Monday, September 5, 2011

How to Lead Successful Teams

Sarah has been a team leader for 18 years, mostly working in software development.  She has usually had Project Manager as a title.  But she thinks of herself as a team leader and finds that role more rewarding than a PM.  A PM assigns tasks to team members.  A PM follows up on tasks, to report to someone above her.  A PM is responsible for the project and the team.  Very structured.  Very organized.

But the best teams she has worked with, didn’t operate like that.  Those teams didn’t wait to be assigned tasks, they suggested them.  They had opinions about how to prioritize.  How to avoid risks.  How to reach successful outcomes.  And it was fun!  So much creativity, so much laughter!  That’s what Sarah wants.  To lead a team like that, to create that kind of environment.

The troublesome PM software
“When I first started, most people were using the same software for tracking projects.  And I just loved it., because it was so structured!“ Sarah said, laughing.  “People were supposed to pass these tasks back and forth.  And every task had entry fields for the task status, the priority, due date, start date, task description and so on.  I kept thinking, if only people would actually put some information there, it would be so easy for me to create reports for my manager!”

“So I started looking for ways to get the necessary data.  I would promise cookies.  I would follow people down the corridor, asking ‘Where’s my status update?’.  Well, I got some information with a lot of effort, but I sure wasn’t part of the team!  It wasn’t until I got the chance to work with a great team where we all had our desks in the same big office, that it hit me:  Just make it easy to share information!” Sarah said.  

A better way to collaborate
“Instead of having everyone struggle with the much hated PM software, we had daily stand-up meetings and then I would create the status reports.  Suddenly I had a lot more time and could really focus on listening to and negotiate with all the stakeholders.  That’s when I stopped being a project manager and became a team leader.” Sarah said, smiling.

So have you given up on software to handle communication and project overview for the team?  “Oh, no not at all.  I’ve worked for so long in software development, after all, I know there are lots of benefits to it, if you design it the right way,” Sarah said.  “Look, the short stand-up meetings are important, not least for team morale, but you want to offer people some other way of communication, especially if you’ve got virtual teams.  So, it should be designed around the following things:

  • Shared responsibility - the whole team is responsible for delivering the final product.
  • Short and clear action list - you need to be able to zoom in & out to keep perspective.
  • Very short status meetings - I’d like capture quickly what we decide on during the meetings.
  • Constant communication flow - It’s important to have some kind of arena for the team to share ideas and encouragement.  If the communication is flowing easily, it’s a lot easier for someone to raise their hand and say: “I’m stuck”.
  • Informal and easy - If it’s too formal, it feels like a test and you start to edit yourself and postpone updating your status.  Remember “form follows function”?  If it feels easy for the user, he will use it.

“You know, it’s funny, I had so much trouble getting people to update their status, yet the most popular software today is all about sharing your status: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and so on.  There’s something in that, you know,” Sarah said.  

You know what? I think so too.  How about you, are you missing a handy tool that enables team communication AND gives you an overview of the project status?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What are you really saying?

I’m still figuring out the style and tone I’d like this blog to have.  So I simply posted my first blog post.  Then I got some friends and family to review it, hoping for some helpful feedback.  Turns out I’m not quite there yet!  Here’s some of the feedback I had:

  1. Too arrogant in the beginning.
  2. Too many unfamiliar words (“What the heck is a corral?”)
  3. The story and the lessons are sort of jumbled together, maybe separate them,  first the story, then the lessons?
  4. Too long.  If it seems to long at first glance, people might not even start to read it.   And miss out on all the brilliance.  OK, that last part was me.  See issue #1.

Phew.  Well, I sure got what I asked for, it's good to know I’ve got honest people to rely on! My first reaction was to remove the post immediately, rewrite it and publish the new version.  But then I thought, what I really want is to find a way to publish more often.  I’d like to create a routine where I’m writing every day and posting several times a week. So I came up with a new idea:  Leave the original post as it is, rewrite it and post it for comparison.  Then write about the process from start to finish.  

Why would I want to do that?  Don’t worry, I’m not going to publish every draft of every post in the future.  But right now, blogging is a learning process for me, so writing about it is a way to really get a firm grasp of it.  Which is sort of the idea behind the blog anyway. To structure my ideas in a clear and concise manner.  So I’ll know which ideas are clear to me and which ones are still a bit... foggy.  Once I’ve posted the rewrite, you can compare the two posts. And then guess who my favorite bloggers are.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Collaboration lessons from my grandfather

I studied computer science in college and started off as a programmer, but gradually moved into the role of a project manager.  Partly because I was curious to know more about the customers and their needs.  And partly because I seemed to have a knack for seeing red flags and opportunities (yes, those usually go together) where others didn’t.

So now, I’ve worked as a collaboration professional for 17 years, but it’s only recently that it dawned on me where I got that knack from.  When I was 9 years old, I started helping my grandparents at their sheep farm.  We always seemed to be shepherding (also called a roundup).  

My grandparents working on their sheep farm in 1967
There were roughly three different sizes of a roundup: The smallest ones were daily roundups during spring and fall. The sheep would be let out of the barn in the morning to graze in the fields near the farm and then brought back in the evening.  This was also every kids training ground for the next step. A few miles from the farm on a steep mountainside, there was a corral (a big fenced area) about two miles wide.