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Collaboration
That Works

6 Keys to High-Impact Teamwork

Working together on a team isn’t easy ...

... Especially in today’s remote and hybrid world. Despite countless ways to communicate, teams still struggle to collaborate, much less innovate.

It’s time to level up your team with Collaboration That Works, including:

  • 6 keys to high-impact teamwork — from Connection to Imagination
  • True stories from teams doing their best work together
  • Templates, checklists, and tips for your team
  • … Plus a level-headed look at async work


Collaboration That Works is an interactive content experience — a digital book that’s bite-sized and bookmarkable for easy reading. Keep an eye out as you explore for fun surprises hidden throughout.

Now, without further ado, take a step toward making collaboration easier so you can get on with solving the hard problems with your team.

Connection

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
- Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW
Woman in browser, speaking with colleague
Man in browser, communicating with colleague
Man in browser (with his cute kitty cat)

CONNECTION

Doodle drawing of megaphone

Make communication work with — not against — your team.

Everyone was looking forward to it. The team had set aside time to escape the hustle and bustle, the routine. The quarterly offsite offered a rare opportunity for everyone to get together face-to-face. Whether to celebrate wins, share knowledge, break bread together, or just be in the same space, the offsite offered a critical time to connect.

Then, just like that, it had to be canceled. In the face of a pandemic, that precious moment to connect in person would have to wait.

But the connection would have to go on.

Teams crave connection — can’t exist without it. Being free to fire off ideas, troubleshoot problems, express concerns, and activate opportunities. We talk to be heard. We listen to understand. Through conversations over coffee, ping-ponging messages over chat, sending a funny GIF, or writing a brief or building a diagram about a project, connection makes it all happen.

Doodle drawing of laptop with a Zoom call taking place on-screen.

[text-ctt]Connection is at the foundation of collaboration. It leads to building trust, creating a sense of shared purpose, and aligning across the work. Through connection, teams are able to imagine together and creatively solve problems. They’re able to mobilize and take action.[text-ctt]

Teams simply can’t collaborate without connection.

So why is it that today, when teams have even more ways to connect, we find it so very hard?

How do we make connection easy?

More

Connection takes more than technology

At the center of connection is communication — having channels to relay information back and forth. Today, we have channels galore.

There are the tried-and-true standards: in-person, face-to-face is the pinnacle of connection, allowing for flexibility in style and nuance, and providing the most context. The internet has made possible new standards that bring evermore possibilities in ways to connect. Email, chat and messaging services, video conferencing, phone calls. There’s also the “dark web” of connection, which includes comments on documents of all types, conversations on project management software — or any series of relays made possible through software in your collaboration stack.

Communication channels for connection include: in-person, email, messaging/chat, video conferencing, recorded video, shared documents, visual thinking.

Doodle drawing of an unlocked lock and key beside it.

All these channels make it possible to communicate with your team within the context of the work. They unlock new ways of working. But they don’t automatically connect you on a level that makes great collaboration possible. They also introduce new challenges by fragmenting dialogue. They make it difficult to keep up with who said what and where.

Communication channels impact what can be communicated and how. Marshall McLuhan popularized the concept that "the medium is the message.” In his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan focused on the nature of communication channels, and how the characteristics of the channels affect the content. In this way, mediums bring important limitations to how well we can connect.

For example, imagine a C-level leader fires off an email to a large group of employees. The recipients see that message as something that requires immediate attention, no matter when it was sent or what it says. Knowing that your words and reactions will be seen by a large subset of your peers, how does that impact your response? Do you say anything at all? How do you say it?

Two colleagues (and a cute grey cat) in separate locations communicating with one another about a potential homepage redesign.

[text-ctt]With so many ways to connect today, connection can feel like a solved problem[text-ctt]. This is an illusion — confusing the ability to connect with actually connecting. If we want to meaningfully connect with teammates and do great work together, we must see past this illusion.

The question is: How?

WAYS TO CONNECT

Live, in-person
Email
Messaging services
Video conferencing
Recorded video
Shared documents
Presentations
Visual thinking

The tyranny of text

[text-ctt]The written word — text — is powerful for sharing ideas at scale, at a distance, and in a format that makes it easy to send and receive.[text-ctt] [text-ctt]Words are a wonder for connection and shared group experiences can make it easy to share a few words, even simple acronyms, and create rapid understanding.[text-ctt]

But teams need to know when words don’t work. Consider taking collaborative work to channels that are more robust — such as when you’re:

  • Sharing new ideas
  • Discussing complex topics
  • Working toward consensus and alignment

Combine multiple forms of communication — like mixing written words with a powerful visual. Break free from the tyranny of text to more clearly communicate with your team.

Colleagues working through a challenging problem by relying on visual methods.

6 ways to connect with your team

A scene of a few colleagues within different browser windows, connecting in different ways to get work done.

Connecting — really connecting — requires more than just communication tools. Use these activities, rituals, and habits to help your team connect and collaborate.

1. Create space to connect

[text-ctt]Make an effort to identify and agree upon shared spaces for your team to connect. For example, common spaces can be official spaces like the (physical) office — or they can be a shared, team meeting mural. They can also be casual spaces like a Zoom happy hour, a watercooler mural, or a fun Slack channel.[text-ctt]

A magical, mystical rainbow.

Make sure space for connection is accessible. As Oglivy’s vice chairman Rory Sutherland says, “A video call is only as good as its worst participant.” When using software to connect, make sure the technology is understood by and working for everyone involved.

Whenever possible, consider inviting your team into a collaborative space — whether a physical room or an online one, like MURAL’s digital workspace. MURAL’s visual thinking canvas transforms old ways of working to a digital environment. Here, anyone can take part and ideas come to life through drawings, diagrams, content, and conversation. Since the very nature of this medium is imperfect and collaborative, it naturally invites connection and participation across the team.

2. Lead with empathy

[text-ctt]Connection requires empathy — the ability to see things from someone else’s point of view.[text-ctt] With empathy for our audience, we can tailor what we say and how we say it so that others may understand our point of view.

Empathy works the other way, too. To understand what someone else is saying, we need to make an effort to take on their frame of reference.

