4 ways to improve team productivity in a scaleup

Coda CEO Shishir Mehrotra’s tips, tricks and examples of processes, tools and work habits that result in more successful, productive teams based on his insights from building YouTube and Coda.

Shishir Mehrotra is the co-founder and CEO at Coda. He started Coda, an impactful productivity and collaboration tool, that makes any document as powerful as an app by giving it the ability to bring people, data and text together. During his time as VP of engineering at YouTube, Shishir became known for finding ways to align his team to get things done. Shishir has refined his processes and brought them to Spotify’s board of directors where many thoughts on how to build great teams and team rituals have been implemented.

In a presentation at one of our CxO events, Shishir illustrated the four main areas on which an entrepreneur should focus to build processes and tools that result in more productive, successful teams. Let’s take a closer look at each.

1. Strategy and planning: Make sure that your teams are completely aligned on company goals, while remaining loosely coupled on the details

Every company does strategy and planning. But many companies spend a great deal of time and effort building their strategies and plans, only to find themselves hashing out the same issues at the next (monthly, quarterly, yearly) planning meeting. Teams complain that planning is either too top-down (with no room for creative input) or too bottom-up (without overall priorities to guide decision-making).

The trick to a more successful strategy and planning process is to make sure that your teams are completely aligned regarding their goals – that they always know where they are headed – while making sure that sub-groups and individual team members can work independently on how to achieve those goals.

A real-life example of this would be Uber: the company has developed a strategy and planning process tool (using Coda) focused on improving the Uber driver experience. The tool tracks the teams (groups of people involved building features), milestones (major product launch gates), and features (individual work items), linking them in such a way that everyone involved can see how features are progressing toward milestones at both the team and the milestone level. It also has a funding tracker to surface features in danger of slipping for lack of resources.

Fast-moving teams across Uber now use this tool, tailored to their specific needs, to organize their work. Everyone involved can be fully aligned on the overall direction of a project, while sub-teams and individual team members work out the specifics. This approach and tool have since spread across the organization, improving the planning efforts of all of their teams.

2. Execution: Design your team meetings like you design your products to improve productivity

A lot of the habits and processes unique to teams happen during execution, as teams concentrate on putting plans into action. Regular team meetings (live or virtual) are usually the main way of keeping everyone on track.

The problem is that even with the best of intentions, meetings can become repetitive, boring, long, and inconclusive. Individuals with strong personalities can take over, while others may not be heard. Groupthink can lead to bad decisions based on whoever speaks first (and the loudest). Prioritization can become difficult. Feedback can be hard to express and even harder to take.

According to Shishir, effective teams find ways to design their meeting and communication processes in the same way they design their products. Let’s look at what that means in practice.

The Coda team has developed and templatized two rituals they use to help equalize voices and remove groupthink in team meetings across their highly distributed organization.

The first, “Dory”, is a ranking Q&A tool that lets each team member add questions and vote on them before meetings. During meetings, topics are discussed in order of votes, which both equalizes the voices and ensures that the topics being discussed are the ones critical to the participants.

The second, called “Pulse,” is used to do a quick, anonymous pulse check before the meeting to see where everyone stands without the influence of a vocal minority, and to draw out any latent concerns that might not otherwise surface.

Another example is Figma, the collaborative interface design company, which found themselves outgrowing their weekly coordinator meetings. To address this, they designed a product roadmap tool (using Coda) with a view of their projects and a launch calendar that includes a place in each active project for team members to indicate that they want to ask the group to discuss it during the meeting.

  • They start each meeting with 10 minutes of silent reading to make sure everyone is on the same page and that discussion priorities are understood.
  • Progress and accountability on active projects are tracked through required weekly status updates from team leads, with the tool automatically comparing past and present updates to show progress.
  • Another button in the tool lets people “love” specific updates, allowing people to express support and celebrate wins.

At Figma, this has resulted in shorter, more productive, and more collaborative team meetings.

3. Teams: Be purposeful to create tools that build and support your teams

One of the most important building blocks of a startup is the creation and retention of great teams. But great teams don’t just happen; they involve hard work and effort from everyone. Team building processes and tools – from interviewing and onboarding to evaluations and career development – need to be deliberately constructed and maintained.

In order to maintain great team dynamics, digital payment company Square built a Coda doc to manage 1-1 meetings between managers and team members.

Their team members had been complaining about only getting career feedback every 6 months during performance reviews. Employees would be surprised to hear things during reviews that they’d not heard before, and felt that they were in the dark about what they needed to do to advance or grow in their jobs. In addition, the documents generated from these meetings were long and unstructured, making it difficult for either the manager or the team member to sort through things like expectations, goals alignment, and performance feedback. They solved this by creating The 1:1 doc. The doc provides a place for both the team member and the manager to set their separate and joint expectations about how the relationship will work (meeting frequency, topics, responsibilities, etc.). It includes separate sections for meeting notes, goals review, personal and professional development review, accomplishments, and best practices.

Not only does the company as a whole use this tool, but each manager and team member pair develops their own unique version of it.

4. Individuals: Find ways to help team members improve their personal productivity; it affects the productivity of the whole team

One thing that most team leaders will tell you is that the level of individual productivity drives team success. The problem is that, while people want to be productive, managing our time is difficult. For example, a survey by Adobe recently found that we spend on average 3.1 hours per day just on email!

Intercom founder Des Traynor recently published a doc about productivity and the tools we use, based off a tweet that surfaced some interesting realizations about our email, to-do lists and calendars: If our email is what others think we should work on, our to-do list is what we think we should work on, and our calendar is what we actually work on, the way they overlap will show how focused and productive we are – with greater overlap indicating more focus, and unbalanced overlap indicating lack of focus, autonomy, and/or actualization.

People use a range of strategies to get back their time – from blocking off specific time just for emails or working only on to-do items before doing anything else, to emailing to-dos to themselves or using their calendar as their to-do list. Taking this one step further, Traynor developed a Coda doc that employs the best parts of these tactics. The doc prompts you to set up a to-do list and sync your email and calendar. Then it encourages you to clear your inbox every day by labeling the emails representing the tasks you need to work on, rearrange your calendar by mapping those emailed tasks to meeting slots, and follow the calendar, knowing that it’s aligned to your email and tasks.

One benefit of this Coda doc is that it includes a “reflect” function that shows what percentage of your time was actually spent on your top tasks, enabling you to truly understand how your time is being spent. Not only can this be an eye-opener, but it can also help you find ways to improve your own productivity.

More tips for boosting team productivity

In addition to improving team productivity when it comes to strategy, execution, teams, and individuals, there are a number of open-source project templates on the Coda Doc Gallery. Shishir has also published all the processes he implemented when he scaled YouTube from a few hundred employees to 2000. And if you still have an appetite for more, I encourage you to listen to Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale podcast with Shishir Mehrotra about why your company likely needs new team rituals.