12 collaboration lessons from the Customer Experience World Gamesby
Frances Chapireau of BuildCX, discusses her time at the Customer Experience World Games, and what the event can teach CX professionals about cross-functional collaboration.
The Customer Experience World Games (CXWG) is a philanthropic endeavour, a crash course in customer experience, and a taster of what it is to bring together a diverse team, across multiple countries, to solve a business challenge.
Created by Christopher Brooks in 2020 in response to the pandemic, the concept started as an exercise between customer experience professionals to keep their skills sharp and keep them energised and connected at a time where many people found themselves suddenly without work.
The idea quickly blossomed into the games as we know them today when, following an inspiring discussion with Heidi Stone, he “took it one step further, replacing fictitious scenarios with real ones, charities which could benefit from some expert support”.
The games would give people something meaningful to focus on, something to belong to, a distraction from worry, and a chance to have some fun while solving some of the problems that were occurring for businesses as a consequence of being locked down.
Volunteer team captains and judges were recruited, and players were invited to join from all over the globe to give up their time and talent in order to help charities with customer experience problems.
The Customer Experience World Games in practice
Each challenge within the CEWG is played out across a week. The judges agree which of the team entries fits the brief most favourably and (digital) medals are awarded. Now entering its 4th year, the games have been played by over 750 CX professionals, across 45 countries, helping over 20 not-for-profit organisations and social start-ups.
Having participated myself in the games for the first time last year, I was fascinated by how the teams organised themselves and got the work done. Beyond this, I was curious how the collaboration and communication approaches that were chosen affected people’s participation and experience.
What happens during the games reflects what many CX professionals have to do when bringing together a cross-functional or global team, and it made me wonder: if we could understand in more detail how the teams did it, then we might be able to uncover knowledge that can be applied by CX leaders looking to facilitate better collaboration across their own organisations.
What happens during the games reflects what many CX professionals have to do when bringing together a cross-functional or global team.
The premise of the CXWG being what it is, leads to the conditions being admittedly favourable: we are dealing with natural collaborators (or at least people who are not averse to collaborating in the name of a good cause).
That notwithstanding, they only have a week between learning about the challenge and submitting a response. It’s a standing start – they have never worked together before. They are spread across time zones, and these are all volunteers with limited time, competing commitments and day jobs.
I conducted a series of interviews with players, team captains and judges, spanning all three series of the games so far to paint a picture of how collaboration happens in the games. Despite each team developing a unique approach, 12 common themes did emerge. Here they are, with my take on what they mean for cross-functional collaboration.
When it comes to team size, less is more
In the opening stages of the games, larger teams led to more cumbersome communication and difficulty scheduling meetings. Interestingly, the teams seemed to naturally reduce in size to satisfy Jeff Bezos’ two-pizza-rule: most teams completed their submissions with 6-10 core players. Consensus among participants was that smaller groups could communicate, coordinate and get to decisions faster.
For the team captains, keeping the players engaged and all pulling in the same direction was also clearly harder with a larger team. You might have a larger pool from which to gather ideas – which is extremely valuable at the beginning – but coordinating the group to turn these ideas into something coherent is more of a challenge. You are more likely to lose people in the process: people disengage and struggle to find their way back into the project.
Without a basic level of coordination, among a manageable number of people, effective collaboration isn’t going to happen.
Time zone differences offer pros as well as cons
Most teams struggled to some degree with coordinating across time zones. Finding a time to meet was not straightforward; even a one-hour difference proved challenging at times.
Yet being part of team calls was considered essential for building relationships, so teams put a lot of effort into trying to find times to suit most people (another reason that team size matters).
That said, teams were able to make good use of tools for working asynchronously, and to use the time differences to their advantage, with a task completed by different members of the team in sequence, rather than in parallel.
If working across time zones, make sure everyone understands who is working from where and establish specific ways of working to make best use of the time difference, rather than becoming frustrated by it.
People want to be part of something bigger than themselves
The sense of purpose underpinning the CXWG is fundamental for building commitment, proactiveness and excitement within the teams. People are there to make a difference. Egos and hierarchy are largely left at the door because the purpose focuses minds on the shared goal: solving a specific business challenge and delivering recommendations to the charities that they could realistically implement.