Atlassian’s Work Life Impact Play
Get the template
Use this template from Atlassian to build empathy on your team and identify the right support for everyone through changing and challenging work experiences.

3. Consider the channel

How do you take what’s in your head and share it in such a way that someone else understands? Ideas that seem simple to you may not be simple to your audience.

Teammates must make ideas clear and easy to understand. This is really hard — especially when the ideas are complex or new. [text-ctt]Choose a communication medium that is up to the task of the ideas being shared. Fight back against the tyranny of text![text-ctt]

4. Commit to symmetry

[text-ctt]There are senders of information and receivers. Connection happens when teammates come together and meet in the middle. This requires a commitment to symmetry.[text-ctt]

What does this mean?

As receivers of information, you have a responsibility to listen — or read, watch, absorb — what’s being shared. If something is unclear, you must ask questions and work toward shared understanding.

As senders of information, you have a responsibility to make information clear, answering clarifying questions and recognizing audience struggle.

With symmetry achieved, teams can achieve a dynamic loop of connection.

How do you achieve symmetry with asynchronous work?

5. Include everyone

Teams are built with the understanding that everyone has something valuable to contribute. If one person is doing all the talking, if team members don’t feel free to ask questions, share, or participate in the work, the resulting imbalance is likely to result in frustration and misalignment.

Understand how mediums of communication affect participation. For example, a presentation, a document, or brief can signal to the audience that their role is to receive information — rather than participate.

6. Build relationships

Connection is all about building and sustaining relationships across a team. When you feel like you can relate to your team — and they to you — connection comes naturally because everyone feels a responsibility to one another.

[text-ctt]Building relationships takes work. Sometimes, the “work” of relationships can seem wasteful. Being patient with others, making small talk, being quick to play (and slow to judge) all go a long way to fostering strong relationships on your team.[text-ctt]

Facilitate connection on your team by asking these questions:

Questions to ask

What norms — e.g., confirming understanding, asking clarifying questions — can we establish to ensure symmetry in communication?
When knowledge or ideas are shared asynchronously, how do we ensure commitment to receiving, reviewing, and understanding information shared? What unspoken expectations exist on the team?
Have we set expectations for when and how we should use different communication channels like email, chat, video calls, etc.?
How do we take steps to include everyone on the team? How do we practice asking for participation from everyone involved?
How do we fail safely as a team and course-correct when connection breaks down? Reflect on a time when connection broke down.

MURAL TEMPLATE - TRY NOW!

Collaboration That Works Template
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Use this template to hold a focused discussion about collaboration on your team.

The hybrid question

Is it finally time to go “back” to work? What does that even mean? Businesses that shifted to predominantly remote workforces in 2020 are now racing to determine what policies and expectations to set for their employees, asking questions like:

  • Can our company remain fully remote?
  • Should our company remain fully remote?
  • What policies need to be created for a hybrid workforce?
  • How do you create equitable environments for work when some employees are at the company’s office while others are remote?

Exploring how to manage collaboration across physical and digital domains is a complex, evolving challenge we will be exploring in the coming weeks! Stay tuned.

How ThoughtWorks’ executive team connects, no matter the distance

When the executive global leadership team at ThoughtWorks was suddenly unable to get together in the same place to connect during their annual offsite, advisory services principal James Pickett got to work replanning the session.

“We needed a way for everyone to connect and interact with one another,” shared James, which is why the session was reimagined to happen virtually in MURAL. The result? A surprising way to achieve synthesis and consensus across the group.

Trust

Photographic portrait of Lisette Sutherland
“When a team has trust, they operate together as a cohesive unit. They look for ways to help each other, and they have healthy relationships with each other… A remote team that doesn’t trust each other is doomed.”
– Lisette Sutherland, Director of Collaboration Superpowers
Two colleagues shaking hands, while elements surround them such as: a thumbs up sign, a check mark within a shield, a cog.

What it takes for us to take chances together.

There was no time to wait. A decision had to be made about pushing a product update, and it had to be made now. So the product team met to talk through the pros and cons. At least, most of the team met.

Akash, the design lead, couldn’t attend the meeting due to a planned personal conflict that kept him out of the loop. After some thoughtful debate and discussion during the emergency meeting, the product manager made a judgment call. Everyone present agreed, and the decision was made to push to production.

When Akash learned what happened after the fact, he not only disagreed with it, he struggled to understand how his team could have decided without him there. Why had they made the decision without him? He was the expert on the subject matter. He had been involved every step of the way! The outcome didn’t feel right.

For Akash, this experience — regardless of the outcome — had damaged his sense of trust. Did he trust his team to decide without him? Now, he wasn’t so sure. And what would the team think to find out that he didn’t trust them to act without his input?

The trust of the team was now shaken, and no matter whether Akash’s concerns were valid, some reconciliation would need to happen for trust to be restored.

Trust is risky business

For teams to build trust, they must take risks. As Scott Berkun, author of The Year Without Pants, shared, [text-ctt]“The only way you demonstrate trust is to risk having your trust broken.”[text-ctt] By putting faith in the actions of others and letting go of control, you make it possible for your team to act in ways that might not help you — in ways that could even hurt you.

Frown face transitioning to happy face.

That’s scary. Fear makes trust hard.

Trust also takes time to build. It’s earned slowly, takes patience, and can’t be neglected without catastrophic consequences. According to a Carribean proverb shared by Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of Oglivy, “Trust grows at the speed of a coconut tree and falls at the speed of a coconut.”

Once trust is in question, connection becomes near impossible. For example, while connecting over digital channels like chat or email, what happens when misunderstanding leads to argument or debate? And when heated conversations come to a head, how do you respectfully disagree?

When the dust settles, is trust restored or damaged?

Happy face

BUILD Trust

Upside down happy face.

HURT Trust

Share an
“unpopular opinion”
Be dismissive about
(or avoid addressing) concerns or questions
Be transparent about information that affects the team — especially if doing so is uncomfortable
Under-communicate
Dare to be vulnerable
Only reactively provide updates to the team
Bias to taking ownership and responsibility
Become argumentative in response to issues shared
Delegate work to others on the team
Appear distracted or disengaged during team meetings
Be proactive about checking in when working asynchronously
Jump to conclusions
Ask for critical feedback and receive it graciously
Interrupt teammates
Give feedback charitably, knowing it’s not always easy to receive

5 ways to build trust

Two colleagues shaking hands, while elements surround them such as: a thumbs up sign, a check mark within a shield, a cog.

