Harness the Human Element to Improve Team Performance

Janet Brunckhorst, a principal project manager at Carbon Five, and Courtney Hemphill, a partner and software developer also at Carbon Five discussed how to use a Lean approach to improve team performance.

Both Courtney and Janet have a lot of experience working with “dozens of companies, hundreds of teams, many different varieties of actual initiatives, projects and companies,” with teams big and small. They’ve gleaned patterns in companies that were “successful in creating highly efficient operational teams” and shared their best strategies for creating agile, integrated teams.

Janet shared someone’s recent wisdom that “Wasting human effort is deeply disrespectful to you, your company and your product.” Her point being that if you’re not creating great teams, then you’re wasting productivity.

Although some fear that AI and other automation designed to improve productivity might make human effort obsolete, Janet suggested worry is unnecessary. “We really still rely on the creativity of humans, the innovations of humans, the collaborations of humans to produce great products in the world today.”

“Lone wolves” are a death knell to teams

Courtney expressed that there is a definitive link between the culture of a company and the efficiency of its teams. To explain this she drew on the metaphor of wolves in the wild. The myth of wolves is that they have “this strength, this resiliency, this intelligence,” she said. But research shows “that if a wolf is left alone, no matter how skilled they are and fast and capable, they cannot survive independently of the pack.”

If your company culture supports lone wolves, “even if you have amazing developers, people that are incredibly intelligent and talented, if you don’t integrate them into the bigger team you’re not going to be able to push things through as a product initiative, all the way through to the market.”

Courtney insisted that you have to “develop your individuals” to be able to work collaboratively across all functions.

A key take away of Courtney’s is that efficient teams have what Courtney called “psychological safety”—the ability to work collaboratively or autonomously. “They have agency. They can make decisions and take ownership of those decisions, but they [do so] collectively.” This allows them to be able to take big risks but still operate well.

Use build-measure-learn to develop teams

Janet said you can reach this psychological safety using the Lean Startup method of “build, measure, learn” to develop and refine teams in the same way you do with products. But they played with the order and started with measuring, a function of observation.

Most of the time they come in to help a company, they’re working with an existing team, not a brand new one, so the first thing they have to do is observe that team, e.g. measure.

“What we’re looking for is: How do I get the temperature of my team? What are some actionable ways I can look across my team and understand them at a level that will allow me to measure…the baseline, and then productively come up with ways to change that baseline?”

Find something you’re willing to change

As you set out to measure how well a team is working, Courtney recommended you take the Lean approach and not roll out HR software or anything complicated. Take a Slack poll, or an informal survey.

Also, “Measure the things that matter,” Courtney urged. And once you start asking employees what they want to change, be sure that you actually do something about it. “People will get really fatigued at a company that is constantly asking their opinion and then not doing anything about it.”

The goal of this activity is to find something to change in your organization—and there’s always something to change.

Use retrospectives: a tool at-a-glance

Another way to assess the functionality of a team over to team is to use “retros” or retrospectives.  At Carbon Five the team sits down every week—a “full cross-functional balanced team,” Courtney clarifies—to discuss what went well and what didn’t go well. They created an internal tool called “Stickies.io.”

“When you type in ‘I wish’ the card instantly turns orange. If you type in ‘I like’ the card turns green.”

This visual helps them look back over the course of a project and take the temperature of the overall team dynamic at a glance.

Courtney explained, “You can use this as both a pulse point of how the team is doing, but also a rich data set that you can then, at the end of the project, go back and look through to find areas of improvement.”

She also likes retros for the way they capture not only qualitative data, but also quantitative data in the number of notes that you’re taking. “So retros are this rich data set, particularly with teams that exist for long periods of time.”

Create a hypothesis for your team

Once you’ve observed and measured your team, develop a hypothesis for what needs to change in the team by asking “why.” Using another product Carbon Five created called the Product Dartboard that “Helps us to see the relationship between team effectiveness and product focus,” Courtney shared a story of a team they helped to reshape.

The Product Dartboard revealed that there was eroded trust among the team “Because people thought that something was going to be done by somebody else and it didn’t get done.”

In this one team’s case, work was falling through the cracks and communication was frustrating for many members of the team. When they isolated issues to work on to improve this, they came up with “clear shared vision” as the single metric to focus on. “The team didn’t know what their vision was. Some people thought it was clear and some didn’t. So their problem is one of alignment and agreement.”

In another team, they identified a different problem: that they wanted to pair more. However, Courtney said, they first had to figure out why they weren’t pairing already.

A manager noticed that they didn’t have the right physical conditions for pairing. Their desks were small, their monitors not very big, and they were all very close together.

Courtney describes, “It was quiet in their workspace, headphones on. No one really felt they could talk a lot and pairing is talking.”

So the manager changed up the physical space to create pairing situations.

“So here are our two hypotheses—one is building pairing stations will result in more pairing, and the second is that pairing more will lead to a more cohesive aligned product.”

Ultimately, a combination of retrospectives and applying the build-measure-learn loop can have a significant impact on team performance.

Employ one-on-ones for crucial feedback

Courtney was also highly enthusiastic about a concept from Kim Scott’s new book Radical Candor.

“Her approach is: be a human at work. Bring your human self.”

One of the best ways to do this is to schedule one-on-ones and not treat these as optional.

“It allows you both as a manager, and for your direct reports, to see progression…using this quadrant to really gauge how your feedback is being received,” Courtney explained.

However, being human doesn’t mean just being nice and empathic all the time. A manager’s role with direct reports is to “challenge them…to help them evolve their skills.”

These one-on-ones allow a manager or leader to “watch how you give feedback” and notice how it’s perceived by the direct report. “You can measure this across time, using these one-on-ones to gain “ever-increasing knowledge of team dynamics, information that might not be shared with the group.”

Courtney clarified that this allows managers to learn about themselves at the same time as they’re learning about the team.

If it seems funny to be measuring “these intangible assets” Courtney encourages managers to still take the time to do it, and not to think of them as “soft skills.”

She urges the audience to “eradicate the term soft skills from your vocabularies” because that binary between hard and soft skills suggests that one is superior to the other, which she argues is just not true.

“Learning, experimenting, building and moving your team dynamics is the thing that is going to give you the best market opportunity.”

Thank you to Jordan Rosenfeld for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Company can help.

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