Egos and hierarchy are largely left at the door because the purpose focuses minds on the shared goal.
The challenges themselves resonated with people for different reasons, but generally speaking, the more urgent and relevant the challenge seems, the more engaging it will be. As soon as the first challenge is handed out, the teams get to work. Nothing focuses the mind more than a clearly defined challenge and a slightly uncomfortable deadline.
You must be able to communicate the purpose behind your project. Add to this a shared goal that feels unachievable individually, but possible collectively.
People value opportunities to learn and grow
It is important to understand what people are looking to gain personally from any project they become a part of. In the CXWG, players volunteer their time to make a positive contribution to a good cause, but many players also recognise that the games provide a huge opportunity for learning, and that they are getting a great deal back on a personal level.
The CXWG fosters knowledge sharing and upskilling between team members. It is a place where people can experiment and explore with new tools and techniques. The players who gain the most come with open minds. Part of the team culture that emerges around this is the openness to feedback – from the judges, the charities, and within the team itself.
If you are looking to recruit people to a cross-functional team, ask yourself what is in it for them. Seeking out members eager to learn from others can add huge value to the collaboration.
Diversity makes the team richer
In his book, Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed describes how “collective intelligence emerges not just from the knowledge of individuals, but also from the differences between them”. Thus, you need to bring together contributors with diverse backgrounds and experience and create a safe space where ideas can be shared without judgement.
The open-minded and respectful ethos of the games very much supports this. All teams spanned several countries, if not 2-3 continents. Beyond different cultural perspectives, the teams also brought knowledge from CX-related disciplines such as customer service, training and operations.
The diversity of the teams and the exposure to new people was another driving factor for participation. It is rare that we get to work on a challenge with complete strangers, but it can be hugely refreshing to do so.
If you are looking for new ideas, new connections between ideas, and a deeper level of understanding around a problem, a diverse team will accelerate this process for you.
Team beginnings are important
The early stage of team formation is where the direction and expectations are set, capabilities are mapped out, relationships start being built, and the overall structure is put in place. This is also when the team’s identity, its values and norms start emerging.
One quirk of the CXWG is that this process is kick-started through the team’s choice of name. Some names sound cool, like something you want to be part of (we have had the CX Rockstars, and the CX Top Guns, for example). Others you can really identify with (The Difference Makers, The CX Heroes). The name isn’t inconsequential because it helps build the team identity and a sense of belonging.
Leaders should pay close attention to the first meetings of a new team, because the team culture starts forming from the very first contacts the members have with each other. Also, it may not be as silly as it sounds to give your cross-functional CX project or team a name.
New members pose a two-sided challenge
In a very short space of time, project teams can move far enough forward that it can become difficult for new members to join without disruption. In the games, players who want to join while a challenge is in full swing often find it hard to do so.
You might think this is a unique situation in the CXWG because the challenges only last a week, but it is recognised as a challenge for all teams, as Douglas K. Smith and Jon R. Katzenbach explain in their book, The Wisdom of Teams: “the challenge is to initiate the new member into the team without, on the one hand, sacrificing the pace and focus of team performance and, on the other, losing the chance to learn from the new member’s perspective”.
Whenever you have a change of membership in your CX initiative team, take a moment to reset with the group and bring the new person on board properly.
Understanding people’s skills aids team cohesion
One of the first things many of the captains did is establish the skills available among the team. If it happened, it typically happened as part of the very first meetings. Who had skills in which area? What kinds of tasks were people enthusiastic about? Where might there be gaps? Who might be eager to lead specific tasks (or even the entire challenge)?
Understanding the skill set of the team as a whole and where those skills complement each other was seen as crucial in building a cohesive team with clear roles and responsibilities.
It boils down to harnessing the collective power of the team and making best use of the talent within. The teams who put most emphasis on this described how there appeared to be very little competition within the team, with each person recognising the unique contribution they and their teammates have to make.
Time spent establishing people’s skills is invaluable. If you spend time understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses, you better appreciate how to support one another.
Friction isn’t bad
Tuckman’s team model of ‘Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing’ came up a few times in our discussions around team dynamics in the games. Like any newly formed team, CXWG teams also often go through a little storming.
