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Team Health

Tom Sommer, Director of Engineering at Redbubble, https://www.linkedin.com/in/leadintech/

Earlier in the year our company and department underwent a significant restructure. We shuffled people around, merged teams, and - unfortunately - let some folks go.

But when some doors close, others open, and we were able to give a couple of people their first true management role. Starting in a new role is hard no matter what - being new to management, the domain, and the team. But it is especially tough in a global pandemic while working remotely.

For the best possible outcome, we decided to review how we set up our newbies for success. How can we support them through the first 3–6 months? How can we maximise the chances of the group coming out the other end in a good spot?

Software Development Team Health

Understanding Team Dynamics

Before we jump into our approach to this challenge, let me take a step back.

A lot is going on in a managerial role. More responsibilities. More things to keep an eye on. More context switching.

The first focus for new managers is usually delivery. How can I make sure my team is performing? We worry about delivery because we will be evaluated against it.

And that is understandable - it is a big part of leading a team. The question is how to achieve it.

I would argue that anyone can enable quick sprints of high productivity. A common way is to create a deadline. Or to control people down to the smallest detail. To exert pressure and instill urgency.

But it is not sustainable. Once the deadline has passed, the urgency goes away. Or, if we are trying to get it going for too long, people burn out.

If we want to have a consistently high performing team, urgency and motivation need to come from within. As managers, we need to lay the foundations by creating a healthy team.

Let us look at the categories that define a healthy (and happy) team…

1. Safety and Trust

… or how to foster openness and inclusiveness.

The most important aspect to look out for is how the team interacts with each other. A healthy team requires a high degree of trust between team members (including yourself) and a safe environment for everybody to share their thoughts:

  • Is feedback exchanged open and often? Between all members of the team and yourself? Are people calling out areas of improvement?

  • Is the team vulnerable? Are they willing to talk about the not-so-great moments? Is everybody comfortable asking for help?

  • Do all team members contribute to discussions? Do they feel safe to share their opinions in group settings?

  • Are ideas listened to and considered? Can a thought or idea come from anyone on the team?

If you observe contradicting behaviour to any of the above it is time for you to act. Not by directing and telling folks off. But by influencing members of the team in the right direction.

2. Structure

Safety and trust are the foundation for healthy teams. Without it, nothing you build on top will last long.

A bit of structure can go a long way though to enable high performance.

3. Autonomy

The last aspect to look out for in healthy teams is autonomy. Autonomy is not about the freedom to do whatever people like. It is about an environment where your team has the tools and information to complete their work.

While the previous two aspects are a team effort, autonomy is up to you, the manager.

  • Are expectations set? Do team members understand what they need to accomplish and what the requirements or restrictions are?

  • Can you (the manager) be hands off? Are folks able to independently complete their task without input from yourself?

  • Is information shared openly within the team and external?

Influencing Done Right

Now that we have an overview of what a healthy team looks like, let us focus on what we need to do when things are not going as planned.

Imagine we have been working with a new team for a few weeks now. One eye on the list from above, one eye closely watching everything happening in and around the group. And, surprise surprise, we notice something not so great!

While everybody is getting along well enough, there is a clear split between those that participate in discussions and those that do not. This does not have to be a problem, but in this case it is clear that some people are hesitant to contribute. And if they do, it is often dismissed by the dominant group.

An obvious problem in the safety and trust category.

But what should we do?

Of course, we want to fix this. And if possible fast. So we take the most direct approach: introduce new rules or processes.

For example, we can introduce a meeting rule that gives more reserved folks the first word. Or we can personally call out who should speak next. Or we can put weight behind the contributions of those that are usually not heard.

Those are awesome things to do. They have their place and there is a reason why they come up all the time in articles about inclusiveness and allyship.

But in our example, there are a couple of issues with this approach. While we care about fixing this issue, we should not make it our problem. Rules and processes are fine, however, we are taking some autonomy and freedom away from the team. We also do not address the root of the problem - that some team members are dominating - but are trying to contain it.

And while the rules and processes we introduce might work for a little while, there is no guarantee it will be a long-term solution. If we are unlucky, things might even get worse, for example when people are fed up and frustrated with too many of them.

Being direct has its place, but we need to be careful when to use it. And we need to be aware of the long-term effects.

Let us come back to our problem statement: Some folks in the team are dominating discussions and decisions. One of the outcomes is that others are not participating and not listened to.

