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7 secrets to effective teamwork inspired by the greatest book ever written

Laura Binder 7 min read
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What do effective teamwork and Russian literature have in common? Why is successful teamwork so much like a happy marriage? How can you make teamwork more effective?

Let’s start with this premise:

Happy teams are all alike; every unhappy team is unhappy in its own way.

Have you heard of the Anna Karenina principle? It’s derived from the famous first sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s seminal novel: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The principle is as follows: in order for a marriage to thrive, it must succeed in many different respects. If you and your partner argue about money, clash about parenting, or differ in political ideology, you’re doomed to unhappiness — no matter how happy you are in other areas of your relationship. Back in 340 BC, Aristotle emphasized the same principle a bit differently: “Men are good in but one way, but bad in many.”

In other words, success is not about doing just one thing correctly, but about avoiding many possible ways to fail. The Anna Karenina principle, popular in science and math, holds true for a lot of things in life — including effective teamwork.

If teams want to hit their goals, meet their deadlines, and surpass their KPIs, they need to succeed in all the critical ways — and avoid all the common pitfalls.

So what exactly is this magical recipe for effective teamwork? In the early days of building, we spoke with hundreds of managers and discussed all the unique reasons that teams are unhappy. We discovered seven factors that make or break a team’s success.

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7 secrets to effective teamwork:

1. Set clear goals
Imagine you and your team are climbing Mount Everest. But instead of prepping your team in advance about what you’ll be doing and why you’re doing it, you simply tell them to start hiking. And then direct them where to step next. Step after step. Your team becomes disoriented and unmotivated, ready to give up when the ascent gets difficult.

This is exactly what it’s like if you don’t set clear goals. As a manager, you end up handing out task after task. People don’t understand the greater context of their work and why it’s important, so they feel that their work is endless, pointless, and exhausting. Your team needs a specific, measurable goal to help them prioritize what’s important, drive them towards a definitive result, and give them a sense of achievement when they reach it. This leads us to point number two…

2. Create transparency
If we had to describe what we’re trying to achieve at in one word, it would be “transparency.” Transparency means making everything — all information, numbers, plans, and challenges — readily accessible to everyone on your team.

When you create transparency, you can harness the full intelligence and motivation of your team. Everyone not only knows what you’re doing but why you’re doing it, and they understand how even the smallest task fits into the bigger picture. With transparency, you can set clear goals and get everyone on your team on board. They have all the information they need to do their part to contribute, and may even be inspired to find innovative and creative ways to reach your goal.

In, transparency is the essence of effective teamwork. The board is the place for you to set a goal, map out a process, assign ownership, and track where everything stands. One simple board holds all the information, and it’s there for everyone to see. No confusion and no meetings!

7 secrets to effective teamwork inspired by the greatest book ever written

3. Decide what you’ll complete each week
No one can make sense of where a three-month long project stands from the tasks it’s composed of. You lose connection from reality when you start to obsess over a detailed project hierarchy and which subtask falls where. In real life, actual work is always planned by dates, deadlines, and assignment of responsibility.

Managing by time is simple as making a detailed list of all the tasks your team will complete this week. Assign ownership to make it clear who’s doing what. Reemphasize your goal, and then get to work. Working towards a concrete deadline creates a sense of urgency and forces your team to make smart decisions to reach your goals. As a team, you can then review what you’ve achieved and celebrate your shared success.

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4. Recognize people’s accomplishments
Loads of scientific studies show that people’s single biggest motivator is not money, but recognition. Being congratulated with a simple, “Great job for completing [fill in the blank]!” increases employee productivity ten-fold.

But when you mark a task as “complete” in a traditional project management tool, what happens? It disappears. No one knows. This kills people’s motivation. That’s the power of “done” in when you complete a task, you can mark it as a green. It’s incredibly satisfying, and even addictive, to mark everything as green and see all your accomplishments line up at the end of each week. And when you and your teammates can easily congratulate each other on a job well done, there’s no better way to build effective teamwork. That’s why we call it “done therapy.” 🙂

5. Focus on processes, not tasks
Most team management tools rely heavily on hierarchy. The problem with that is that hierarchies are really hard to navigate, and there’s always a few different ways to construct them. When’s the last time you found a file in a folder on someone else’s computer?

It’s easier to instead think about steps and map them out in a flat and intuitive grid. When we spoke with hundreds of managers about how they define effective teamwork, we learned that almost everyone uses spreadsheets or grids to manage their work. It’s a simple way to map out a process and even better, you can replicate it for future processes.

6. Track your work visually
Unfortunately for Tolstoy, this is now the era of TL;DR. When you look at a text-based system — and they’re all text-based — you need to read to understand where things stand. That’s a problem. As humans, we take in visual information way more quickly than we do verbal information. That’s why traffic lights are colors, not words. is completely visual. The colored statuses immediately tell you if something is “done,” “stuck,” or “in progress.” When you display a board on a screen in your office, everyone on your team knows exactly where things stand. Visuals are effective, not open to interpretation, and clear to everyone.

7. Communicate in one place
Email, check-ins, chat, staff meetings, Skype calls — there are endless ways to communicate. And yet crossed wires and broken games of telephone are a continual problem for teams. The result is more meetings, more email, and more wasted time.

Here at, we’ve eliminated email almost completely and have centralized all communication inside our product. The benefit of this is that all updates are always in context, and you can drag and drop your files (images, docs, whatever) directly into the update. Voila, all the information you need is there, visible to everyone on your team.

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In a nutshell: What makes teamwork effective?

In the end, effective teamwork can be summed up as simply as: it’s about people, not projects. So many project management tools treat people as a byproduct or a secondary resource amidst the hierarchy of tasks and subtasks. But that’s a mistake.

When you focus on what makes people tick — what drives them, what comes naturally to them, what they find enjoyable — you can harness their full potential to move faster and achieve incredible things together. And that’s what makes so vastly different from every other project management tool on the market: we focus on all the real factors that actually contribute to effective teamwork.

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