How I helped a group of technical people form a high performing team

Metro Blogs
Another challenge that is faced early in projects is how to turn the talented group of individuals assembled into a high performing team. With the ambitious goals of the project laid out it was essential that this was completed as early as possible. The best way I have found to do this is set a goal based around a set of restrictions that the team can only solve by working together. For the Metro WordPress project it was getting our responsive blogs site live for use by editors and end users behind Akamai at the end of our third sprint. I think that the third sprint was a good time to do this as the team already had a basic understanding of the domain, technology, each other and process. I also took some time off right at the deadline as without me leading the project the team would need to work together and communicate more with each other. You need to empower individuals and if you are a leading figure by removing yourself you create the space for others to step up.

Self Organisation

You obviously also need motivated individuals, the right rewards and a clear achievable goal but when I came back in after the deadline you could almost feel the difference. The team had managed to deploy all the code but not quite configure Akamai correctly to deal with cached User Agents for the mobile site. They had self organised to get a far as they did and only an unknown consequence of a design decision stopped them from meeting the target. However the learning from this mistake ensured we made the right choice later in the project and avoided User Agent detection in favour of using widths. The restriction of time, platforms and approach ensured that they had a common frame of reference to approach the problem and organise around.

Emergent Design and Technical Debt

The team had also hacked a lot of things to meet the deadline which they were now all passionately complaining about. I am a big fan of emergent design where you let the pain points of a project show themselves before fixing. This was a great example of that and I then let the team use the rest of the week to clean up the technical debt and you could see that sealed the team’s formation. If you let talented passionate people speak their mind together about constraints and then give them time to fix those issues you get what you actually need not what one person views as the best approach. However if you don’t give the team time to clear the technical debt you will loose respect and all of the good work. They also wont feel empowered to make their own decisions in the future.

Order comes out of Chaos

Order comes out of chaos rather than overly thought order descending into chaos. Wrong assumptions made before problems were fully comprehended have derailed many other projects I have been involved in. Leaving all decisions to the last possible point when the maximum amount of learning has been completed is always a good idea. When people have a clear mental model of the problem rather than an out of date one from previous projects that they assume to be valid. As I mentioned earlier you need to insert chaos at the right time in the project as if it is done too early then you can lose more than you gain.

High Performing Team

To see the passion from everyone having made some compromises for a short term goal and their insistence that this could not continue I knew that this group of people was now a team. The learning that they had from self organising around a clear goal and solidarity against the technical debt showed they were well on their way to be a high performing team.

Key Learnings

  • Constraints help creativity.
  • Clear goals help people self organise.
  • Removing a leader for a short period can help self organisation.
  • Allowing pain points to surface due to constraints makes people passionate.
  • Passionate people perform better if you then empower them by listening to their opinions and fix the technical debt.
  • The group needs a certain level of maturity before trying this approach.

Music to Read this Post to

Guy Gerber absolutely smashing it in his own special way on this techno mix.

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