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Improve Team Collaboration with the Washing Instructions Canvas

It's like writing a product user instructions, but for your team

By Gustavo Razzetti

December 1, 2022

Improve communication and collaboration with this friendly user manual template that clarifies how team members want to be treated

New products often come with a user manual that makes it easier to understand how they work. Clear instructions accelerate the learning curve and reduce frustration. That's precisely why a team user manual is critical for your organization. It will help you understand how your colleagues like to work and collaborate, minimizing misunderstandings and friction among team members.

The Team Washing Instructions Canvas is a friendlier version of user manuals. It leverages the metaphor of laundry labels reminding us that each team member, just like our most precious clothes, needs special care.

This visual tool captures how each team member prefers to work, collaborate, communicate, and receive feedback. Clear washing instructions accelerate connection taking the guesswork out of collaboration. It's a fun exercise to empathize with your colleagues.

In this post I will explain how to facilitate the Washing Instructions Canvas, how to codify yours, and the different ways you can use it with your team.

But first, why should your team codify their washing instructions?

The Benefits of Having a Personal User Manual at Work

The purpose of a user manual or ReadME is to set clear expectations on how people want to work – it replaces assumptions with facts.

A written document is simple to share, review, and update. Team members can come back to it time and again – instead of an oral introduction that gets easily forgotten.

There are a variety of benefits to creating a personal user manual.

Promoting psychological safety

Psychological safety makes or breaks high-performing teams. It's when team members feel safe to take interpersonal risks – from bringing their whole selves to work and asking for help to sharing ideas in the open and asking challenging questions. In psychologically-safe teams, people are not only expected but encouraged to think differently.

In my book, Remote Not Distant, I explain the three levels of psychological safety: Welcome, Courageous Conversations, and Innovation. To build an innovative culture, you must first achieve the other two levels. Codifying your team's washing instructions will make people feel welcome and leverage their unique perspectives.  

The better you know your colleagues, the better you will perform. Research shows that the more intimate and connected a group is, the stronger it will be.

Reduces guessing and misunderstanding

When you work with someone you don't know very well, it takes a meaningful amount of time to understand how they work. Documenting expectations, peculiarities, and preferences reduces ambiguity and surprises.

"Time is finite – especially at a startup. Leveling up the types of questions I get means spending time on more difficult topics – and that's typically where there's more growth," PatientPing CEO Jay Desai told First Round Review. "With a user guide, people don't waste time wondering if they should respond when I forward an email as FYI or how to share business updates and so on. It's all in the guide and so we can move quickly to more impactful discussions."

Fosters self-awareness and humanity

A well-structured manual – with straightforward questions - facilitates conversations (you can download the template here). The Washing Instructions exercise is not just about getting to know others but also serves as a powerful self-reflection tool. It's an invitation to reflect upon the conditions that help you do your best work.

Sharing your expectations – even quirks or flaws – is a powerful act of empathy that creates deep human connections.

How much should everyone share? Each person shall decide how much they do or do not disclose – respect personal boundaries. You can't force someone to be vulnerable.

Accelerates belonging in remote teams

When you work remotely, getting to know your colleagues and reading cues is harder. Writing your team washing instructions accelerates the process and compensates for the fewer available opportunities to learn from observation. Additionally, it provides a space to align teammates on how to collaborate remotely, from using the camera (or not) to communication protocols.

A user manual accelerates belonging in distributed teams, turning Zoom rectangles into real human beings.

Team Washing Instruction Canvas – How it Works

The Golden Rule establishes that we should treat others the way we want to be treated. Although well-intentioned, that principle is flawed: we all have different expectations. So, rather than treating your colleagues how you want to be treated, instead follow their "washing instructions."

This tool was inspired by an activity created by Agile coach Pia-Maria Thorén.

Laundry labels are a powerful metaphor to help team members describe how they want to be treated. Many people, like some clothes, may need to be treated delicately or washed separately. Others may object to having their ideas ironed out or may shrink in hot water.

After using the metaphor with several clients and teams, I realized that many people needed more 'structure' to avoid getting caught in the metaphor without providing specifics. That's why I designed the Team Washing Instruction Canvas.

This visual tool provides a template so each team member can codify how they work. It's easier to integrate everyone's washing instructions – both commonalities and differences – when everyone uses the same format.

Some examples to inspire your team:

• Don't talk to me before I've had my morning coffee

• Give me feedback often – both good and bad

• Don't ask me personal things in front of others

• Ideas are always welcome; no need to ask for permission to challenge mine

• Don't just share the what: explain the why

• I like to think before speaking; it gives me time to reflect before I respond

• I'm good at the big picture; don't ask me to take care of details

• I check emails twice a day – if you need something urgent, text me

• I do my best work when I have freedom; don't micromanage me

• My schedule starts at 8:30 because I take my kids to school first

How to Use the Team Washing Instruction Canvas

The Team Washing Instructions Canvas has five sections; each covers a different area, from personal stuff to communication preferences. You could capture a couple of sticky notes or be more descriptive – that's for each person to decide.