Trust is tacit knowledge — something we understand intuitively but struggle to explain. Approaching trust directly is no way to build it. “Just trust me” can have the opposite effect. Instead, teams need to build trust consistently and intentionally. Use these activities, rituals, and habits to help your team build trust.

1. Play

What does play have to do with trust? A lot more than you might think. Play is a way to interact with others in a low stakes environment. It’s called a sandbox for a reason. [text-ctt]Play is practice. It builds trust by taking teammates through scenarios that still reveal innate skills, abilities, and shortcomings — all in an environment where no one can get hurt. Build trust by taking small risks together.[text-ctt]

For example, play a game called “Sketch Your Neighbor.”

Sketch Your Neighbor Template
Get the template
Have your team sketch each other in MURAL. For the majority of people who say they can’t draw, this activity creates a level of vulnerability that improves group dynamics and builds a more open environment.

Games provide small risks for the team to overcome. It is awkward and slightly uncomfortable to draw a colleague, so overcoming this discomfort builds trust by revealing that playing in this way is safe — and a lot of fun.

2. Cultivate equity and fairness

A doodle drawing of an imbalanced scale.

Fairness has everything to do with equitable treatment. How is work divided up on a team? How do you make your teammates feel valued for their contributions? For leaders, how do you avoid favoritism? And how do you create the right amount of transparency in how decisions are made?

Perceptions of unfairness can lead to unspoken problems because it’s a difficult subject to broach. However, it’s critical that teammates speak up — albeit in a diplomatic, charitable way — if fairness is in question.

3. Encourage radical honesty

It’s not easy for teammates to be transparent with each other — especially when disagreeing or when information shared could lead to debate.

The concept of radical honesty, popularized by Brand Blanton’s book of the same name, is as simple as it sounds: Tell the truth. However, two reminders:

  • Honesty does not mean being brash or tactless in how you communicate.
  • Teams need not share everything with each other.

[text-ctt]The key? Practice sharing insights and ideas even if they are risky — meaning the information shared may be hard to hear, unpopular, or create challenges the team will need to overcome.[text-ctt] This ensures that important information is heard, risks are revealed early (when least harmful), and the team is set up for long-term success and transparency.

4. Apply the “most respectful interpretation”

The “most respectful interpretation” (MRI) is a way to ensure no one jumps to conclusions based on ambiguous information. It’s the applied belief that teammates are acting in good faith until proven otherwise.

Here’s how MRI works. Imagine a teammate is acting in a way that could be perceived as harmful to you or to the team. Ask yourself: What is the most respectful way to understand (or interpret) the behavior? Resist the urge to assume malicious intent. Start from a position of trust, asking clarifying questions to understand.

(If it is discovered there’s harmful behavior at play, that’s another story.)

5. Foster psychological safety

As Brie Anne Demkiw, head of designer experience at Automattic, said, “Creating psychological safety is probably the most important aspect of a leader’s job — regardless of whether your team is in an office or spread across 60 countries like Automattic. You need an environment where it’s safe for the team to share and experiment, knowing they will sometimes fail.”

Radical honesty, good faith, and the MRI come down to creating an environment of psychological safety. They make it okay for team members to work together knowing the team will not be quick to judge. Rather, they will seek to understand.

MURAL TEMPLATE - TRY NOW!

Collaboration That Works Template
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Use this template to hold a focused discussion about collaboration on your team.

Facilitate trust on your team by asking these questions:

Questions to ask

What’s the emotional temperature of our team’s digital channels? How playful, intense, informational, or disengaged are we?
What are three example rituals and practices we can use to bring into the team on a regular basis?
How does the team — and especially leadership — handle difficult information?
How can we avoid mind reading or making assumptions?
What steps do we take to be inclusive and encourage everyone to contribute?
What are some signs to look out for that might indicate someone is disengaged?

How teams at Atlassian build TRUST and connection

For a lot of people, the sudden shift to remote work in early 2020 was a shock to the system. The boundary between work and home was not just blurred, but decimated, and it was harder for team members to feel connected.

Eugene Chung, R&D team coach at Atlassian, set about designing a workshop to solve this problem. He and his team prototyped the method, then rapidly tested and iterated on it in MURAL. The result was the Work Life Impact Play, a method you can use to build psychological safety and identify the right support for your team.

Photograph of Eugene Chung, R&D Team Coach at Atlassian.
Thought bubble coming from photo of Eugene's portrait, containing a quote mark and a thumbs up.

Focusing on … skills of true empathy, of being able to understand each other, being able to adapt with each other, and really get you to this point having this deeper sense of trust and connection with your teams, this resilience on teams … [these] are the skills we’re trying to build up now.

Eugene Chung
R&D Team Coach, Atlassian

Purpose

Photographic portrait of Linda Hill.
Photographic portrait of Kent Lineback.
“A clear and compelling purpose is the glue that binds together a group of individuals. It is the foundation on which the collective ‘we’ of a real team is built.”
– Linda Hill & Kent Lineback for Harvard Business Review
Scene containing a few mountains with a flag atop one of the peaks, with elements surrounding such as: a globe, pink clouds, stars, bar chart, a crown.

Who cares?

Not to be a downer, but … who cares?

Carmen was anxious about the first day at her new job. She was thrilled to land her dream role in UX design but nervous about working at an all-remote company.

At least she knew that the company had an excellent culture. They’d won awards for it, and everyone she’d met during the interview process went on and on about how well their team got along. She knew she would be just fine — and she was.

Doodle drawing of heart with arrow going through it.

Three months in, Carmen was settling in nicely. She got along well with her team. They did virtual lunch once a week, and their meetings were rarely dull. But still, Carmen felt like something was missing. And that something was not, to her surprise, face-to-face connection.

It was purpose.

Carmen had been working on an important design project all quarter — or at least, that’s what her boss kept saying. She never really understood why it was so important. In Carmen’s mind, she could just as easily be doing the same work for any number of competing companies.

