Five Key Ingredients to Facilitating Better Teams

It seems so simple, but in my experience the #1 reason why groups do not advance or improve is because the environment that a company’s leaders create does not foster a culture of improvement. Next to the issues of recruiting talent and discerning what an organization really needs to focus on to achieve its goals, the lack of the following five substances impedes team improvement for which the ultimate benefactor is the organization itself …

A while back I brought in a coach to work with a critical team in an organization. Key stakeholders were in a extended set of exercises working around their project mission; I participated with the team throughout these activities. Staffed with several conservative individuals who were bright and capable, team leaders continued to observe how operating outside their existing status quo was not feasible given a larger corporate culture, even though they saw significant enough opportunity for the team to shine if they did so.

People spoke of improvement metrics … better delivery, less bugs, blah blah blah. I finally spoke up specifically addressing the two senior members of the team with the following suggestion –

“Folks I’ll give you my metric. How much fun are you having on this project? All the stuff you’ve been griping about – is it fun? Are you enjoying it? No of course not. You have the power to improve your project, your software and your work environment. You have much more power than you recognize. And your attitude is contagious. If you believe you can’t do anything, your team will believe it can’t do anything. But if you believe you can do something and you work at it, your team will ultimately work with you. As for management, sometimes they can be laggards. I guarantee you that if your team becomes more productive and is having more fun, your management will also catch on to the positive buzz. You have more power than you know!”

A team’s ability to build momentum and culture is very powerful. While management and customers can facilitate a team’s ability to improve, improvement NEVER builds top down. Even without support, a team can improve significantly bottom up, though it takes a few strong and willing people seeded in the team. There is no such thing as top down improvement. Only top down support. Improvement that endures can only be built bottom up. Did I say this enough times?

As a manager or executive with teams in one’s realm, how does one facilitate bottom up improvement?

1. Be Honest – There is an old saying in marriage – when there are difficulties the first person that needs to change is the one in the mirror. The single greatest impediment to change is management. Change is going to cause a lot of work, it will invariably mean political coin needs to be spent. Sometimes work will slow down before it improves and speeds up. If one does not have a strong enough mandate or desire to walk the path of continuous improvement, do not make the mistake of taking teams down this path – one can do more damage than good. There will often be team members that leave, or members that ultimately need to be removed. Continuous improvement is messy business – the rewards are huge but they are also proportional to the commitment required.

2. Plant Seeds –  Teams need a mix of people, but most importantly those that will set pace and lead the team in a desire to continuously improve. Teams that have not yet substantially embarked on continual improvement are always hierarchical, hence this person will be a development lead or technical project manager. A team member may already exist with the right qualities. Hiring such a person is tricky – plenty of people talk the talk (“agile”!) but few have gone through the messy transformation of teams firsthand. A successful candidate is one that can talk about transformation and improvements situations in the past with all the gory details and difficulties. They will have battle scars from this kind of leadership. They should be able to describe what they’ve done wrong. Be leery of people that focus only on how upper management and the organization didn’t support the activities. While this is often true, someone who believes the problem is everyone and everything else is one that has not begun their own journey of continuous improvement! The role is less evangelist and more leadership by example. If you don’t have deep experience with such people, get help finding them with someone that does have the experience. Oh, and the experienced candidates will frankly gauge your commitment to improvement because they will have been burned in the past.

3. Participate – People trust one’s actions not one’s words. Communicating something is important and not backing that up by commiting one’s time and energy means the topic is a) not important after all, and b) that one gives lip service. One is better off saying nothing than behaving disingenuously. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people in leadership roles say something is important and have everyone else focus on it. If a leader says something is critical, they should roll up their sleeves and be involved. Note, I did not say micro manage. Treat one’s team as peers. Be involved and put skin in the game.

4. Create a Safe Environment – Teams solve the problems that are easy to solve and build walls around what they can’t solve. Breaking down those walls and exploring what is hard pushes against individuals’ limits. Often in the sociology of a team, the psychologies of individuals establish those walls. Individuals need to be encouraged to tackle hard problems, as do teams. They also need to pick the right hard problems to tackle – those that impede compelling goals for the team. A safe environment is one where issues are tied to accomplishments which are important to the team, where members shows vulnerability, honesty towards others and empathy of what is hard for them. Every team has at least one white elephant in the room. Therein lies a treasure trove of improvement.

5. Pour in encouragement – not in a disingenuous way. Verbally note victories or positive qualities. Reward effort, not just success. Demonstrate in your actions and words that you believe in a team’s abilities. Technical environments are full of problem solvers. Problem solvers first tend to identify problems and communicate about them. Celebrate victories. Sometimes it’s about accomplishing something big. But often it is about sucking less. Businesses and technologists deal with enough hard problems that we really need to establish a culture that balances out the constant battle of challenges with more genuine acknowledgment of the improvements we make. No, not tenure awards, not bonuses … sure those are fine things. Rather, we are talking about the every day culture. Not just the once in a while atta’boys.

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