The template provides a series of prompts to help you complete each section. Here's an example of my own washing instructions.  

Personal Care

Treat me with respect. I like straight talk and no-nonsense.

I love to cook – cuisines from all over the world. I'm a wine aficionado, road cyclist, and scuba diver.

Do reach out if you need help, feel free to challenge me, and peek my brain anytime.

Don't BS me, try to fool me, or waste my time.  

Communication Preferences

Most team issues are communication issues. Often, poor and infrequent communication promotes misunderstandings and unnecessary friction.

I like to talk to think – it helps me clarify my ideas when I express my thought out loud.

Long narratives drive me anxious; please get to the point. Start with the headline first and let me know what you need before you share the whole story so I know where to focus my attention. I tend to ask many questions – apologies if I interrupt your flow. If I get lost or don't fully understand what you're sharing, I'll get stuck and won't be able to help you.

I don't check emails all the time, so if something is urgent, I prefer a phone call. Text works well for urgent notifications or quick messages, but I prefer emails or good Slack threads to discuss things in more detail.

I like to get a quick confirmation (e.g., "Will do") that you're on it when I request something. Email chains drive me crazy, especially when people continue using the same thread to discuss a new topic – and don't change the email's subject. Add me to the to: if you need my response; if I'm cc'd, I assume no action is required from me. Don't cc me for the sake of it – unless I really need to be informed.

Regarding feedback, please avoid jumping into solution mode and offering advice I didn't request. I like sharing information to help clarify my thoughts or keep others informed. However, when I need help, I will explicitly request it from you and clarify the type of help I need.

I commit to providing direct feedback every time you ask. Please be specific about what feedback you need.

I don't like people who say they want feedback but are actually looking for praise. Similarly, I believe feedback is a gift that helps us grow – I'm not into criticizing people or imposing my truths, but to challenge their thinking so they can find solutions by adopting a different lens.

Working Together

Collaboration should be frictionless and smooth. I don't want to waste time with people with big egos or who like to overengineer or complicate things.

I've had many, many fantastic working relationships. What do they have in common? People who were super smart in their field, responsible, humble, open to receiving pushback from me, and confident enough to challenge me – with ideas or arguments, not opinions. They also trusted my intuition.

Don't overcommunicate. Tell me only what I need to be aware of – avoid unnecessary details. Outcomes speak louder than effort.  

When it comes to decisions or ideas, I value intuition as much as information. Be data-informed, not data-driven. Everyone can access the same information; it's what you do with that data that counts.  

I like people who share my vision but operate autonomously – let's align on the why and choose your how. Don't try to please me – I don't do well with ass lickers.

I'm very passionate about what I do. I sometimes come off as too determined because I defend my arguments forcefully. I'm open to changing my mind and admitting I was wrong. When I find an idea that's better than mine, I choose the idea over my ego.

People who complain too much, criticize others, or don't put in the effort never do well with me. I like people who have a sense of ownership. It's okay to fail and make mistakes. I do them all the time. Own your errors and learn from them. I'll always have your back if you don't bury your mistakes – I can only help you fix what I'm aware of.

I'm at My Best

Curiosity drives me – and so does boredom. Repetition and routine make me anxious. I need to light a fire before I start to feel cold.

I'll always be available if you need me, but don't waste my time. Don't come to me looking for shortcuts. If you ask for my help, be willing to put in the effort. My time is my most valuable asset – if you're kind and do your homework, I will be super generous with my time.

I do my best work early in the morning while I'm still waking up, but I avoid meetings or calls until mid-morning. I'm the most creative at night. That's when I write, create new methods, or design workshops. Riding my road bike and swimming refreshes my mind, providing clarity and perspective.

I love to work with clients that are good people, know what they need, and want to build a genuine partnership, not a transactional one. I'm very selective of who I work with – treat me with respect and you'll get a lot more bang for your buck. Doing great work, not money, drives me. However, I'm not cheap. If clients aren't willing to pay a fair price for my work, they don't really value what I bring to the table.

I struggle with day-to-day minutia. I learned to become more organized but usually get lost in the details. I hate politics. I wasn't good at playing the game when I worked at corporate America, so I avoid toxic environments at all costs – even if it costs me money.

How I Can Help Others

I'm very good at making sense of unrelated things – connecting the dots. I like to ask questions and help people explore other angles, but it's not up to me to see for them.

Having worked with senior executives for many decades, I've learned to read the room and provide a fresh perspective, shedding light on hidden dynamics. Most leaders consider it my superpower; however, not everyone's ready to accept radical candor.