So while she loved the people she worked with, she felt unmotivated by her work. She could work all day to improve the customer experience, but she lacked the ability to tie her work to outcomes.

How was the company making a difference? And of equal importance, how was she?

More

The myth of trickle-down purpose

A doodle image with to-do sheet and one checked item.

The problem is not that organizations lack purpose. Ask any C-level executive about the company’s purpose and values, and chances are you’ll get a solid answer. The disconnect happens when leaders expect those concepts to trickle down to their employees via internal wikis or a mission statement on an office wall.

That’s not how it works. [text-ctt]It takes top-down commitment to rally everyone around the same purpose, consistently and emphatically. On the flipside, employees have a responsibility to become invested in that purpose.[text-ctt]

This doesn’t just apply at the company level. It applies at the team and individual levels, too. Does everyone understand their team’s purpose, and their own? Can they see the impact their work is having? Because no matter how well you get along with your team, no matter how much you trust them, it’s near-impossible to do innovative work if your purpose is murky.

Here’s a quick litmus test to evaluate sense of purpose. How would your team answer these questions?

  • Why does our company exist?
  • Why does our product exist?
  • Why does my role exist?
  • Why are we spending 40+ hrs/wk doing our jobs?

The way teams answer is a matter of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation


  • Doing something to win an award or avoid a punishment
  • Desire to achieve something based on external pressure

Intrinsic motivation


  • Doing something because you love it

  • Desire to achieve something in order to fulfill a passion within you or something you believe in

When you look only at extrinsic motivation, the answer to the “why” questions is obvious, practical, and perhaps a little cynical: to make money.

And that’s not wrong. Companies need to turn a profit, and people need jobs.

But when you look beyond the surface to uncover your purpose, as an individual and as a team, that’s where you find the intrinsic motivation that’s critical to stay motivated and excited.

If you’ve ever been at a job you hated with a team you loved, you understand the struggle of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Like UX designer Carmen, you probably felt like that job lacked a meaningful purpose, despite the connection and trust you built with your team.

That’s not to say external motivators are negative by any means. Incentives, like bonuses and promotions, can create healthy extrinsic motivation. Just don’t mistake them for purpose.

Doodle drawing of unlocked lock with key alongside it.

The formula for purpose

According to Malcom Gladwell, in order for work to be meaningful it needs to satisfy three characteristics.

  • 1. Autonomy: No one wants to be micromanaged — another reason trust is so important in the workplace.
  • 2. Complexity: It’s hard to stay engaged at work when we’re not being challenged. In fact, boredom is the number one reason people consider leaving their jobs, a survey by Korn Ferry suggests.
  • 3. Connection between effort and reward: It’s gratifying to see the impact of our work. It’s even more satisfying to be rewarded for it. This one’s all about extrinsic motivation — getting fairly compensated for the work we do.
A floating ear.

5 ways to foster a shared sense of purpose

Scene containing a few mountains with a flag atop one of the peaks, with elements surrounding such as: a globe, pink clouds, stars, bar chart, a crown.

[text-ctt]Without purpose, work is just a series of tasks. With purpose, it’s a chance to solve meaningful problems and the passion to solve them.[text-ctt] Use these activities, rituals, and habits to help your team discover and embody a shared sense of purpose.

1. Co-create a team mission statement

The bigger a company is, the more likely it is that individuals will feel detached from the organization’s mission and purpose. The best way to drive that purpose home is to contextualize what it means for you and your team.

If you don’t have a team mission statement (or you haven’t reviewed yours in a while), set aside time with your team to create one. It should clearly and succinctly answer four questions:

  • What does your team do?
  • Who do they do it for?
  • Why do they do it?
  • How is your team’s approach unique?

2. Evangelize your mission statement

Once you have a clear understanding of your team’s purpose and mission, make sure you document it and weave it into the fabric of your team to make it a reality. Write it down, visualize it to make it more memorable, share it out, and refer to it often. Make sure everyone not only knows about it but internalizes it.

3. Create a team charter

With a team charter, you can build a shared understanding of how your team will work together. It's a roadmap to ensure your team is clear about where you’re heading, and to point you in the right direction when rough weather hits.

Team Charter Template
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4. Hire for passion

While you can’t expect everyone you hire to live and breathe your company’s vision or understand your team’s purpose from day one, it’s critical to find someone whose core values align with the organization’s and your team’s. Someone who is passionate about the work they do will virtually always outperform someone whose sole motivation is to bring home a paycheck.

5. Take care of your people

On the flipside, people aren’t machines that you put motivation coins into and innovation pops out. Any number of things — e.g., competing priorities at home, feeling disconnected from the team (especially when working asynchronously), even mental health challenges — can impact someone’s ability to act on that purpose. Keep an eye out for signs of struggle, and tap into the trust you’ve built with your team to address any issues.

Facilitate purpose on your team by asking these questions:

Questions to ask

Why does our team exist? What is our team’s purpose?
How would each person on the team express the team’s purpose? Take time to share.
What does success look like for the company? For our team? For me?
How can we show everyone how their contributions make an impact?
How might we make a habit of clarifying how projects, tasks, and work relate to the team’s purpose?

MURAL TEMPLATE - TRY NOW!

Collaboration That Works Template
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Use this template to hold a focused discussion about collaboration on your team.

Alignment

Photograph of Patrick Lencioni.
“Great teams ensure that everyone’s ideas are genuinely considered, which then creates a willingness to rally around whatever decision is ultimately made by the group.”
– Patrick Lencioni,
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
Woman and man pushing two oversized puzzle pieces together.

Same destination, different paths

Dennis pulled up to the hotel, eager to attend the annual executive retreat.

There had been some tension lately on the team. Dennis and his cofounder, Luisa, were butting heads over the future of the company. This was their chance to hash it out with the rest of the leadership team, and Dennis was determined to change Luisa’s mind.

Day one was all about relaxing and spending time as a team. On day two, things got real.

Doodle drawing of lego pieces.

The goal of the first planning workshop was to agree on and prioritize company-level objectives for the upcoming year — in other words, the overarching goals that would inform the company’s strategy.

As the head of product, Dennis went into the session with guns blazing, ready to argue for building a new product that would expand their customer base to new industries.

