Saturday, April 2, 2016

Building Successful Teams (it's not just your manager's job)

Over the past year and a half I've been managing a small team of software developers. This past week I was reflecting on some of the practices we've developed as a team that I feel have contributed to our success as both a team and as individuals. Notwithstanding the likelihood that these are not new ideas, I wanted to collect my own reflections in a single, memorable-to-me place.

Success of the team is not measured only by the projects we have completed, but also by the steps each of the team members has made in their careers, personally and professionally. I feel that the practices outlined below are designed to achieve both of these aspects of success.

Our Practices

A rough overview of our formula is below. I've tried to keep the descriptions concise, but several of these points do merit their own blog posts.

Sidenote On Applicability

These practices evolved in a team of 3 people in an org of > 100 people in a department of > 300 people in a company of > 1000. There's a completely fair chance that some of these practices won't make sense in small companies (i.e. less than Dunbar's number) or very young companies.

Recurring Events

  • Weekly 1:1's with manager. Time for the manager to listen and the IC to talk. Check in on short term career development goals. Check in on impediments. Check in on any drama with other employees. See some more ideas, Good Tips for Your 1 on 1.
  • 6-weekly 1:1 offsite lunch to discuss career fit and plan. A deeper dive into long term career goals. A time to build rapport. Again, the IC should do most of the talking; though this is also a chance for the manager to provide guidance and reflections from their own experiences.
  • 4-weekly team offsite lunch. A chance to get out of the office and just be regular people. The fresh air and less familiar surroundings will be good for your psychology.
  • 4-weekly team lunch onsite. On the in between weeks from the offsite lunch. This just makes sure you are getting together and seeing each others faces.
  • 6-weekly team scrum retrospective. It is amazing what you learn about your team when you do this, both good things and bad things. The regular cadence also helps with accountability.
  • Weekly status emails for celebration, retrospection, and future (i.e. next week). At the least, these go to the team. I like to include my boss and other parties who helped play a part in recent success or have some stake (approvers, consulted, informed, etc.) in ongoing work. This is adopted from the PPP Concept.

Infrastructure

These tie a team together and provide them the necessary context to self-navigate.
  • Team vision & purpose and company fit
  • Clear short term priorities. This is generally something visible like a Scrum or Kanban board. This is good for the team itself to use, but also for anyone else interested in what your team is doing.
  • Clear long term goals. These should fit with team vision and purpose. Typically, these will be the overarching epics comprising the short term priorities.
  • Rubric for roles on the team. At its worst, absence of clearly defined expectations for each role and level, can lead to feelings of unfairness or favoritism.  At its best, it provides career goals for team members and acts as a guide for what is and (as importantly) is not expected of them. 

Ongoing

  • Constant feedback, both good & bad. This builds respect in both directions. This also helps ensure transparency.
  • Fairness. Managers should be transparent about decisions made regarding other employees. If you feel you are being preferentially treated, speak up. If you notice it, your teammates probably do and doubtless will not appreciate it.
  • Outward communication to other teams about what you've accomplished. This is a step beyond the weekly status email. These happen anytime a major goal is achieved or an epic is completed. There is so much going on in most companies, that achievements get lost in the noise and too often only failures get any attention. If a manager isn't shouting from the rooftops about the team's success, then it's unlikely that anyone else will be.
  • Information pass downs from the manager's manager. Lots of decisions get made on high and awareness of that information about those can help your team be more successful.
  • Commitment to finish your short term priorities. New needs will come up that may be more important and vie for the team's attention & time. It's critical that you remain committed to complete your short term priorities, without this you lose trust and faith in the team. Furthermore, knowing you'll complete your commitments makes you more thoughtful about what you'll commit to.
  • You are held accountable. Whether you're a manager or an IC, if you're not held accountable then your work will suffer.

Outside the Team

  • You should ask a manager for help finding a mentor.
  • You should identify someone in upper leadership who shares your view points and is driven by the same things as you. There will be situations when you need a second opinion or someone to back you.
  • Try to cultivate a sponsor.

Parting Thoughts

Never sacrifice these things. Skipping one or two of them once or twice might be OK, but it will add up and accumulate into discontent and dissatisfaction and poor performance. You must keep yourselves accountable and hold those around you accountable.

Those lucky ones of us will find a manager who will naturally do these things, but for the rest of us we can't simply claim misfortune or "being a victim" as excuse and then give up. When it's your career on the line, it doesn't matter whose fault it is; what matters is the results you are going to get.

Additional Learning