There is little in this world that is achieved through the greatness of one single individual—putting man on the moon was a team effort, building the Burj Khalifa was a team effort, winning the world cup is a team effort. Scaling a successful startup like Canva is no different. Luckily we were able to discover the secret sauce to our success early on—the incredibly passionate and talented team that makes up Canva.
Some of the Canva Manila team
As the company grows tenfold, we want to make sure that everyone continues to be empowered to do their best work, and is part of a happy and effective team. As a matter of fact, I’m part of Team Happiness—where our main objective is to look after the incredible teams that make up Canva.
Some of the Team Happiness team
Something we’ve found essential in multiplying self-contained teams—those that have the necessary people and resources to achieve their goals—is having regular Health Checks, which gives everyone the opportunity to track their effectiveness as a team. In this article I will run through our Health Check process, and how we use this to address any underlying issues hidden behind the complexities of a fast-growing company.
Some of the Canva Sydney team
Diagnosing team effectiveness
Most of our wins came about by brainstorming crazy big goals together, running experiments, shipping MVPs and incrementally hacking from there. However, we learned that to be able to keep up Canva’s momentum, we needed to give more TLC to the teams tirelessly working towards the goals! We’ve grown from a small team of five who set up shop in our CEO Melanie’s mom’s basement, to a company with over 250 employees spread across 70 teams around the world—who act like ‘little startups’.
But while we’ve definitely experienced huge wins, it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
With our rapid growth came the side effects brought on by having a more diversified team (which is a good thing! - but as you can imagine, with more people we needed to place more care to, help balance personal preferences and team dynamics). And then there were the challenges faced with working with remote teams, managing internal communications, juggling individual priorities - just to name a few. We also encountered difficulties around increasing cross-team dependencies, which slowed down the progress of some teams. It was then we realised we needed to find a way to support teams to become more effective, autonomous, and agile.
Our teams are like little startups who have their own big goals, and are accountable and autonomous pushing their parts of the pie to hit Canva’s big goals.
Prescribing Team Health Checks
After trying out best practices shared by larger scale companies, we decided to spend a bit more time understanding the key ingredients that make up successful and healthy teams in Canva. Through the results of our internal culture survey and feedback from different people across various teams, we were able to identify the different checkpoints that make a team effective; and we used this info to create our very own Health Check process.
Goals of the Team Health Check
- With this brand new process pack, teams should be able to:
- Increase trust and psychological safety within the team.
- Allow individuals to build better relationships between team members.
- Nip problems in the bud, before they become bigger issues.
- Foster a culture of feedback.
- Constantly improve the way teams work.
Furthermore, we needed to make sure that the whole company understood the value of these Health Checks, so that they will be willing and eager participants of the process. Afterall, the process only works if everyone plays their part.
Checking the team’s pulse
We have identified five checkpoints of a healthy team. These are grounded on our values which focus on empowerment, pursuing excellence, setting goals, simplifying things, and being good humans. The checkpoints are used universally in Canva, regardless of what team you’re on, which country you’re in, and who’s in the team.
1. We are making progress towards goals
We’ve formed the habit of setting ambitious goals per team every season (quarter). This ensures that teams are focusing their time and energy on things that add value, create impact, and are aligned with the company’s goals. This checkpoint also allows teams to think about their priorities, as sometimes it can be a challenge to focus with so many other pieces of the puzzle moving around.
- Does the team have a clear and big goal they are working towards?
- Are the team goals aligned with Canva’s goals?
- Has the team set out a clear timeframe to track their progress and goals?
- How could they be moving faster?
Some of the Canva Manila’s recruitement team with their seasonal goal.
2. We are allocating the right resources
As with any growing company, team members may find themselves doing work far beyond their daily capacity. It is important to make sure everyone is equipped not only with the tools and resources they require—and that these are sorted, paid for etc.—but also they are hiring the right people to fill the necessary roles within our growing teams. It’s also crucial for teams to identify any dependencies from other teams and identify how this is affecting the progress to their goals.
- Does the team have the right people and resources to achieve their goal?
- What are the roles and responsibilities within the team?
- What does the team need or rely on from other teams, and vice versa?
- How does the team manage these dependencies?
3. We are setting up effective team processes
A team is a group of people with different specialties and skillsets working towards a common goal. In a team where each member may be working on different parts of a project, having the right processes in place is critical—completing strategy docs, having team catch-ups, providing feedback etc.—means that everyone in the team is aligned on exactly what they are building and/or working on, and what goals they are achieving.
- What processes and systems do individuals want to set up with their team that will support them in getting their work done effectively?
