If you ever have noticed a dip in motivation in your team this blog post might give you inspiration to try a new way of approaching change and also an idea on a new experiment to try.
THE IMPORTANCE OF POSITIVE TEAMS
No team performs well if the team spirit is low. We all know this. A team loosing its spunk might happen for a number of reasons, but I’ve found in my experience, whenever entering teams in distress or when observing the spirit dip, that the most common roots are:
- They feel like they are not being heard
- They do not agree with (or rather understand the reason to) decisions made
- There is a gap between what the management communicates and what the team is seeing
- The team does not feel respected as rational adults, the communication is perceived as “filtered” and not direct or honest
Basically the team for various reasons feels robbed of their ability to help make and help execute on the right decisions. They do not longer feel empowered to influence and contribute, and hence have lost feeling engaged!
I’ve heard and read various ways proposed of “fixing the team spirit”. Having sports coaches present on team spirit, doing team events, etc etc. But never before had I heard this problem and solution been so clearly and interestingly challenged by “systems thinking” as at a keynote at QCon London in 2014 by Emma Langman. In short these were my takeaways:
- One employee can be a bad performer, but a whole team performing poorly is a sign of that the system is wrong
- The system can be anything from the management team, the product direction, priorities, or processes
- The goal of any system should really be to enable the team to successfully execute and make progress
- The moment you no longer see progress of an entire team, you should immediately reevaluate the system instead of the team
- To achieve change in a team, you need a shift in the system, and above all, as a leaders, you need to recognize that you are part of the system
REAL WORLD EXPERIMENT
After this keynote I felt really inspired, so I went home to my own team to try out an experiment I came up with. Long story short, our team was just exiting a phase of firehose post-launch stress, and the team funk started to show. This is somewhat normal after any big delivery. We were a few months post GA, and suddenly there was this negative outlook, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and a lot of whining. The team was not in good spirits.
SIDENOTE// By the way, on my comment that post-launch funk is normal, a little side note to ponder: stress is handled well in our bodies by adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is meant to give you a boost, i.e. keep us alert and ready for any danger, for a short time. It also often makes us feel confidence. When the “threat” (i.e. in this modern-world scenario: meeting the deadline) goes away, the stress subsides. The body intelligently tunes back its stress hormone levels. While adrenaline makes you feel good on the up-rise, cortisol makes you feel anxious, negative, sad, etc on the down-turn. Most people feel a funk when stress leaves our bodies. Perhaps better explained here.
My tip for people like myself who sometimes forget we are biological beings that need time for decompression is to always be kind to yourselves and listen to your body over your brain. For long-term health. //END-SIDENOTE
So back to the experiment…
I asked myself what was the system that I needed to change to help the team feel positive again? Well, following the recipe of the keynote, I first had to recognize how I was part of the system. My role is part of the system because I represent the external demand, i.e. customer requirements and priorities. My role decides the roadmap which means I affect the direction and in what order to do what. So what if I could remove that demand, what would happen? What if there was no roadmap?
Let me introduce what I did: introducing the concept and process of a Focus Sprint:
- Bring the team together in a room.
- Team means in this context the cross-functional team. Dev, QA, Docs, Product, Support, Management tools, CCE, Field – i.e. everyone touching the product in a tech way.
- Set the stage: “What if there is no roadmap? What would you choose to work on? In other words, what keeps you awake at night (regarding the product)?”
- Go around the room and let people express freely their concerns and improvement wishes
- As a product manager you can learn a lot. Listen!
- Important: include yourself – you are part of the team!
- When everyone has expressed their wishes and concerns, identify the “top three” themes. Go around the room and let people vote on one of these themes.
- The theme with most votes gets selected for the sprint
- Under the selected theme, have each and one of the members sign up for a task they want to complete within the sprint
- Including yourself!
- Have the whole team focus on that theme and those tasks for the entire time.
This break in the fire-hose every-day work made wonders! The focus sprint did not only deliver results better than anyone expected, and fixed some of the at the time bigger concerns of the team (so that they could “sleep better at night”). It also had the team focused and joined in a mission that help bring the team spirit back and get closer together. The funk flew out the window, and people started to be creative and innovative – together – again!
I strongly recommend focus sprints as a regular practice, at least a couple of times a year. The challenge on you as a product manager is to facilitate the timing of it and put the roadmap on hold. And to full-heartedly participate! A strong leader dares to change the system and change the assumed approach to success.