How User Manuals Foster Team Development

Making personal preferences and working styles explicit speeds up the forming and norming process

When working with a new team, everyone experiences a steep learning curve—not just in terms of the work itself, but in how the team operates. How do people prefer to communicate? What are their goals? What does collaboration look like? Usually, you learn the particulars and quirks of each individual over time, through trial and error: Amanda prefers making important decisions in the morning when she’s sharp; Simon’s fastest to respond to a question over Slack, not email. But creating and sharing user manuals—one- or two-pagers highlighting how people prefer to work—expedites the “forming” stage of team development, and gets ahead of any costly or annoying misunderstandings. 

Being proactive about sharing personal working styles is especially important in a remote era, given that virtual communication limits our ability to read tone or body language, while the lack of informal interactions or 1:1 time slows down the development of personal relationships. Not only that, hybrid schedules mean that communication preferences—who works what hours, whether people prefer to receive information via email, text, or video call—are even more important to call out.

For leaders, your User Manual can give the team insight into your leadership style, while your team’s manuals can help you better guide group dynamics and coach individuals in the manner that’s most helpful to them. That’s why we recommend incorporating user manuals into the onboarding process—but if you haven’t, now is as good a time as any to introduce the activity to your team:

  • Pick a collaborative platform. Housing all Manuals in a shared digital location makes references and updating them easier, so select any shared platform (Google doc, Intranet location, or visual medium like Miro).
  • Create questions teams want to know about one another. User Manuals work best when they ask questions that help teams “form and norm” together. We’ve created a User Manual template for you to start, but here are some of our favorites:
    • My superpowers are:
    • What I need in order to make a decision:
    • I’m most engaged at work when…
    • I prefer feedback…
    • Teamwork to me looks like…
    • How I like to be communicated with…
    • What it looks like when I disagree…
  • Give teams time to write, digest, and share back. Invite team members to fill out their User Manuals independently, or establish dedicated writing time for the group to provide accountability and space. Since User Manuals require each person to fill out their own manual, it allows them the autonomy to decide how much or how little to share with others. Then, encourage the team to read each other’s User Manuals, and ask individuals to share back some of their most important answers. This allows people to provide context to the answers most important to them—another critical point for agency and self-expression.
  • Ask how the team can support each other. As people share back, consider asking follow-up questions that either clarify the person’s User Manual answer, or asks how the team can best support them. Some thought-starters might be:
    • “What does that look like for you?”
    • “What does an example of [that] look like?”
    • “What can the team signal boost?”
    • “How can the team help you achieve [that]?”
  • Update on a regular basis. Use the Manuals as living documents, and dedicate team time for updates and conversation. Team members may very well have different responses to questions after working together after one month, three months, six months, and so on. You may also want to add some more casual questions, such as “What’s your favorite snack?” to build rapport, which is especially necessary in a remote or hybrid work environment.
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