Making space for change

In my opinion, one of the most rewarding experiences in business is to help turn around an underperforming team and allow them to achieve their full potential. In the same way as good managers enjoy seeing their employees grow, doing this for an entire team is hugely gratifying.

I consider I am fortunate to have found myself presented with this opportunity several times, and it’s a challenge I relish – each time I take it on I learn something new, an opportunity for my own personal growth. Clearly every situation is different, but I have a common methodology that guides me through the prototypical situation: I call it USE ME (Understand, Stabilize, Educate, Motivate, Empower).

I’ll use a marine analogy to explain – we’re trying to get a docked ship out of port and into the open ocean on its journey.

First, you need to understand the team. Really understand them.

If they are a new team that you’re managing then spend time with them – speak to them both individually and as a team. Your goal is to understand the dynamics. What drives them? Where are the power plays? What are their fears? What is the mood? Are they resigned or hungry for more? What are they working on? Are they overburdened? The way you approach this is important too – it shouldn’t feel like they’re being interviewed, but more like being given a voice where they can be open and honest. You’re not trying to captain the ship – but you do want to know who’s on the bridge, what all the gauges are telling you, and what cargo you’re carrying.

If it’s an existing team that you work with and want to reinvigorate, then now is a good time to be open to the idea that you might be a part of the problem. Ask people you trust to give you honest feedback to assess the team for you. Run anonymous surveys within the team where they can give honest feedback with no fear of comeback.

be open to the idea that you might be a part of the problem

You’re only done with this stage when you “get” the team: you’ve identified key headwinds, understand the interplay between team members, and have a clear idea of both the internal and external perception of the team. For example, a common problem is that the team appears to be underperforming from the outside, but internally the team is being crippled by process, poor communication, conflicting priorities or technical debt.

It’s not rocket science, right? But at this stage, it’s tempting to jump straight in and make big changes. Don’t.

Instead you need to show the team that you get it. That you know what the problems are. You also need to outwardly express that the team needs some space – this is the start of the shielding that the team needs to change. Much like a caterpillar builds a cocoon for its metamorphosis, so a team needs shielding during this vulnerable time of change. This doesn’t mean that the team should stop completely, but you may need to revisit timelines, priorities, etc. In short, you want to stabilize the team – carefully slowing the rocking and offering space for the team to find its feet. If the ship is overburdened then unload some cargo. The team needs to realize that they’re not going to sink.

Much like a caterpillar builds a cocoon for its metamorphosis, so a team needs shielding during this vulnerable time of change.

This is also the time to address personnel issues if you have found any; sometimes you will find that one or more of the team members are headwinds to the team’s success. You need to decide whether those individuals can adapt, or else consider removing them from the team. If you choose the latter, be sure to consider carefully how the team will perceive this – do they realize that this person is detrimental or not (think: Stockholm Syndrome)?

Hopefully by now the team should feel supported and protected.

Even a team of strong individuals can quickly become disillusioned in the wrong environment. It’s easy to lose sight of the goalposts, forgetting what good looks like. But so too can stakeholders forget – maybe expectations need resetting or processes for engagement revisiting. This is the time to educate – both those inside the team and those outside.

Work with the team to define what good looks like – what yardstick should they be measured by? Sometimes it’s necessary to define constraints for the team (or “axioms” as I like to call them) – fixed truths around which the team may choose to pivot other variables. For a technical team for instance, you may mandate that automated test coverage must be at least 75% for all new work, or that releases should be deployed in under 10 minutes. But note carefully that these are your requirements, not those of the team (yet): you must outwardly defend these when challenge, so choose wisely! I can’t stress enough however that this process must be collaborative – education can come from all directions, especially within, and you must be prepared to change too if necessary. It’s all about helping get everyone on the same page about why, not just what, the team should aim for.

sometimes it’s necessary to define constraints for the team

Equally, you need to work closely with the team’s stakeholders so that they know what to expect. Maybe bandwidth on the team will be reduced, or those weekly update meetings will be postponed whilst they are re-evaluated. Whatever the message, it is imperative that you communicate it clearly to stakeholders that you are choosing to do this, and if they have concerns they should be talking to you not the team about it. Also, keep a close eye out for backdoors emerging – it only takes one frustrated stakeholder trying to sneak work in to an individual directly to undermine the shield you have created.

keep a close eye out for backdoors emerging

It’s worth spending time on educating the team, since it makes the next stage, to motivate them, much easier – it’s easy to feel motivated about something you believe in.

Here you’re like a tug boat, pulling the whole team along towards the open ocean but acutely aware that the ship must sail alone soon – you can’t tug them along forever. Set some short term milestones. Don’t compromise any of your principles – or if you must, decide whether that principle needs redefining or removing altogether. You may also find yourself having to smooth the water in front of and around the team too – if the team has had weak or broken relationships with stakeholders or supporting teams then you need to work hard to facilitate those conversations. It’s not easy being a tug boat, but it’s vital to get the ship moving – and hopefully you won’t have to tug for too long!

you can’t tug them along forever

With the harbor wall and open ocean in sight, the team can start to move forward under their own power. But not until you let go – you need to empower them. They have their own captain and know where they’re going, so now is the time to untether. Let them make decisions – and mistakes. Show them that failure is acceptable – as long as good rationale was used in the decision making process then it’s only an opportunity for improvement.

show them that failure is acceptable

Stakeholders and support teams still expect you to be involved, but now is the time to take a step back. Identify methods of engagement with the team, key contacts for stakeholders, and introduce a feedback mechanism. You need to let go gently, so it’s a good idea to stay involved to begin with, but as quickly as possible you should be deferring to the team to make decisions. If you disagree with a decision that’s been made, try and take it up in private with the team so they can learn from it.

This is a framework I’ve used successfully several times now. It can feel slow – frustratingly so at times, but each step is important. Without understanding, you risk addressing the wrong problems. Without stabilizing, the team will never break from the old world. Without educating, both the team and stakeholders may aim for divergent goals. If you don’t motivate then you will only ever have followers, always sitting behind you, never pushing the boundaries of expectation. And finally, if you don’t empower then you will find yourself forever having to pull the team along – they will be capped, at best, by your forward velocity.

If you find yourself in this position, try this out. I’d love to know if this has worked for you – and especially if it hasn’t! There’s always room to improve.

Prioritize: an ambiguous term

AmbiguityJust ten characters, and four syllables: prioritize isn’t a complex word. It has its origins in the Latin word prior meaning “former, previous or first”. In essence, prioritizing is the act of assigning precedence to a set of items.

The word prioritize and its derivatives are far more common nowadays than they used to be. Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that prioritize and prioritization (along with the British English prioritise and prioritisation) were terms almost unused before 1975.

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Status quo

Status quo, derived from the Latin “in statu quo”, means the existing state of affairs. It’s not necessarily a bad situation — in fact it might be mutually very agreeable to all parties. But how do you know for sure other than by challenging it?

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