But cofounder and CEO Luisa disagreed. She was concerned that they weren’t growing their existing customer base quickly enough, and they should double down on improving their offerings for that audience.

When the facilitator Dennis and Luisa had hired kicked off the planning session, she didn’t dive right into priorities. Instead, she had them take a step back and talk about the company mission. Both Dennis and Luisa felt validated. Each of them believed their point of view was the right way to fulfill that mission.

Doodle drawing of broken link chain.

And that’s where the disconnect was. Even though they agreed on the destination, they weren’t aligned on what it would take to get there.

Fortunately, the facilitator knew how to help. She was there not to advise them, but to serve as a neutral third party, guiding the team through the planning and prioritization process. Over the course of the day, she would guide them through exercises and discussions to help Dennis, Luisa, and the rest of the executive team align on the company’s strategic priorities for that year.

It’s just a little rain

When the tires on your car are out of alignment, the tread wears unevenly. The car might get more difficult to control and start drifting off course. If bad weather hits, things can get dangerous.

Magical, mystical rainbow.

The same can be said for teams. A lack of alignment makes it harder to get to your destination, and it can make a little bit of rain feel like a storm.

Why is alignment so hard for teams to achieve? As Dennis and Luisa’s story demonstrates, simply agreeing on your purpose isn’t enough. Teams need to align on how they will act to fulfill their purpose. Not just on a tactical level, how they operate day-to-day, but on a strategic level. This is true both for companies as a whole and for individual teams.

In some ways, alignment happens through osmosis. Every group, every organization has a sort of collective consciousness that comes from a shared sense of purpose. The longer the group has existed and the more connected they are, the more aligned they’ll be.

[text-ctt]But to get really aligned and collaborate efficiently, teams must do the work to understand both the problems they’re solving and how they’re solving them — together.[text-ctt]

5 ways to align your team

Woman and man pushing two oversized puzzle pieces together.

Documenting your mission, purpose, and strategy is just the beginning. You need to reinforce, internalize, and decide how to activate them as a team. Use these activities, rituals, and habits to align your team.


1. Create a space for “stupid” questions

No one likes to feel out of the loop, but it can be hard to raise your voice when you’re confused or need context. Often, we avoid asking questions for fear of looking silly — but a team that’s connected and has built trust doesn’t believe in stupid questions. These teams encourage curiosity and clarification to get everyone on the same page. To check for understanding and alignment, make it a habit to create a judgment-free space for those “stupid” questions.


2. Employ the “Jobs to Be Done” mindset

Jobs to Be Done is a way to understand problems not by fixating on specific solutions but by identifying the overall objective. Traditionally, JTBD has been associated with product teams, but in practice, it’s a mindset that any team can (and should!) adopt.

There are many schools of thought around JTBD, but put simply, it asks the question: What job are people “hiring” us to do? When you understand the need you’re fulfilling from a customer’s point of view, you can align on the best way to fulfill it. For example, someone might hire a box fan to keep them cool — or they might hire it to provide white noise. If you sell fans, that insight sparks a lot of questions about how you can help customers get that job done in the best possible way.

When you use JTBD to identify and solve problems for your users, your clients, or your organization, you can effectively dig deep into the root of the challenges and converge on the best way to solve them.

Jobs To Be Done Worksheet
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3. Set OKRs

OKRs, or objectives and key results, is a framework for strategic and tactical planning. OKRs are a common way for cross-functional teams to align around strategy and priorities. With the OKR framework, you start by defining your objectives, or the big-picture goals that your team will align on. Later on, we’ll talk about imagination and mobilization, which drive the key results — the actions you take to achieve those objectives.

Spotify’s OKR Planning Template
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Use this template, created with our friends at Spotify, to align your team through OKR planning. Run your team’s next planning sessions visually, guiding them through a series of collaborative activities over the course of three to four hours.

5. Get aligned through visual thinking

[text-ctt]Sometimes, words aren’t enough to create shared understanding. To avoid talking in circles — or worse, thinking you’re aligned when you’re not — use visuals to communicate complex topics and make sure everyone is on the same page.[text-ctt]

The options are limitless. From simple sketches and diagrams to more complex flowcharts, journey maps, and models, your team can use visual thinking to collaborate more effectively and get aligned.


6. Remember: alignment ≠ agreement

Being aligned doesn’t always mean being in complete agreement. Ryan McKeever, writer and CX leader, puts it like this: “Alignment means everyone can support a decision as if it were their own, even if they might have done something different if they ruled the world … Agreement, on the other hand, requires a higher degree of commitment from each person on the team. Agreement means there is unanimity of opinion.”

[text-ctt]The only way to get on the same page and move past disagreements is to either align or agree. You don’t always need agreement to move forward. Sometimes, alignment is enough.[text-ctt]

Facilitate alignment with these questions:

Questions to ask

Ask everyone on the team: What are the core customer problems (Jobs to Be Done) we're solving together?
Are we on the same page? How do we know?
What resources do we have for new team members to get aligned?
What are three rituals currently in place that explicitly increase alignment — e.g., at the end of every meeting, next steps are shared and agreed upon?
What shared language or actions does our team use to indicate understanding and agreement?

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HOW Spotify’s OKR planning empowers teams to get creative and get aligned

Spotify uses OKRs to define their objectives and key results. Since COVID-19 hit the U.S. in 2020, Emem Adjah, global head of monetization at Spotify, has used MURAL to facilitate virtual planning sessions. Learn how they saved time, improved communication, and fostered accountability with remote OKR planning.

Photograph of Emem Adjah, Global Head of Monetization at Spotify.
Thought bubble emerging from Emem Adjah's portrait containing a heart and a smiley face.

What I like to illustrate to my team is: here's the destination. I don't care if you walk, swim, fly, roll to the destination … You’re going to pick the best, most efficient way to get there.

Emem Adjah
Global Head of Monetization, Spotify

Imagination

Photograph of Laurel Farrer, CEO and founder of Distribute Consulting
“Work can't only be about output. You have to give time and space for imagination. If your together time is only for tasks, you don't get collective imagination. Teams need to rethink what ‘productivity’ really means and extend the definition to include time to exercise their imagination, like a muscle."
– Laurel Farrer, CEO and Founder,
Distribute Consulting
Giant brain surrounded by a lightbulb, rocketship, lego, painter's palette, and a key entering a keyhole. Twinkling stars and clouds surround the scene.

