Tips for an A-Team

Many exciting projects begin on paper napkins. Ours began on two sheets of paper.

We were in Co-Creation Hub in Lagos for our #Insiders4Good program. The air conditioner was rattling at full blast, but thanks to the humidity, we were all slightly sweaty. Someone said, “we need a website for our fellows!”. Dona Sarkar, our imaginer-in-chief, quickly reached across the table and grabbed two sheets of paper. She scribbled a sketch with a few rectangles and some words promising more words. We took a picture of this. This was our “spec”.

The initial spec done on scrap paper

A few of us started breathing life into this vision. The ‘product’ captured the spirit of the spec, but there was an abundance of creative freedom in building it. We talked shop over negronis, jollof and akara bean cakes. The more we talked, the more we dreamt up features for the site.

The day after we came back to Seattle, we assembled at 5am in a cafeteria. It was a chilly morning and we felt jetlagged and fatigued from our flight. We got cracking on all the features we had “planned” over drinks and food. From 9am, we went back to our day jobs. The #Insiders4Good work was a side hustle for us, and our work hours for it were to be evenings and weekends.

We imagined over emails, text messages, and weekend runs. Soon there was a blog extension to the site that our community could use as a communication platform. We released multiple iterations of our website and blog in less than two weeks of actual work time. In the middle of all this, we buttoned up the business part of our fellowships, like the curriculum for the next round, the application process and so on.

We work for different teams in Microsoft, and nearly all of us volunteer for this work. We are engineers, marketers, business strategists and product managers. We come from America, India, Nepal, Nigeria, Colombia, and Mexico. Everyone brings a different perspective and a different skillset to the table. We may be a scrappy team that was assembled organically. But we are a team that has clicked and has found a way of working together that catalyzes creation and innovation.

There are some elements of our team that I think helps us in clicking the way we have, and building things with passion, speed, and creativity. If I were to distill them into ‘Tips for A-Teams’, these would be:

  • Start with a purpose. A well-understood, strong purpose unites the team and creates passion. Ours was to empower our Nigerian #Insiders4Good fellows to build successful enterprises. Weekends and evenings do not matter when you are rallying behind a purpose you believe in, and work merges with life.
  • Show that being creative and trying ‘crazy things’ are ok. Do not quell ideas that may initially seem impractical. When you do this, people feel empowered to bring their best creative self to the work.
  • Trust each other to do the right thing.
  • Get competent, driven people on your team. If you do not have a competent team, you will find it hard to trust them.
  • Break down discipline silos. Engineers on our team got their hands-on business aspects of our project. Program managers wrote code along with developers. Be boundary-less, and work toward learning each other’s craft better.
  • Value the diversity of perspectives, experiences, and the skillset that everyone brings.
  • Do the work for sake of the work, not as a means of career advancement.
  • Experiment relentlessly and have a growth mindset. Create a safe space for people to try new things and fail.
  • Make work fun for yourself and your team! We socialize together a LOT outside of work, and that helps in a number of things that I mentioned earlier, including trust, respect, and appreciation for each other.

Some of the 'scrappy A team' enjoying a meal together

Leaders in Microsoft are always working hard to grow strong teams that click like this and innovate. I am happy that our scrappy #NinjaCatTeam has clicked!