- What are team cadences for planning, feedback, and reporting?
- How can team individuals ensure that they are continuously improving how they work together?
4. We are creating a safe and trusted team environment
Creating a sense of psychological safety within the team is what we believe helps all of our teams get on the same page, and work well together. Individuals within teams that are ‘out of sync’ will often find they are wasting time, are less open to ideas and process, are less likely to own up to their mistakes, and in some extreme cases likely to leave the company.
We encourage our teams to create a culture where everyone has trust and mutual respect for one another, feels comfortable being themselves, is encouraged to make mistakes with an established sense of accountability, ask lots of questions, be open about their anxieties, and be available for one another.
Celebrations are a big part of who we are at Canva. We celebrate the big, the small, and everything in between. As a company we like to make sure that while we are in an environment where constant, consistent hard work goes without question, we all feel connected to one another and our team.
- How can individuals ensure a high degree of trust and connectedness within their team?
- How will the team celebrate their successes and achievements?
- How will the team strengthen their relationships and create a fun team environment?
Canva team Holi celebration
5. We are practicing effective communication
For teams to hit their big goals, project expectations need to be communicated to all the players, and work should be designated and divided based on each person’s unique strengths and experience—no single individual has to be responsible for, or able to do everything. Clear, consistent communication makes these things apparent so that our deadlines are less stressful, seasonal goals are met or exceeded easily, there is reduced conflict, and everyone is working at a greater efficiency.
We encourage all our teams at Canva to have regular check-ins or markers that help everyone keep things on track. Having the right meeting cadence sets the pace at which all parts of the team pull together fast enough to reach their goals. Teams that don’t meet often enough can fall out of alignment, weakening their communication, and disconnecting them from reaching their end goals together.
- How can the team ensure that they communicate regularly?
- How can individuals within the team encourage each other to share ideas, share challenges, and keep each other informed?
- Are individuals in the team giving each other enough constructive feedback?
Prepping for the session
Setting the scene
- The team. Make sure that every team member is present on the day of the Health Check to give everyone the opportunity to speak up, give feedback, and contribute to the session.
- Time. Allot an hour or two for the session. For teams with more than three members, it usually goes beyond an hour. It is critical that team members don’t feel rushed or time pressured so that every part of the session is productive.
- The space. Book a room ahead of time and make sure there’s a whiteboard or wall nearby for teams to share their notes at every checkpoint.
- Unplug. Get the most out of your session by shutting down to tune in. Unplug from unnecessary devices or apps that might get your attention or cause you to lose focus. Health Checks are most productive when team members have a common goal of active listening and sharing throughout the session.
- A nominated facilitator. The facilitator is selected prior to each session, and undergoes training with our internal coach. Their role is to facilitate a successful Health Check reflection, and to help the discussion focused and productive.
- A note taker. The note taker is responsible for unsurprisingly, taking notes, during the sessions from which teams can collate action points. If teams are feeling ambitious, the facilitator can also be the note taker.
- Everyone. The most important role is something that everyone has to play. Be an active participant by listening intently and sharing sincerely.
Unboxing the Health Check pack
Physical packs instead of online visuals or surveys are an empowering, and effective way in which everyone can proactively take part in the process. Each Health Check pack contains:
- A checklist of materials
- An outline of the process
- Post-it pads
- Checkpoints and supporting questions for each
- Goals of the health check
Ingredients in the Team Health Check pack
We let our teams be creative in how they would like to use the packs. Remote teams for instance, can opt to run their Health Check via video call and use a digital version of the pack—like this one on Trello.
A digital version of a team health check on Trello
Running the session
Declare the mood
Draw up a mood scale on a whiteboard and get everyone to mark their position on it so that you all know how to frame that person’s feedback during the health check. It can be something simple like “on a scale of 1-10 how happy are you today?” or a little more creative like “from Deathstar to Dagobah, how are you feeling?” Our team was feeling extra creative and whipped this mood board up in Canva.
An example of a mood board created using Canva
Individually, take ten minutes to consider the checkpoints and identify at least one thing that your team has done well and one thing that can be improved on for each of the checkpoint. Write your answers on the sticky notes, ideally one note per thought. Guide questions per checkpoint are available in the pack to help you unveil more feedback to help make the discussion more productive. Make sure that the space is quiet so everyone can focus on writing their thoughts down.
Regroup and share
When everyone’s done brainstorming, go around the room and let each person share their answers and notes from the brainstorm. Each person should take their turn to put up their notes on a board or wall for each of the checkpoint. Group all the strong points on one side and the improvement areas on the other.