Growing up is a trap.

If you want to see imagination at work, just watch young children interact with each other on a playground. They’ll easily slip into a make-believe land of cops-and-robbers or reinvent a scene from Star Wars with nothing more than a few sticks for lightsabers.

Sparkling Lego (the best kind of Lego)

Or back at home, give a child a box of LEGOs and they’ll create miniature buildings and landscapes never before seen. With an endless number of combinations possible, they’ll explore options and variations with ease and with pleasure.

Somewhere along the way — perhaps in the name of “growing up” — we lose our ability to imagine so naturally. Rational, linear thought is prioritized by our educational institutions and employers. We tend to move further away from applying imagination later in life. After all, we want to be taken seriously, and imagination just doesn’t seem to have a place.

This is tragic. [text-ctt]Imagination is a birthright possessed by all but practiced by few. And now more than ever, we need to reclaim our ability to apply imagination to our work.[text-ctt]

You don’t have to look further than the need for business resiliency during the pandemic to highlight the imagination imperative. Literally overnight, businesses were compelled to rethink their business models, how to survive, and even why they exist.

Truth is, however, businesses have always needed this type of creative resiliency, irrespective of the pandemic. Work is uncertain and unpredictable. What worked yesterday won’t work tomorrow. We need imagination.

The imagination imperative

Imagination is the human capacity to conceive of things that are not real, allowing us to conceive of a future that does not yet exist. [text-ctt]As AI and other technologies take the “thinking” work off of our shoulders, imagination will increasingly stand at the core of resiliency and ultimately business success.[text-ctt]

The rise of the imagination worker

A century ago, work for a majority of people meant showing up to a factory and punching in every day. They worked with their hands on an assembly line, while a handful of managers sat in the offices above the factory floor.

Black and white photo of a car assembly line.

Around the middle of the last century, business management pioneer Peter Drucker noticed a new class of worker — the office worker — who worked mostly with their heads. He then coined the term “knowledge worker.”

Now we’re seeing another shift. The passion, purpose, imagination, and creativity that people bring with them to work are as important as things like productivity and efficiency. [text-ctt]While people still work with their hands and heads, adding heart — that is, empathy, compassion, love — to the mix demands a new paradigm of work.[text-ctt]

At MURAL, we call this new group “imagination workers.” Their ability to picture a future that doesn’t yet exist is increasingly critical to innovation and business success. They are valued in an organization not only for their skills and knowledge, but also their inventiveness, collaboration, and spirit.

We’re still in the midst of this shift, and imagination work isn’t always prioritized or even understood. It requires us to think counterfactually and challenge the status quo — things that are often not rewarded in the workplace. [text-ctt]Fear of failure, risk aversion, and the desire to quantify everything prevail in the business world.[text-ctt]

[text-ctt]But you can’t analyze your way to innovation.[text-ctt]

Innovation — and by extension, imagination — requires a cognitive leap into the future. You have to dare to ask, “what else” and “what if?” And you have to do it as a team. The whole, after all, is greater than the sum of its parts.

So, how do we build effective teams of imagination workers?

Rituals and behaviors matter, of course. But teams need the time and space to exercise collective imagination like a muscle. It’s the overall dynamics and belief of the group that will build a culture of imagination, from the top down and the bottom up.

If you’ve ever experienced the thrill of working creatively as a team, then you know the magic of imagination. Research shows that this is healthy for employee well-being, both at work and beyond. As a result, growing a culture of imagination attracts and retains talent. It's what the next generation of workers craves.

6 ways to encourage imagination on your team

Giant brain surrounded by a lightbulb, rocketship, lego, painter's palette, and a key entering a keyhole. Twinkling stars and clouds surround the scene.

Imagination workers don’t work in silos; they exercise their imagination as a part of a team, working together to build on each other's ideas. Use these activities, rituals, and habits to help your team tap into its collective imagination.

1. Observe and absorb

Imaginative teams continually listen and learn about the world around them. They are aware of the world around them and open to discovering more. Knowing where the boundaries are allows you to better push on them. Imagination begins with inspiration from the objects and concepts in the real world.

2. Be continually curious

Imaginative teams are naturally curious. They have a general interest in how things work and why they work. There is a general spirit of inquiry and pervasive inquisitiveness. They aren’t satisfied with the world as it exists and want to learn what lies beyond the bounds of their perception.

3.  Imagine and reimagine

It might sound somewhat paradoxical, but the ability to reimagine plays a large role in our imaginations. Innovation isn’t just about coming up with novel ideas; it’s also about recombining existing concepts into new solutions. Imaginative teams do not only observe the world as it is — they can also reimagine how it could be.

4. Support half-baked ideas

“No bad ideas” and “don’t judge” are standard rules of thumb for most brainstorming sessions. Teams employing collective imagination have that same mindset every day. [text-ctt]There can be no fear of making half-baked suggestions or sounding silly. Create space for wacky ideas and shower thoughts, even outside of brainstorming.[text-ctt]

5. Play

Making space for imagination means bringing playfulness to your workstyle — not just for special occasions, but every day. Ongoing play at work promotes creativity and curiosity, and — like we talked about with trust — it’s a low-risk way to try new things and get a little weird. To get your team in a playful state of mind, try using warmups and energizers in your meetings.

6. Say “yes, and...”

In the world of improv, “yes, and…” is the force that drives a scene forward. The idea is that each actor accepts the reality dictated by the previous speaker and then builds upon it. The same principle can be used in the workplace. Instead of shutting down ideas, say “Yes, and…” and see where it takes you.

Facilitate imagination on your team by asking these questions:

How imaginative is your team?

For any problem solving situation, how does your team explore options and alternatives before setting a direction?
Do you explicitly reward people — e.g., with kudos, as criteria for job promotion, with bonuses — for sharing off-the-beaten-path ideas?
Do you build on each others’ ideas — e.g., with “yes, and” and “how might we”?
Does your team say things like “that won’t work” or “we’ve tried that before” often?
Does your team regularly ask questions like: What if? What else might work? What if we tried something different? Maybe there is an opportunity with another approach?
What rituals does your team have to exercise your collective imagination regularly — e.g., creative warmups and activities?

