the real heart of the matter. As a developer or UX designer, your day-to-day doesn’t involve being the next Tom Hanks in Castaway (I hope) — it’s about successfully building digital software. So the desert island creates some psychological distance from reality. The MUM is the most to-the-point exercise I’ve found, using fundamental questions like, “What do I value?” “What do people misunderstand about me?” I think that’s what makes it the most effective.

The MUM also differs from a lot of other team discussions because you’re not talking about practices or how the team approach is going to be — you’re talking about yourself. It’s way more personal. I’ve found that for the most part, people like to talk about themselves, and people also like to hear others talking honestly about themselves. That prompts some teams to have a lot of back and forth. They might ask someone, “Can you elaborate on that?” Or, “Wow — that’s just like me.” So there’s an immediate human connection.

While it’s a good way to find similarities, the MUM also helps you recognize differences and embrace them. That may be more demanding on the group because you have to preserve time to deal with those differences and make sure everyone’s opinions are heard, but it also protects the team from going into group-think mode, which is ultimately detrimental to the work.

Consultants like it … and clients do, too

As a coach, the greatest indicator that people find this tool useful is that teams specifically ask for it when they’re getting ready to do a kickoff. And although I find it most helpful when teams are first being formed, I once ran the MUM for a company’s leadership team that had worked together for 19 years. When we were done, the sentiment was that it was a good forum for tough discussions — it was a way to speak things out loud that would have been difficult in another setting, perhaps because they knew each other so well.

In the consultancy environment, clients seem to like it, too. I recently saw a social media post from a client who was involved in one of our kickoffs, and speaking about the MUM, they said, “We ran it yesterday and already our team is on a whole different level.” See what I mean? Immediately actionable.

I’ve also seen the effects of not doing a MUM. I was brought in at one point to do a post-mortem on a project that didn’t go very well. People were not in a good mental state and there was some repairing and untangling to do. For this project, the team didn’t have a core team kickoff, so there was no MUM. I really think if there had been, then attention could have been given to some things in the outset, and a lot of feelings could have been spared.

The MUM in action

A few weeks ago, I spoke to a some members from one of our smaller teams. They had recently filled out their MUMs during a kickoff with a new client. None of them had ever done the exercise before, so I wanted to hear what they thought of it. First of all, here’s their MUM:

Team's My User Manual

Who I spoke to:
Account Manager
Alonso: Software Developer
Mala: Product Designer

What was your impression when you saw the MUM worksheet?

Mala: I’d seen it before on an Miro board from an earlier project. I wasn’t there for the kickoff, but my teammates had filled theirs out, and I thought it was a great idea. So I was excited about doing it for this project.

Allie: One thing I had to do in previous jobs was barrage our clients with a million questions about what they like and what they don’t. This seemed like a much more gentle way of getting that information. 

Was it easy to fill out?
Alonso: I filled mine out pretty quickly — on the subway in fact. But I got a little introspective about it, too. My mind started saying, “oh yeah, this is how I behave.”

Allie: It made me feel kind of vulnerable, like if I put these things on paper, then people will read it and perceive me in a certain way because of it.

Mala: I struggled a bit because I’m used to adapting to other people’s ways of working and going along with their preferences. It was something totally new to center myself and think about what works for me. And at other consultancies, ways of working are defined by external forces, like the client and the stakeholders. So to realize that I have a say in what makes sense for me was kind of mind blowing.

How did the MUM affect how you worked with people on the project?
Allie: Before the kickoff, I used to email the project owner. Then on his MUM he said he hates email. So from that point on, I pretty much Slacked him. I liked the way it provided really concrete specifics of how to work best with someone. 

Alonso: One of the client’s engineers said something in his MUM about how if he’s silent, then he’s not 100% sure about his thoughts yet. So when we would have meetings, sure enough, he was really quiet. But I thought about what he said in his MUM and realized he was just processing information. Later he would come back and raise some really important points. I think normally I would maybe wonder why he wasn’t saying anything. But this allowed me to recognize this is just how he operates, and that helped our working relationship run more smoothly.

What was your favorite or most worthwhile question?
Mala: Working in cross-disciplinary teams where engineers and designers typically have very different responsibilities and ways of working, it’s good to have a place to put everything out in the open. So for me as a designer, I really like the one about feedback. I definitely have a way I like to get feedback on designs in progress, so I appreciated having a space to outline that.

Allie: I kind of liked the “what’s the best way to make my day” question, because it’s something I would never ask, and probably something most people would never volunteer. But there’s the work, and then there’s everything around the work, including the relationship. The MUM offered those ways to support each other, both for the client and within the team, and I think that can be so valuable.

Would you recommend MUMs for kickoffs?
Allie: Yes, especially in hybrid or remote working environments, where direct communication is so beneficial. By making this information explicit, you take the pressure off interpreting each other over Google hangouts, Zoom calls, and Slack messages. And because we don’t have to work so hard to understand each other, our mental load is reduced. That can instead be put toward the work itself.

Alonso: Yeah, I think without the MUM, there’s a lot of energy wasted trying to adapt to others in ways that are ultimately unproductive to the team. Plus, it’s in some way comforting to look at other people’s MUMs and think, “Oh yeah, other people are weird like me, too.” (Laughs)

Mala: We each have ways we like to work, and there’s nothing wrong if my way is different than someone else’s. Every team has a unique dynamic. Every project is a learning experience in collaboration. The MUM just helps you get there faster, and probably a little more harmoniously.

The reviews are in

To close out, here are some unsolicited sentiments from Reaktor folks who have used the MUM for a while:

“I sincerely think this is one of the most important tools for teams after they’re formed. They really should be doing this in the first months of working together.”

“While there’s very little (if anything) we call ‘mandatory’ here, I always ask teams to do a MUM in kickoffs — including with the customers.”

“One of the absolute best team exercises to do! Everything is so much easier after going through the MUM.”

So why not take 10 minutes and fill out your MUM? It will probably make you realize something about yourself. And, when you share it with others, they’ll learn something about you, too. It’ll be the start of a psychological safety net that could make the difference between your team’s success or struggles.

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