Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Making teams tick - 5 things even I can tell you

ThoughtWorks is a company of really smart people - we base our business on it. As part of my job at this company, I am privileged to work with the smartest of the smarts. Some of our best consultants come to ThoughtWorks University and that's what makes the program as good as it is today. On the side, I've become a bit of repeat practitioner in putting teams together in a high intensity performance environment. Over the last few years in this firm, I've put together over 20 teams and fortunately each team has made the company proud with its performance. You could say that I know a thing or two about making teams tick. While that may only a be a conjecture, I'd like to share with you what I've learned while working alongside some really smart individuals.

Set Context

At ThoughtWorks, my favourite word is context. Context is what we need to perform effectively. Context provides the background for why we do the things the way we do them. Context often illuminates the very meaning of what we do. To set context is perhaps the most important part of building a new team. My colleague Patrick Kua is an absolute hero with setting context. I use a lot of his onboarding patterns to get new teams up to speed with the rationale, background and mechanics of our work.

Give them Freedom

I strongly believe that when you put a group of smart people together and they agree on the goal they wish to achieve, they will find effective ways to get there. ThoughtWorks University v2 is a great example of this - even rookies prove this hypothesis. In my time at ThoughtWorks, I've noticed that it's usually enough for me to set context, share some broad guidelines with my new team and then just let them do their thing. Sure, they'll make mistakes. If we can plan some slack to allow people to learn, we can easily mitigate that risk. Sure, they'll need guidance. That's where my experience comes in.

Avoid the 'postman pattern'

One of my previous bosses was a nightmare to work with. All she ever did was pass on work via email. We never caught up, she never worked alongside me or my colleagues. She sat in her ivory tower, while her minions slogged away. I call this the postman pattern. I try to consciously avoid this kind of aloof behaviour. This to some extent has been my Achilles heel as well, but I believe the only way to have influence in a team, is to work within it. For as much as I can, I work with my teams on a daily basis. When I can't work alongside them, I try to step away and remove blockers instead. There's no point trying to operate by remote control. Either earn your right by working with the team, or be ready to relinquish it.

Shorten the feedback loop

When people are new, they will make mistakes. They will also taste success. The key is to ensure that they can recognise these occurences and know how to repeat them (in case of successes) or learn from them (in case of mistakes). This is where a commitment to continuous feedback becomes crucial. I'm a big believer in the value of continuous feedback - in fact I know some teams in ThoughtWorks that use Rypple to facilitate this process. Feedback doesn't have to be a grand event. It can just be a few lines that strengthen someone's confidence or improve their effectiveness. And by the way, there's no harm in letting someone know they're wrong. I created a course on this some months back - take a look

Play the facilitator

My colleage at ThoughtWorks, Angela Ferguson often used to speak of her role as a project manager being more like that of a facilitator. I think she's quite right. If we truly want to make our teams succeed then our biggest responsibility is to remove blockers from the way. Quite often it's also about absorbing external pressures so the team can perform effectively. Often it also means connecting people to people. This in my view is crucial. There are several problems to which a team may not have solutions. This is where connecting to people outside the strongly knit team helps -- tapping into the power of weak ties. I've been around for a while. My job gets me to know a lot of people and connect with them on social networks as well. I use this strong network to get my immediate team connected to other ThoughtWorkers when the need comes by.
I'm obviously no leadership or team building expert. I'm sure there's heaps more one could do when setting up and working with new teams. All I've added here is from my own experience - do you have any ideas you want to add? Feel free to drop them in the comments section of this blogpost. Next week, we'll be back to my musings on social business.

Photo credit: Éole

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