The Atlassian CEOs have a detailed, philosophical view on the role of teams in humanity’s progress

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Atlassian co-founders Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes. Source: supplied

Building your $US4.4 billion float – and less than 12 months later a current value of $US6 billion – takes teamwork. It’s something Atlassian co-founders and co-CEOs Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes have in spades.

Their ability and willingness to band together has been at the core of the Sydney-based collaboration software group’s success and a message they’ve been keen to pass on to the 1300-plus people now working at Atlassian.

Business Insider recently sat down with the billionaire duo for a wide-ranging interview on their company, collaboration and the future for business. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect was their take on teamwork.

Farquhar calls it “the next great frontier of things we need to solve as a species”, pointing to the fact that all the great strides in humanity have come from teamwork. Atlassian runs around 300 teams.

The challenge for business and teams, they argue, is communication. With time, a great team, especially in sports, ends up with an intuitive understanding of each other and the way they think and move – that ability to pass the ball without needing to look first – that enables their success. But that’s a luxury for most businesses.

Cannon-Brookes argues that while the pace of modern workplaces means teams come together, then have to reform, more than ever before, there’s an even bigger challenge to overcome.

“The modern industrial workplace wasn’t really designed for teams. It was more designed for individual performance and machine performance and so we really have a structural problem there to try to get around,” he says.

“People want things done faster which means teams have got to form quicker and this all creates a difficulty.

“Communication is fundamentally the most difficult part and that’s not just talking to each other, that’s keeping people on the same page and having a shared sense of purpose about what we’re doing.”

Adding to that degree of difficulty is the layer of diversity that’s also needed to produce even better results. How do you get a bunch of people heading in different directions going down the same path without turning, without losing the creative tension those differences bring?

“Five people come together with different skills, to bring them and share them, but at the same time those 5 people bring 5 different viewpoints. That’s why you want 5 different people there, but at the same time, that’s why teamwork is difficult. Getting that to be harmonious is really hard,” Cannon-Brookes says.

For him it’s all about getting everyone “on the same page” as fast as possible, but that also requires are deeper understanding and the ability to explain processes and if necessary, changing them in a fashion that everyone agrees to and comprehends.

From that process, Atlassian developed what he calls a “team health check”.

“It’s not a commercial product that we sell at all. It’s just something we’ve been doing internally for quite a while. It has these eight primary principals,” Cannon-Brookes explains.

“It’s distilled down into a simple process that we use on a lot of our teams. It’s the understanding of getting deep into a topical area, we developed processes or recipes or guides to make teams be a little bit more effective.

“It’s not necessarily about tools. We can sell all the collaboration tools in the world. If you don’t have a collaborative team, you don’t really know what you’re trying to do, we don’t solve that problem for you.”

Atlassian has walked the talk on that openness, even going so far as to share their collaboration advice on the company’s blog.

Scott Farquhar is optimistic, despite the shifting sands of a global economy, because “we’re way better at actually getting multiple people to work together than we were in the past”.

But it still comes back to communication, whether it’s email or something like the company’s own tool, Hipchat.

“The problem that we solve at Atlassian is how do we get stuff out of people’s heads into someone else’s head in the most efficient way,” Farquhar says.

“In many ways that’s cultural. If you look at old ways of working, it’s very individualistic. People were not so open and transparent. I think that’s changing.

“Our tools encourage that, but [I also think] the younger generation coming in through the workplace are also much more transparent so that’s one of the blockers that’s going away over time.”

Farquhar has a view of future communications that sounds like it comes straight from an Arthur C Clarke novel.

“Eventually one day we’ll have brain-to-brain communication and we’ll have telepathy and we’ll have implants and be much more high bandwidth communication than we have today,” he says.

But before you get too worried about the ability of colleagues to read your mind, he doesn’t believe it will happen in our lifetime.

“Until we get to that, we have to stick with speech and text and other ways of communicating and that’s what Atlassian does,” he says.

This focus on more productive teams is the cornerstone of the business and also the inspiration for the co-founders as their company evolves, Cannon-Brookes explains.

“Trying to provide some help on processes and tips and tricks to make teams effective is something that we’re doing more and more of as we expose some of the cultural things that we do internally that our customers in the broader world seem to really be enjoying and so we started to get some more of that out,” he says.

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