Group common themes
Once everyone has taken their turn, start grouping everyone’s answers into themes. The goal is to identify the top five themes for improvement that emerged during the Health Check.
Grouping common themes that arise from a Team Health Check
Tackle each theme for a couple of minutes and identify possible solutions for the problem. Focus the discussion on coming up with concrete action items that the team can work on to improve these areas. For example, if a common theme revolves around improving the team’s lack of communication, think of how you can revise your current processes, or even revisit the practicality of the tools you’ve been using. The action item can be as simple as setting up weekly team catch-ups every Monday, and prepping a team agenda beforehand.
Assign actions and owners
To ensure action items and solutions discussed are given attention, invite the team to agree on owners of each action. The person assigned to it will be accountable for the action item’s success and are encouraged to report back to the team in a month’s time. Take photos of all actions and owners and circulate them around the team’s Slack channel so you can all keep track of it even after the session. Here’s a sample from our team!
Wrap up and pack up
And you’re done! Put all the materials back in the pack and stash them back into the shelf so other teams may use it next time. As a general rule—return it in the same way you found it!
Get started yourself
At Canva, we’re shipping things in an incredibly incremental way which sees us breaking our goals into small, ship-able pieces of work. With regular feedback on how we’re doing, both as a team and individually, we know what we need to do to get to our next milestone.
We’d love for you to experience the benefits of doing a Team Health Check and become more comfortable with those you work closely with everyday.
Print out the checklist and process of our Team Health Checks and get started today.
Advice for facilitators
Tip 1: Set the scene
Establish the rules of engagement, align expectations.
- Talk about the goal of the session and why it’s important. Encourage honest and open conversation about what’s going well and what could be improved.
- Explain how the process for newbies that have never been a part of one before.
- Be present by shutting down to tune in. Unplug your devices during the session.
- Outline your role as the facilitator which is to help direct the conversation, provide instructions on what to do and how much time to spend, encourage equal participation, timekeeping, and taking notes.
- Respect each other’s contributions by not interrupting, not speaking over each other or having side conversations.
Tip 2: Get to the root of the problem
Clarify what’s unclear.
- Asking open-ended questions to unpack what the person is really saying (What?, How?, Why?)
- “Can you clarify that last comment, I am not sure that I understood.”
- “What do you think is causing the problem? what else? “
- “What do you mean by that? can you give an example?”
- “How did you come to this view?.”
- “Why is this important to you?”
- The facilitator’s job is to (respectfully) challenge team members, focusing on things that actually happened - reflecting on the past and what occurred.
- Don’t try to solve problems just yet - we’re just trying to uncover them!
Tip 3: Drive a focused discussion
Stop the session from going off on tangents.
Watch out for:
- When someone has gone off topic
- When someone goes into problem-solving mode right away before letting everyone have a chance to speak.
- When the team is diving too deep into a particular issue, and the other topics do not get adequate attention.
Things you can say to steer the discussion back to course:
- Make it action-oriented: “What can we do about this?”
- This is an important topic: “Let’s park this and come back to it later if we have time OR schedule another meeting to discuss”
- If people are interrupting: “Could we remember just to have one person talk at a time and let people finish what they’re saying?”
Tip 4: Engaging the whole team
Everyone has a say. Every voice is heard.
Watch out for:
- Quiet, dominant, new, and remote team members.
- If discussions are dominated by one or two people, find an opportunity to step in and ask what on of your quieter teammates has to say on the topic.
- Make sure that everyone has had their chance to contribute to the discussion.
For remote or distributed teams:
- Find a method to collaborate online. These may be in the form of collaborative boards like Trello or a Google doc, coupled with a trusted video call tool.
- Trial the apps days before your scheduled Health Check to ensure that they work properly.
Tip 5: Actions and next steps
Keep each other accountable.
- Prioritise the key themes that the team wants to take action on. Agree on two to three actions to prioritise immediately. Be realistic.
- Agree on owners, timeframes, and due dates. You can ask things like, “What do we see as the next steps? Who should take responsibility for them?? And what should the timeframe be?”
- Agree on a cadence for follow-ups. For our team, adding the action items as part of our weekly meetings work well in ensuring that they come to life. If not tracked, it will be easy to forget it and get carried away with the daily grind.
- Send out a follow-up email immediately after the Health Check that lists down a summary of your action items, timelines, and owners. Take photos of your team’s output and share it around so you won’t forget.
- Organise team health checks as often as you need it. This is especially useful for…
- Teams who have just finished a big project
- Newly formed teams who are figuring out how it’s best to work with each other
- Product and service teams
- Distributed teams (remote)