This little bit of friction (over process or working styles, for example) was considered necessary, useful even, in coming to a good solution at the end. The key thing for team captains was to be clear about how they were going to handle it. Especially in a volunteer situation, the storming phase is where you can lose people; they will simply disengage.
Don’t try to avoid friction, so long as it is constructive. Use it as an opportunity to build a deeper understanding.
So, leaders need to be especially tuned into the team dynamics and ready to bring people back into the fold. The aim of this phase isn’t to chase away dissenting opinions – it is to get them out in the air, heard, discussed and dealt with.
Don’t try to avoid friction, so long as it is constructive. Use it as an opportunity to build a deeper understanding. Seeing others’ perspectives will lead to plenty of ‘aha’ moments for the team.
Team wins are highly motivating
What happens when you pose a serious challenge in the context of a competition? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it makes people want to win. And, as Mark Elliott says in his book, Collaboration Design: “there is little so pleasurable as a team win”.
The team who won the first challenge in the 2022 games described how they got a huge boost in morale and membership – people wanted to be part of a winning team and existing members started to invest more. The way the games are structured, with win announcements after every challenge, gives the teams nice milestones at which they can recognise each other’s contributions and celebrate their achievements. Teams need this.
A winning team works hard to maintain its performance. CX leaders need to set measurable, achievable, short-term goals, as well as a stretch goal, to help their projects gain momentum.
Humble leadership pays dividends
Talking to both team captains and players, it is clear that team leaders have a central role to play in managing team dynamics, providing the team a structure, and creating clarity.
They must model the behaviour they expect, create trust, engage people on an emotional level, be a source of encouragement and remove obstacles for the team. Many of the CXWG captains saw their leadership role more as a coach, mentor or even scrum master, guiding (rather than managing) the team towards its target.
This set the tone for leveraging the group's collective wisdom, encouraging contributions from everyone, and creating opportunities for others to shine. The teams gained a certain stability by having a credible CX expert at the helm.
Nonetheless, it was seen as empowering for the rest of the team for the captain to be candid about not having all the answers themselves.
Build your credibility by applying your CX skills to your stakeholders’ problems, but don’t try to come up with all the answers. The CX project lead needs to create a structure and team culture which allows the whole group to bring its knowledge and skills to bear on the challenge at hand.
Which tools you choose matters
Some CXWG teams met over video calls almost daily, some almost never. One of this year’s teams did virtually all its brainstorming and communication on WhatsApp.
Others preferred more structure, using Miro or Mural for example. Talking to the participants, they recognised that these choices all have pros and cons. They shape the way the collaboration unfolds and have consequences for team engagement and team dynamics.
For example, using a messaging service as the primary method of communication keeps group engagement high because it’s convenient and accessible. The ability to reply rapidly and respond with emojis creates a certain buzz in the group. While some hold back from joining the conversation straight away, most gain the confidence to add in their two pennies’ worth when they feel ready to do so.
This way of communicating is, therefore, great for mobilising the group. The downsides? You don’t build such deep relationships across the team on chat as you do when you meet over a video call. Chat messages are also typically only available from the point at which you join the chat, and the ‘always on’, fast paced conversation might not be suited to everyone’s communication and thinking style.
In making your choice of tools and technologies you are designing (consciously or not) the collaboration and how the team is going to get its work done.
To have impact in their organisations, CX teams need to be on the lookout for opportunities to help stakeholders solve real customer or business problems using CX tools and thinking. This is exactly what happens in the games: the teams don’t find the problem; the problem is presented to them. They then use a CX toolkit to help solve it.
Undoubtedly, the challenge faced by CX leaders bringing together people across business functions goes far beyond what happens in the CXWG. They are often contending with organisational pressures, shifting and competing priorities, budget constraints and company politics.
With that being said, to be successful they will need to create opportunities where stakeholders can gather to explore new possibilities, understand each other better, and use their complementary skills and knowledge to fix customer pain points, or design entirely new propositions.
Designing effective collaboration is therefore an essential capability for CX teams to master. Understanding what happens during the CXWG is a good place to start.
Frances Chapireau is an independent consultant and founder of BuildCX. With her background in customer insights and customer experience management technology, she supports CX teams who want to make more impact with their Voice of Customer programmes.