So, instead of trying to limit the impact of offending behaviour, we can try and change the behaviour.

Sounds simple - but of course it is not. We do not want to tell the offenders what to do. We want to get them to change their behaviour themselves. We need them to understand what impact they have on others. Subtle difference, but an important one.

What does that mean for us managers? We need to become mentors and coaches.

Those are huge areas and I will not be able to cover these areas in any detail here. But I will share the approach I am working through when I am faced with a situation like this:

  1. Build a trusting relationship. Surprise! Well hopefully not. If you do not have good relationships with all the people on your team, this is where you have to start.

  2. Understand their point of view. Once people trust you, they will open up. And you can take time and listen to them. Their ideas, their goals, their motivations.

  3. Share the impact of their actions. Now we are getting somewhere. It is time to come back to the issue at hand and get our offenders to see what effect they have on others. Not to tell them off, but to get them to see what you see.

  4. Action plan and feedback. After they know what is going on, it is time to figure out a plan (together) and check-in on a regular basis. And when required, give some feedback to adjust the course.

Yes, this takes longer than setting up a process or rule. Yes, it is more effort. But we are investing in the long-term health of the team. And that long-term health is not dependent on us being there and ensuring rules exist and processes are followed.

Group Influencing Done Right

The above approach works well for individuals. But the more I thought about this topic, it became clear to me that there is a difference between individuals and groups.

While the target audience may be different, most of the foundations remain the same:

  • The goal is still to affect and improve behaviour within the team to increase its effectiveness

  • The core principle to our approach is to not be directive, but encourage change from within

Before getting into the details, let us once more set the scene:

We have been observing the group for a while and one thing we notice is the high amount of solo work and a lack of context sharing. Everybody goes off on their own. No one knows what the others are doing. And the team members cannot cover for each other.

Clearly, we got a little way to go to establish an efficient structure.

A straightforward and sometimes necessary approach is to tell the group what to do. "We're not doing enough sharing, so from here on out, you need to do more of it. Why? Because I tell you to!"

That might work, but just as before, chances are high it will not last for a long time. People do not like to be told what to do and think. It also puts a high dependency on us. We need to keep monitoring the situation going forward and reminding everybody about the new rule.

A better approach is to help the team understand and see opportunities, which enables us to encourage the change from within. Here is my basic playbook:

  1. Surface opportunities. The suggestions, pain points, or ideas need to come from members of the team, not from yourself. But you can play a critical role facilitating and guiding, for example by setting up a themed retro or running a team workshop.

  2. Team commitment. Once issues or opportunities are out in the open, the team needs to agree on the areas they want to improve on. Focus on two or three areas. Do not try and fix everything at once.

  3. Iterate. After the team commits to a problem area, it is time for a game plan. And once again, it should be up to the team to find solutions.

As with influencing change in individuals, this can take some time. But by putting the team in the driver's seat, long-term change is more likely.

Following is a quick example to show how the different steps could work.

To get a read on the team, we run a themed retro, using Tuckman's tried and tested stages of group development. The goal is to surface potential issues and opportunities. Our setup is simple:

  1. List out the four (five) stages

  2. Every team member picks the stage they think the team is in

  3. For each of the four phases, get folks to list examples of matching behaviour

As it turns out, the remainder of the team agrees to our gut feeling. No one thinks the team is in performing, and most believe it is more of a storming situation. Great! Here is our chance to influence change.

Firstly, we need to agree as a group that we want to be in performing.

Then we kick off another conversation: What can we do to get into norming and performing? Once ideas are voiced and vetted you can then move into implementation.

Recap

Joining a new team or becoming a new manager is daunting and stressful. We often prioritise the one thing that seems to be the easiest to measure: Productivity. But if we want to establish a sustainably high performing team, we need to think about the health of it first.

And even when we know what things to look out for, we have to find a way to influence change.

We could be direct and set up new processes and rules. But to ensure long-term impact, we have to focus on mentoring and coaching others so the behaviour changes from within.

Influencing a group might feel more intimidating than working with a single person, but it follows the same basic rules.

Do not be direct, but enable the change to happen from within. Only then will the change be long-lasting.


Team & people relationships articles in Methods & Tools

Measuring And Increasing Team Alignment

Goals on Every Level - Enabling Your Team to Become More Productive

Fear of Intervention - How Subordinates Grow to be Entrepreneurs

Breaking Bad - The Cult of not Giving Bad News


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This article was published in November 2020

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