Cultivating and Aiding Team Productivity
(First published by superyesmore.com, 14.04.2017)
Productivity is an extensive topic and there are many angles to explore it from. Especially at a time where the pace has picked up dramatically. Life, work, entertainment, technology — there’s an ever increasing rhythm which challenges and influences everything we do. It raises expectations, standards, and pushes our boundaries. This article focuses on team productivity, specifically regarding project delivery, and explores both philosophical and practical reasoning behind productive teams.
Making sure people are, and feel, involved and integral.
It’s usually not hard to kick projects off to a good start. People generally get excited about making something new, something good, something better — whether it’s big or small. It’s a chance to try out the latest and the greatest, a fresh challenge, and a change of scenery. As you get into the flow of it, however, it can be a lot more difficult to keep the momentum going and the morale as high. Maintaining productivity becomes a challenge that ultimately defines the success of a project.
I came across an interesting article recently by Tommi Joentakanen talking about his take on Spotify’s ‘Squad Health Check’. One of the metrics was ‘Pawns or Players’ that essentially asked people whether they felt like they were just doing a job or valuable and integral members of the project team. It made me reflect on how people within my teams feel and what influence I have over it. It also made me reflect on when I am at my most productive, which is undoubtedly when I feel purpose and the ability to affect change and deliver value. The more I thought about it, the more I realised what a powerful motivator it is to make sure people feel that their work and efforts are valuable.
If you’re someone charged with leading teams or projects, it requires some effort to keep this a priority, especially when you’re juggling a lot. If you do, you are much more likely to get a team that’s invested, productive and capable of self-starting their own enthusiasm after they’re hit with setbacks. If you don’t, you might get some invested people that are just naturally ‘players’, but you’ll also start to develop a vulnerability that can stop project momentum in it’s tracks if the wrong thing comes flying — be it difficult stakeholder feedback, sickness or just people not working well with each other. What you’re unlikely to get, is your team producing something exceptional, something people are proud of and look back on as a success.
It’s not just an effort investment, it’s also a business investment. It takes time to allow people to contribute. It also saves time in the long run. But more that that it produces quality. Very recently I had a large and unexpected project land on my desk that needed a lot of immediate attention to get it off to a good start. In that circumstance I had to slow down a lot of my involvement in other projects, which was really hard. However, once I delegated some tasks and asked people to step in and help out, I realised that the team was a team of players. They had built the project to where it was, they knew the reasons behind every decision made, they were equipped to advocate decisions, handle uncomfortable stakeholder feedback and leave all but the very top level problems for me. The effort of involving people and helping them own the success of the project meant that they functioned just as well without ‘close management’ — they were a strong and productive team.
This all sounds a bit fluffy without adding some practical suggestions for achieving it. If there is one key way to help a team be a team of players, I believe it is setting a culture of respect. Respect people by considering and encouraging their input and ideas. You may be under pressure, you may have a clear idea of what needs to happen, you may disagree with something someone said. You may even disagree a lot. Respect people by calmly putting forward your case and not dismissing them. Discussion and debate make a healthy team; it’s empowering to have your ideas listened to and challenged. Also respect people by standing up for their ideas if a different team member is overpowering; you aren’t the only source capable of making people feel like pawns. Involve the team in discussions outside of their job role, value their opinions as intelligent, skilled people.
Secondly, plan for it. Plan for ways to collect feedback, plan who to invite, fill people in who couldn’t make it even if you don’t think it was that important they be there. Encourage people to challenge, to problem solve and to make decisions that they can see translated into the project.
It’s not about making everyone feel warm and fuzzy — it’s okay to have a bad idea and be told it — what’s important is to have people sharing them and giving reasons why they’re not necessarily the best way forward. If you make meetings feel like areas for discussion and bring problems to the team, you’ll get more buy in and far better solution than you could ever have dreamed up.
Don’t focus on the problem area.
That title probably sounds like bad advice but let me put it in context. Problems often run the risk of deflating morale. Bad feedback, a big change in direction, and plenty of other stumbling blocks — listing everything that could go wrong on a project would take a very long time. None of this is heaps of fun to process, even to the most avid problem solver. It’s also fairly rare that absolutely everything on your project is going terribly wrong all at once (or it should be). If that is the case, even more reason for the team to really pull together and do some firefighting! If it isn’t though, the chances are there are quite a few successes that are now being overshadowed. There’s also likely quite a few areas to still be comfortably progressed and developed, that have faded to the background. Keep momentum and productivity flowing by changing the plan. Re-shift focus, see what can still keep going while the problem needs solving, try keep people calm and productive and take a step back.
In those sorts of situations, I often do a quick risk assessment on ‘non problem areas’. What’s unlikely to be much of a problem if it goes ahead earlier than planned? Those tasks are easy to progress immediately. What would be relatively cheap to update if it needs tweaking? That’s probably okay to keep going too. When you look at it there will be more than you expect that doesn’t need to be conflated into your problem area. A really useful tool for this is a value vs. risk chart. It let’s your team quickly split tasks into high/low risk and high/low value so you can reprioritise and keep moving forwards.
Now focus on the problem area. Properly.
When you’ve managed to salvage as much of the momentum as possible and re-built a certain level or morale and productivity, tackle the problem properly. It’s easier to be calm when you know things are still moving forward. The answer may be relatively straightforward but if it isn’t sit down and pick it apart. For example did the key stakeholder take a strong stand against a solution the team had come up with? Develop that into specifics, what did they not like about it and why? Is it simply an education piece to help them understand the value and context or is it valid feedback that needs re-addressing?
What part of the problem is an education project, what part is fairly reasonable to adapt, what carries a big cost, either monetary or in actual project value? If you can demonstrate devaluation it immediately makes people hate things less or understand things better. If something is very expensive in other ways, they are also often very quickly less desirable. If there’s a huge amount of confusion around how to go about solving a problem or addressing a need, then take the time to do a workshop and bring some brains together. This may all seem fairly obvious but problems can often end up looking so much bigger than they need to be and bring project momentum to a halt.
Do everything you can to keep as much moving as possible and then pick apart the area that is tripping things up. And if worst comes to worst, just do something. It may sound vague and unhelpful but if you’re redesigning how a page works and nobody can come up the best implementation, then get something down on paper and critique it. Try get people thinking out of the box, as long as there’s movement, you’re closer to solving the problem, even if in the first instance it feels like you’re stabbing in the dark. If there’s discussion, then there’s movement and if there’s movement you’re a lot closer to being productive again.
Keep people close to the end game.
Lastly, an area that gets overlooked but has a huge impact on buy-in and productivity, is the team and stakeholder’s proximity to the direct results of what they’re working on. If people know why they’re doing something and care about it yielding good results, they work differently. Introduce the team to the direct beneficiary and let them hear the vision first-hand. Whether that’s a client who needs a website rebuild or new feature that’s being commissioned within a product team, make sure everyone is close to the end game.
Personas, user stories and user centric approaches to web development are also great tools for keeping the team closely aligned with the results of what they’re producing.
Not least, make people feel proud of what they’re doing. Talk about the end result, compare the difference, bring it up in conversation and have regular retrospectives throughout the project.
In conclusion, productivity is any situation but especially in a team setting, is very closely intertwined with the passion and buy-in people feel for their work. People are emotional, even the most professional and experienced people are emotional, to some extent or another. Making people feel empowered, respected and invested will make them productive. And I genuinely believe that what a team of players can achieve when they put their heads together and work as a collective, is always going to be so much more than what any single person can commandeer with a workforce of pawns.