NOTES ON DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION
We Need to Talk: Five Essential Conversations That Make Good Teams Great
by Marianne Kay
Some teams share a sense of passion and purpose from the get-go. Startups in particular often emerge from a strong, clear vision of their founders, which attracts colleagues and customers alike. When there is a lot of common ground, there is a higher degree of trust, and team members intuitively look for ways of working that benefit not just them individually, but the team as a whole.
Other teams may follow a different path. In large organizations in which teams are created by management, there may be little direction and only broadly defined goals. In this case, a more formal approach to understanding team objectives and processes may be more appropriate. Either way, the transition from a group of individuals to a team that truly supports each other and works well together is not without its challenges. Here are five key conversations that can help on this journey.
#1: TEAM MISSION
We’ve all seen team mission statements that are very effective in putting us to sleep. Cutting-edge products, empowering customers, taking it to the next level—these and many other cliches are so generic and uninspiring that they are ultimately meaningless. Most teams, if tasked with creating a mission statement, can do better. So, instead of imposing a mission statement on the team members, let them create their own. The following are the questions to ask in a team mission discussion:
- What is the team’s name?
- Who are the customers?
- What does the team do?
- How does the team do it?
- What is the team aiming to achieve?
- What makes the team different?
Agreeing on the team mission serves two purposes. First, it helps everyone to articulate what the team does in a nuanced way to a range of audiences: customers, stakeholders, and other departments. Second, it reinforces the sense of meaning and purpose, which is known to boost motivation.
#2: SUCCESS CRITERIA AND STANDARDS OF QUALITY
What does success look like? How is quality achieved? What constitutes good enough? Who is reporting key performance indicators (KPIs) to stakeholders and how often? Are target figures achievable? Why or why not? Is there a disconnect between what the management wants and what the team thinks represents a good job? For software development teams, one specific aspect of this conversation is technical debt. Technical debt is the cost of developing too much too soon, such as when leadership decides to release new features earlier than the team was able to produce a fully sustainable, maintainable code. This pattern can snowball into a big problem if the delivery schedule doesn’t allow for refactoring code and putting things right later. Monitoring and dealing with technical debt is the kind of metric that matters greatly for the team, but it can be overlooked by stakeholders who are focused on business objectives.
I’ve always found that a discussion about team values is hard because it can look so simple on the surface, but there is so much to explore if you dig deeper. Brainstorming ideas about what’s important will usually surface concepts such as respect, trust, and willingness to learn, and these are certainly a good start. But how exactly are these values relevant to the team and the project at hand, and how will they be adhered to in practice? An authentic, honest conversation about the team values requires a degree of psychological safety (an employee’s certainty that they won’t be punished or shamed for speaking their mind). It may be useful to discuss team values more than once—the first time to lay some ground rules, and the second time to review them and talk about the challenges and ways of meeting them.
#4: WAYS OF WORKING
When someone asks you to do something, a natural first impulse is to agree. Helping others feels good, whereas refusing to help feels confrontational and uncomfortable. It may seem easier to attend a meeting with no agenda than to challenge it. It may be tempting to work longer hours to resolve an urgent issue rather than highlight the unrealistic timescales. It may seem necessary to respond to every email and every call as soon as possible. But while team members are pulled in all of these different directions to help their colleagues, they may compromise their own professional goals.
Explicitly agreeing on ways of working in a team helps every team member to protect their time. What are the team’s core working hours? Is there a lunch hour? Are all meetings compulsory? What is the purpose of regularly held meetings? What amount of time for focusing versus time for breaks is acceptable? Getting together to review and write down these rules aids transparency and helps people feel comfortable and secure.
#5: ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
Over time, people learn more about each other’s roles, strengths, and weaknesses, but even in established teams, some of this information may not be well-understood or readily available. Conflicts may arise when several members of the team are feeling responsible for the same area of work and when boundaries between the roles are not clear. The Team Washing Instructions Canvas template from Fearless Culture (see the sidebar for the link) is a great tool to start conversations about team members’ skills, preferences, and vulnerabilities. This exercise is not only useful for collecting valuable information, but it also improves team bonding.
Transitioning from a group of individuals working in the same physical or virtual space to a well-balanced team that is delivery-focused and has a good work ethic is not something that happens overnight. Many organizations spend years improving their processes and culture, and they are still far from perfect. Conversations about team mission, success criteria, team values, ways of working, and team roles can help to create strong, efficient teams faster.