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?