I learned a lot about tackling wicked problems and facilitating tough conversations. People can count on me when lost or stuck – I like to help them expand possibilities.

Injustice drives me crazy – I can't tolerate those who abuse power or bully others. I always root for underdogs. I feel empathy and want to help if someone struggles with rejection or resistance.

How to Facilitate the Team Washing Instructions Canvas

You can use this tool with your team in many ways. Here are the most common applications.

Self-reflection

As mentioned above, writing your washing instructions will help you become more aware of how you work, collaborate with others, and the conditions that help you be at your best.

Practice it as a team

Invite each colleague to codify their washing instructions and then share them with each other.

There are multiple ways to debrief. You can ask each person to share the top 3 things everyone should know about them or split the team into duos and allow for a more in-depth conversation.

Some teams prefer to continue the conversation asynchronously, collecting all the individual washing instructions in one place and then anyone can review and ask questions or comment. Others prefer to block time so each member can share their full canvas and answer clarifying questions.

Find commonalities and differences

Cluster all individual responses to map common patterns and surprises. Group night owls and early rises, introverts and extroverts, those who prefer to work quietly and those who thrive in a noisy environment – and so on and so forth.

The idea is not to 'divide' people but to become more aware of the differences and commonalities – discuss how the team will adjust its behavior to treat people as they want to be treated.

Onboard new team members

Share everyone's washing instructions with new hires to accelerate belonging. Usually, onboarding focuses too much on business and processes, not so much on people. Inviting new team members to read their colleagues' washing instructions and ask questions will accelerate fitting in.

Introduce new team members

Reading other people's washing instructions is a strong motivator – people want to codify theirs, too. Encourage new hires to write their washing instructions in the first or second week so they can share them with other people. This will inspire exciting conversations and help them feel welcome.

Creative buddy systems within the team

Buddy systems have become more common in remote teams, especially to support new employees. The washing instruction canvas can help you pair the right buddies for onboarding or other purposes. Select people with complementary skills or different preferences so they can learn from each other.

Improving personal relationships

Some clients have started using this tool to capture their friends, kids, and partners' washing instructions. Codifying expectations has helped them replace assumptions – and frictions – with clarity.

Download your free copy of the template in PDF, MURAL, and Miro formats

Team Washing Instructions Canvas- Pitfalls to Avoid

Some people are critical of a user manual – they believe it's too personal, promotes entitlement, or is a waste of time. My take is that the issue is not the tool per se but how you use it.

Originally, ReadME documents were meant for managers to clarify their leadership style to their subordinates, thus dictating collaboration terms. To avoid this, invite everyone to codify their washing instructions and co-create teamwork.

Another criticism is that user manuals are too personal. First, knowing your colleagues personally (no need to befriend them, though) accelerates collaboration. Also, as I mentioned earlier, everyone can determine how personal they want their washing instructions to be.

Some skeptics say that people don't read – or care about – other people's user manuals. Basically, that the tool fails to improve collective behavior. My answer is simple: The Washing Instruction Canvas is a tool, not a magical solution. Improving teamwork requires time, effort, and consistency. Also, if a couple of team members don't see the value, that shouldn't mean that others can't still benefit from it.

Lastly, some people feel that writing a personal manual is a selfish exercise that promotes entitlement and amplifies differences. In my experience, you can easily overcome that issue with proper facilitation.

As I explained earlier, the purpose of writing your washing instructions is to reflect on unique ways of working and find common ground for collaboration.

You can't always get what you want. If half of the team loves to meet early in the morning and the rest don't, everyone must adjust to make things work. For example, you can alternate meeting times so everyone has to stretch beyond their comfort zone from time to time.

Not every team will have the same reaction to writing their washing instructions. However, in most cases, team members love it.  They consider it an efficient, human way to get to know their colleagues – and themselves. If it doesn't work for yours, it's okay to kill the initiative.

Effective collaboration doesn't happen by chance but by design.

Intentionally codifying expectations and preferences diminishes misunderstanding and friction. How do you want to be treated by your colleagues? What conditions help you do your best work? Write your washing instructions.

Copyright & attribution

The Team Washing Instructions Canvas was created by Gustavo Razzetti (Copyright © 2022 by Gustavo Razzetti and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Design: Fausto Razzetti

Attribution — You must give appropriate credit (author name, link to the original canvas: https://www.fearlessculture.design/blog-posts/team-washing-instructions-canvas, include the Creative Commons License, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.

Article by Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of Fearless Culture

Gustavo facilitates courageous conversations that drive culture transformation. He is a sought-after speaker, culture consultant, and best-selling author of the book Remote, Not Distant.

Razzetti is also the creator of the Culture Design Canvas – a visual and practical method for intentionally designing workplace culture. His insights were featured in Psychology Today, The New York Times, Forbes, and BBC.

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