I have come across a number of founders and CEOs not really satisfied with their tech teams, here the most common reasons - slow feature delivery, too many bugs in the final product, too much pushback for any special requests and changes of priorities, lack of commercial sense…
The communication challenge becomes even more obvious in the modern remote-first workspace, where lack of meaningful face-to-face time results in difficulty in creating the commitment towards common goals
Why are teams important
We often talk about company culture - I think it’s the TEAM culture that’s important! In companies large enough to have multiple teams, the experience of working in one team is usually completely different to another one - they may be part of a different department, or lead by a different person, or simply in a completely different location.
I know that the terms Googlers or ThoughtWorkers are very popular, used very well to attract the best talent to the established company culture. Although I haven’t worked in any of the above companies, I have experience of working in multiple teams with completely different experience within the large company that has driven me to a different attitude, motivation and productivity outcomes. When I started in this great team, I thought how lucky I am to work at this great and successful company. Once I moved to a different team, where my work experience had a lot to be desired, my thinking switched to the awareness of failures of the company to build and maintain consistent work culture - even though it was still a successful and profitable company, looking through the team prism it didn’t appear so. I moved on eventually - another learning point, that however good the monetary rewards, and high level titles and responsibilities, it was the healthy team culture that I desired in a job role.
This experience stayed with me, driving me to work on a TEAM culture wherever I went since, making the TEAM the place where everyone wanted to be. Eventually, I’d take responsibility across multiple teams, keeping the same approach, allowing the team culture to become department culture, and then company culture eventually.
So, when you think about company culture, think about teams first, and how you can make them the central point of the collaboration - organically, company culture will grow from that.
So, what is the secret for building a productive cohesive tech team? I’m afraid there is no secret - but here are some tips and techniques I used or observed when working in some amazing teams.
Clear goals for empowered teams
Micromanaging is hard, and doesn’t scale - setting expectations for control and micromanaging has never, in my experience, got the team the outcome better. On the other hand, clear goals and priorities, communicated in a timely manner make all the difference to empower the team to take control in their own hands, and deliver results aligned with the business.
This is even more important in remote and offshore environments - having clear goals and commitments ensure everyone stays on the common path regardless where in the world they do their work.
And this helps with one of the main triggers of engineers’ dissatisfaction at work - constant change of direction, fire fighting and troubleshooting. By adopting a long term strategy and priorities that don’t change often, the team will be more open to any pressing issues that need attention here and now. Because such firefighting issues are a necessary evil so we can all go back to our strategic priorities, they are usually dealt with quicker and more efficiently.
This however goes both ways - to truly empower tech teams, is not just feeding them the business priorities, but also taking feedback and understanding that some non-functional feature that a founder or CEO may look down to (refactoring anyone?), and critical for better efficiency in the long run, and better enjoyment and satisfaction at the workplace/
Leading By Example
Leadership by example has, in my view, always had the biggest impact on the team - if a leader can get their hands dirty, stay optimistic and focused in the face of adversity, and be open when taking responsibility for both successes and failures - the teams will adopt that behaviour. The great camaraderie of being in the same boat, and focusing on the same goals give that extra impetus to the individual more than any material incentive can do.
That’s why the role of tech leaders is critical for success. To repeat my mantra, the culture starts with the team - and the team culture starts with the leadership.
One of the easiest ways to break a successful team is to take their leader away. I’m sure many of you have seen and taken part in mass exoduses where a well respected team leader takes half of the engineering team with them when they move jobs. Or where one team within a company struggles to work and deliver together, why a team in the same office excels, due to a different leadership and culture.
We need to take better care to hire, develop and grow better tech leaders, so if you have one or two in your company, cherish them!
Structured communication points
Building teams is all about communication and collaboration - finding the way to build that into working patterns and structure is a great stepping stone towards world beating teams. At the same time, adding structure to the communication and meetings allows for carving dedicated productive time for thinking and solving problems.
In an office environment, we got used to doing just this by having daily standups, and then informal chats over coffee, whiteboarding sessions to design complex systems, and even tap on the shoulder conversations when we need ad hoc help on specific problems.
In a remote world, we have to learn to be more structured, and use tools to help keep that collaborative attitude while not being next to each other in person. Slack or other messaging tools can build that office chatter atmosphere with dedicated team channels everyone participates in. Schedule regular communication points - planning meetings, retrospectives - but make sure they are well distributed, keeping enough individual time for everyone to work on their tasks.
In my recent experience working with a number of startup companies, the key challenge in staff retention was the feeling of isolation and lack of team spirit. Imagine a startup, hiring their first engineer to drive development forward, and busy founders spending most of their time promoting their product or talking to investors and other stakeholders.
So if you do one thing for your team as a leader, make sure to stay in touch, keep the communication going, have regular meetings, discuss priorities… And most importantly, find that half hour on a Friday to have some social activity with your team, if not it person, then virtually, even on a chat - it makes a huge difference!
Remember, the incentive for the best teams is that they a) enjoy their work as a combination of focused tasks and collaboration activities and b) are empowered to make contributions to common goals using their own skills and decision making. Ofcourse, do make sure you have a fair and market-objective salary and benefits packages, but to really differentiate as a place to work, and ensure you get best results from your team, think about team culture first.