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Make space for imagination with your team

Hermen Lutje Berenbroek, strategic designer at Artifizer, helps teams develop, implement, and adopt business solutions faster through visual workshops and designed communication. Hermen recently visualized the experience of making space for imagination, a central theme at MURAL, by animating how teams can break free of technology to work together visually in a shared space.

Read Hermen’s 3 tips for bringing imagination to your next team meeting.

Photograph of Hermen Lutje Berenbroe
Thought bubble emerging from Hermen Lutje Berenbroe's photograph, containing an image of quotation marks and a thumbs up.

While technology empowers us to solve some of our challenges, it is people who are creative.

Hermen Lutje Berenbroek

Mobilization

“Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much.”
– Helen Keller
An oversized hand with finger pushing a button, surrounded by a clipboard, to-do list, lightbulb, pie chart, envelope.

ACTING ON “EUREKA!”

When Aaron’s team finished their brainstorming workshop, the air was abuzz with excitement.

The team’s creative juices were flowing, and they were motivated in that moment to act on their newly found insights, to make a change that mattered.

Envelope with thumbs up and heart coming out of it.

“Eureka!” they thought. “We’ve solved it.”

But quickly, reality took over. A full inbox, Slack chats, mundane tasks, and meetings demanded immediate attention. By Monday the next week, a full-blown case of workshop amnesia had set in. Not only did the team forget what they decided and who was responsible to follow up, but they also lost momentum.

Having great ideas is meaningless if you can’t act on them. The follow-through to imagination comes from team mobilization, a commitment to realizing innovative concepts and putting the power of imagination into motion.

It’s not enough that teams are coordinated and managed. Collaborative teams also have to be mobilized — that is, they must act with strong, self-sustaining momentum and autonomy to get the job done.

More

Building a cathedral

The story of the three stonecutters goes like this: A man came across three stonecutters and asked them what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stone cutting in the entire county.” The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “I am building a cathedral.”

Understanding your purpose and how your work fits into an overall scheme is an important part of mobilized teams.

A machine with many parts and buttons. Question mark and exclamation mark popping out of it.

A lack of focus also dilutes a team's ability to make progress. Execution doesn’t just happen without clear direction and boundaries. Teams have to know when to say “no” and when to push back. Having a clear purpose and alignment around that purpose is an ongoing challenge inherent in team work.

To be mobilized, teams also need to be autonomous. They need to be empowered to make their own decisions based on the strategic direction set out by the organization. The tension between autonomy and alignment to the larger organization makes mobilization hard.

Keep in mind that autonomy needs to be earned. That is, teams need to prove they are worthy of the autonomy they seek. But once proven, leaders need to let go and rely on the team to do the right thing. Trust comes into play here because leaders must inherently have the confidence that the mobilized team will be doing the right things.

Nothing slows a group down more than the infamous “swoop and poop” scenario: A leader comes into the middle of an effort and un-decides a decision already made, setting the team back.

[text-ctt]Micromanaging is the enemy of a mobilized team. Instead, they must be given the decision making power they need in advance through commitment, trust, and autonomy.[text-ctt]

5 ways to mobilize your team

An oversized hand with finger pushing a button, surrounded by a clipboard, to-do list, lightbulb, pie chart, envelope.

Mobilization is what allows teams to pivot, react, and change in a way that resilient business demand. Use these activities, rituals, and habits to mobilize your team and put ideas into action.


1. Orchestrate cross-functional collaboration

The hard work of collaboration requires coordination, not only within the team but also across related teams and departments. This goes beyond a basic need for a project plan and task management. There is also clarity and focus on related components: customer needs, cross-departmental cooperation, and strategic goals. Mobilized teams are well-orchestrated in a way that the activities of teams move in harmony with other groups and with the organization as a whole. 


2. Empower your team

Teams need to feel empowered. Just telling a group that they are empowered doesn’t mean they’ll act that way. The aim is to instill confidence and reduce uncertainty to move forward without reprimand for acting out of line. [text-ctt]Hesitant teams — uncertain how to proceed without permission — slow mobilization down to a crawl. Empowerment is a collective state of mind that allows everyone to act autonomously while staying in sync.[text-ctt]


3.  Experiment fearlessly

It’s essential to be able to act on imagined ideas and prove them out. Mobilized teams take action to represent ideas for further shaping and molding. They experiment on a regular basis and learn from each experiment.


4. Set OKRs

OKRs, or objectives and key results, is a commonly used framework for strategic and tactical planning. We already talked about how teams need to align around their strategic objectives through OKRs. In the same vein, they need to agree on what success will look like. In other words, what are the key results (the “KRs”) that will demonstrate whether you’ve been successful? Even if you don’t strictly adhere to the OKR method of planning, it can be a helpful framework for mobilizing your team around specific projects and initiatives.


5. Prioritize momentum

Mobilized teams are motivated, having a “bias to action.” They don’t stop at experimentation; they take what they learn and put it into action, and they see tasks through to completion. They leave meetings with a sense of accomplishment and clear next steps. Through alignment and focus, they create a natural momentum that comes from all of the working parts moving in synchronicity.

How mobilized is your team?

Questions to ask

Within the overall mission of the organization, do individual teams have a clear focus on what’s more relevant to them and what their priorities are?
Can teams in your organization make decisions without fear of repercussions?
Do team members frequently say things like “I’m not sure — I have to first ask if we can do that” or “let me get back to you after I get permission” or similar? What happens next?
Does your team overestimate timelines on purpose and miss deadlines regularly or do they do work in a timeline manner that exceeds expectations?

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how zapier turns data into insights — and insights into action

At Zapier, everyone works toward the same objectives, but it’s up to each team how they execute on those objectives. Senior product manager Richard Enlow and his team turned to user research to chart their path forward.

Learn how they use visual methods in MURAL to organize user research and find patterns in the data — empowering them to take action with confidence.

Photograph of Richard Enlow, Senior Product Manager at Zapier
Thought bubble emerging from Richard Enlow's photography containing a shining sun.

