I’ve been leading a small technical team for about four years now. In that time I’ve learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Everyone is unique. What comes naturally to you may not come naturally to someone else, and your natural leadership style may not be suitable for every situation. It’s a big world out there. I’m one person, with one life experience. All advice should be taken with a grain of salt.
In saying that, I’ve spent a long time thinking about ways to make the teams I work in sustainable. This is a collection of things I’ve found particularly useful. It’s far from complete, but I’d consider it a pretty good starting point.
Psychological safety is the key to everything. If you are in a team that doesn’t feel comfortable to speak their mind, you are missing out on a lot of important information. It’s something you have to earn, and it’s more than being nice to each other. A team which is psychologically safe does not always agree, it’s a team that is able to surface and work through different views and ideas. Psychological safety is a vast topic, this article is a good starting point if you’d like to learn more.
Check in with people at least every couple of weeks. Even in a safe work environment there is going to be the occasional thing left unsaid. Give people a little bit of room to say what’s on your mind without others around. I’ve found that there can often be problems I’m not aware of, or haven’t noticed. Getting feedback on it early gives me time to adjust, or to pass it on to the appropriate people. If you don’t already have psychological safety in your team, this is one way start building it.
Retrospectives every few weeks. Even a high performing team will have areas they want to change or experiments they may want to try. Remember that a retrospective just as much about what’s going well, as it is about what’s going wrong. A personal failing of mine is that I focus too much on what’s next, without taking the time to appreciate what the team has achieved. Overtime I’ve been breaking that cycle, but I wouldn’t have realised it without it being mentioned in our team’s retrospective. Retromat is a good resource if you are looking to mix up your format a bit.
Bring everyone on the journey. As you grow into a leadership position, you are naturally going to start to know more about what is going on in the business. It can be easy to forget that not everyone has the same access to information that you do. Over time you will need to work out the appropriate balance between what is too much and too little information for your team. If you understand why a feature is important, make sure your team does as well. People need to feel like their work has meaning if they are going to stay motivated.
Talking in terms of desired outcomes rather than actions is how I try to bring people on the journey. Always assume that you don’t know as much as you think you do. When you talk about outcomes, you are giving people the opportunity to make their own conclusions on the best path to get there. It naturally becomes a more collaborative conversation.
For a long time I was trying to make a more sustainable team by having us hire an Agile Coach. “We need an Agile Coach” is one solution to the problem “we need a more sustainable team”. Changing the framing made it a lot easier to get people interested in the problem, and we were able to collaborate on solutions which better fit the company. An Agile Coach was something that I was excited about, building a more sustainable team is something that everyone can get excited about and contribute to.
Understand that change takes time. If you change a line of code, you will know if it worked within a few seconds. It takes a lot longer than that to see noticeable change in a person. Even when the feedback is valid and perfectly delivered, it may be months before you see measurable change. Old habits die hard, and new habits take time to form. We are all sacks of meat trying to do our best, it’s not always easy. Know that if someone hasn’t changed immediately, it doesn’t mean they’ve ignored your feedback. As a leader, make sure you are checking in, reinforcing what is important, and offering support to the people you work with.
Delegate and support. If you want your team to be sustainable, then your team should be able to function decently without you. Shielding people from yucky jobs is a noble, but if it’s important work then it’s also important that you aren’t the only one who knows how to do it. You may also find that someone in your team finds joy in work that you do not. Delegate work to your team when you can, but also make sure they are supported as they grow into it. Effective delegation is one of the most important skills a leader can have. Unfortunately it can also be one of the hardest to learn. I won’t be able to cover it all in a paragraph so I will recommend reading this article instead.
Take time off. This is one of the best ways of testing how sustainable your team really is. Ideally you should be able to take a month long holiday without fearing that everything is going to fall over without you. While away, you are giving people in your team a chance to really step into the responsibilities of your role, and find knowledge gaps that you weren’t aware of. Make sure that responsibilities are well defined before you go, it sends a clear signal that you trust your team and saves people from having to work out who does what on the fly. If you are someone to tends to do too much, you may find yourself surprised at how capable your team is at tasks you never would have thought to delegate.
Understand what motivates people, and let them do it as much as practical. A lot of what I’ve learnt over the years can be boiled down to “people are different to you”. One of the many advantages of working in a diverse team is that it’s more likely that a task is going to be worked on by someone who truly enjoys that type of work. As you spend time with your team, try and identify the types of work that different people favour. It also helps to ask them directly of course. Ideally everyone will end up with a bit of experience with each type of task so that the team isn’t too dependent on one person, so make sure that everyone is getting out of their comfort-zone from time to time.
Reflect on the ways that you are unreliable. If you are leading a team, you are part of the glue that’s holding it all together. If you can’t be relied on, then it’s going to start to fall apart. As an exercise, I like to take note of times I was unreliable so that I can improve in the future. Generally this is a sign of overwork, and an opportunity to see if there tasks I could be delegating, or if I need to reprioritise my time. Creating checklists in my notebook is one way I make sure that I’m not forgetting those small tasks that can accumulate throughout the day.
Understand that people have lives outside of work. Work is how we make our living, but it becomes secondary when life gets in the way. A sustainable team has people who understand this, and look out for each other. You don’t have to be a work therapist, being understanding when someone is going through a tough time goes a long way. At my workplace we rebranded Sick Leave to Wellness Leave as a way of making it clear that there are more factors than just physical problems which can make someone unable to work on a given day. People will be happier and stay longer at a workplace that supports them.
Hopefully this post has been a healthy mix of new and known. What’s important is that you are constantly reflecting on what you do well, and what you need to change. Be open and honest, and the necessary feedback will make its way to you. At some stage I’d like to make a few follow up posts where I dig a bit deeper into some of these areas, until then, there are plenty of great resources out there on any of these topics.
Thanks for reading. Feedback is always appreciated.