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August 13, 2011 / David Bleeker

Key foundations for effective process improvement

Retrospectives and project post-mortems in general have always felt a little odd to me. I suppose it is due to the fact that some project team members spend their time whining and complaining about how nothing seems to be working right, and then sing praises of the project when the retrospective rolls around. It’s almost as if they are two different people. Despite the goading and prodding from leadership, these folks are bound by a code of silence. This code of silence is what makes retrospectives a waste of time.

Granted, not every project is riddled with issues. There are, however, compromises and missed opportunities that lead to sub-optimal performance. Every team has these, and each reaches a ceiling where the team is comfortable with its performance and no longer sees any need to improve. As a manager it is my privilege to work with a team of professionals and guide them towards capability they never knew they had. When team members are unwilling to deal with negativity, progress toward improvement is stifled.

There is an almost universal avoidance of anything negative that results in issues taking much longer to identify and improve. I have encountered situations where a suboptimal process was allowed to remain in place for years simply because the team was not willing to run the risk of upsetting someone by attempting to address it. Everyone knew what the solution was but were too afraid to speak up. The team culture was hindering progress towards the solution.

Building a strong team culture depends a lot on the manager of the team. Without strong leadership, the team will languish and struggle to escape from bad behavioral patterns. There are two closely related areas of focus for me as it relates to team building at any level: representation and advocacy.

Representation

As a manager, you represent the team to the business, and you represent the business to your team. You are a shield, a membrane that filters information and communicates in both directions. You are an essential link between your team and the rest of the world. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind as you manage your team:

  • You shield your team. You need to keep your team focused on the goal, otherwise the project or the iteration will not be successful. You need to defend your team from those that would capitalize their time if they are SMEs.
  • You inform your team. Information flow to the team is essential. The team needs to trust that you will be a more reliable source than the water cooler conversations. They need to know that you will be open and honest, and that you will set boundaries where necessary.
  • You act on the team’s behalf.  The team depends on you to represent their interests with the business and IT senior staff.

Advocacy

Two key areas where advocacy comes into play are with the team and with the individual. Advocacy for the team means that you are going to work for the team’s benefit. For the individual it means providing recognition and air time with management, fostering their career path in addition to your own. Here are some thoughts regarding advocacy:

  • You advocate ongoing training and skills development. It is not enough to manage the team’s current performance. You have to be focused on exposing team members to new opportunities, skills development and training. This is one of the toughest items, especially in a bad economy. As a manager you need to push as hard as you can regardless.
  • You avoid institutionalized overtime. The stakes are high when your team is required to produce a working system in two or three weeks. Developers feel the pressure every day. There are deadlines with measurable results required. Overtime destroys teams when it is utilized as a tool to enhance production. Work to build acceptance throughout the organization that steady work hours are essential for your development team.
  • You market your team. When you shield the team members it is possible for the business to lose sight of the value they bring to the table. Look for opportunities to highlight their efforts, explain their value contribution. Provide status reports that your manager will be able to use at their level to explain your groups capabilities.
  • You market your team members. Sit down and let your team members present the results! They are not ready? Mentor them until they are. Let the light shine on individuals where they make their contribution. Don’t cast a shadow on your team. Find opportunities outside the demos to get individuals air time with senior management.

It is amazing what your team will do when they know that you as a manager are working for them, when you have their best interests in mind, personally. When there is a strong team dynamic the team flourishes. The increased trust and energy unleashed within these teams provides the safety required to make retrospectives meaningful. Suddenly the team is willing to be direct in dealing with issue, not hiding behind a facade. Issues are resolved quickly and the team’s execution is improved with each iteration.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts. Please share what you have found effective in breaking down the barriers.

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