We can actually ensure that the decisions that we’re making are the right decisions, both for our company and for our users.

Richard Enlow
Senior Product Manager, Zapier

Async

A scene of colleagues working remotely and asynchronously.

ASYNC

When we talk about “async work,” let’s be honest.

A scene of colleagues working remotely and asynchronously.

“We need to talk.”

“We can work async.”

“Let’s take this offline.”

“I’ll set up a meeting to discuss…”

“...This meeting could have been an email.”

– Teams Everywhere

No one even questions it anymore. Modern work, including collaborative work with large, distributed teams, can and must happen asynchronously.

But that doesn’t mean “async” work is best or that it even works.

Asynchronous collaboration really took off with email as digital made it easy to send and receive messages within an organization irrespective of time. Now, this send-and-receive structure is used everywhere — whether it’s chat, recorded videos, or shared documents.

All this “unbundled” back-and-forth somehow works ... at least some of the time. When, and how, does it work best? How do teams effectively collaborate async? When should the work be taken to a higher level of engagement — that is synchronous?

More
Let’s
Define
The
Terms

Asynchronous work

Known as working “async,” asynchronous work is when teams break up efforts into component parts so that they may be worked on separately. The parts are completed “out of sync” and then shared for others to review, add to, or incorporate into their own work.

Examples: Email, chat, comments on docs, recorded video presentations

Synchronous work

Work that happens when everyone on the team is able to engage with each other live. In its most interactive form, synchronous work is accomplished face-to-face and in the same physical space — or it’s done digitally using audio and visual platforms to allow for back-and-forth dialog. The primary consideration is that the sending and receiving of information happens in real-time, and information shared is

assumed to be received and considered by everyone present.
In a non-digital context, the traditional office and especially rooms for meetings were where synchronous work took place. In a digital context, synchronous work can be performed through combining video conference calls with collaborative software such as MURAL.

Examples: Meetings, workshops, ad hoc video and phone calls

Commiting to symmetry

In connection we talk about the need to “commit to symmetry.” We set up this concept by expressing the sharing of information as like an equation in need of balancing:

A scene of colleagues working remotely and asynchronously.
  • As senders of information, you have a responsibility to make information clear, answering clarifying questions and recognizing when the audience is struggling to understand.
  • As receivers of information, you have a responsibility to listen — or read, watch, and absorb — what’s being shared. If something is unclear, recipients must ask questions and work toward shared understanding.
Two colleagues having a clear and concise exchange of information.

A commitment to symmetry helps make sense of asynchronous and synchronous work. Teams (and organizations) that don’t take responsibility for sending and receiving information won’t be able to build connection and trust. They’ll find it impossible to create a shared purpose or align around an objective. As for imagining together and mobilizing to execute?

Forget it.

Avoiding this problem is a lot like keeping up your credit card payments: You don’t want to go into debt — because if you do, you may never recover.

Asynchronous debt

[text-ctt]Think of asynchronous work as debt. It's the debt you create for your teammates. It’s the debt they create for you. This is because, like debt, when you’re asked to work asynchronously, an expectation is set that you commit your time to do the work.[text-ctt] When? That’s up to you to figure out. You can do it on your own time, but that debt must be paid.

And like debt, async work can grow quickly if you’re not careful. The complicated message you send to a colleague — for them to respond on their own time — can lead to a back-and-forth that balloons into much more work than if the work had just been done live. Time that passes between the sending and responding to work can also result in one party making progress while another is still stuck in the past. This can spiral out of control if you’re not careful.

Today, modern work is synonymous with async debt. It’s simply invisible because it’s so common. Yet how much time do you spend on these tasks every day:

  • Managing your inbox
  • Catching up on Slack or MS Teams messages
  • Reviewing and updating tasks in your project management tool
  • Ping-ponging comments back and forth on documents

How often have you given up on even trying to keep up? Asynchronous debt can get so bad that you declare bankruptcy, as with “email bankruptcy,” a concept first popularized nearly 20 years ago.

That’s never a great outcome, which is why today, it’s critical to know when async works — and when it doesn’t.

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To async or not, that is the question!

3 factors to consider

Use the following questions to assess if collaboration should happen asynchronously or synchronously. (Answered on a sliding scale — these are guiding lights!)


1. Have async expectations been set?

Hand pointing on the third largest star of three neatly arranged stars, and magnifying glass hovering over a few stars that are placed amongst a group of unorganized stars.

Set clear expectations when working asynchronously. For example, using “Action required” or “Required reading” at the outset helps recipients know what’s required of them so they can set aside time.

If the outcome of the work is uncertain, setting clear expectations may not be possible and it may be worth taking the work to a synchronous experience.


2. How difficult is it to explain?

Icons of two people clearly exchanging information via speech bubbles, and icon of two people exchanging information, yet one person has a question mark next to its head implying confusion.

How likely is it the audience (or your teammate) would want to ask questions about the information shared? How likely is it they would need to respond and discuss?
For difficult to explain subject matter, topics with greater uncertainty, and conversations where consensus is important, make space for questions and discussion.


3. Is this admin work or collaborative work?

Administrative tasks are easy to take asynchronous (so long as expectations are set!). However, for work that would help build connection, trust, alignment, and purpose on the team, considering going synchronous. This also goes for celebratory announcements. Enjoy those moments together!

Maximize the value of together time

Meetings are often seen as expensive, time-wasting activities. Though they certainly can be, synchronous moments with your team should be highly valuable. You want to maximize the value of together time.

Getting value out of real, synchronous time spent with your team is the responsibility of whoever brings everyone together. When calling a meeting, all-hands, or other synchronous event, take responsibility. Synchronous is serious business!

Simple actions can go a long way to maximizing the value of together time:

Create an agenda.
1
Consider who should attend.
2
Plan out the activities.
3
Send out pre-work.
4

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You have reached the end of Collaboration That Works!

This marks the beginning of a continuous process of facilitating easier collaboration with your teams and organizations.

IF YOU HAVEN’T,

visit our blog as we explore how high-performing teams are:

  • Making collaboration easier
  • Making space for imagination
  • Guiding the work through visual methods
  • Facilitating teamwork for incredible outcomes

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