5 Tips for getting a new team to buy in and start taking ownership
06 December 2019
Posted by: Stephen Morris
Have you experienced the energy and capability of a connected, engaged team? A team that actively takes ownership of goals and freely collaborates to overcome obstacles? These teams – in my language, teams that rock – are amazing to work with and unsurprisingly deliver some astonishing results.
However, we’re often asked to work with or lead new teams who aren’t yet at that stage. Individuals are still developing relationships, building trust and learning ‘how things work around here’ meaning that results are at minimum below their potential.
In this blog I’ll share five areas of focus to help you as a leader to move people and teams towards that connected, cohesive and high performing future.
1. Unify with a purpose
Purpose is the essential bedrock that creates and enables ownership and autonomy in teams. In my case, I have never worked with a high performing team that doesn’t have a close connection with an overarching vision or aim, and you can do a quick exercise to see why it matters.
The mission for TED is simply two words: Spread Ideas.
Imagine you work for TED doing exactly the same job as you do today e.g. if you are a network engineer now, imagine that you are a network engineer at TED. Take a few minutes and write down a list of what you would do to help them ‘Spread Ideas’ and then come back to this article.
If you did the exercise, it should have been straightforward to think of several ideas, and there’s a simple reason for that: it’s easy to visualise and connect with their mission. With that connection you’re free to think and innovate, and at TED, you would be adding value on day 1.
Of course, your mission may not be two words, but it must be a priority to continually help your teams understand why their work matters in the context of the organisation. Explain that purpose on day 1 and keep checking and clarifying. Learn from the responses and questions you receive and refine your own understanding. Energy invested in doing this is never time wasted.
2. Share boundary conditions
If you lived alone on an island with no laws, government or boss to work for, would you be free? It’s an interesting question, and one that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an 18th century philosopher would have had a clear answer to. No.
For Rousseau, you might have the freedom from some human-made structures but would instead be bound by the need to find shelter, food and warmth. It would be very unlikely in those circumstances that you would compose a symphony, so for Rousseau people would only be free if the state provided fundamental resources to all.
How does that relate to our new team? Much time is lost as people begin to find their feet and agree how to work – even if they already know their purpose. It pays therefore to provide clarity on known rules, standards and boundaries for the team, like sharing universal components of Definition of Done (DoD) that all teams need to adhere to. You might also cover the rules for code check-ins and branching, how to record bugs, how risky changes get approved, where to get the good coffee, who’s who info, working ‘norms’, ceremonies and so on.
Never assume that people already know. Your role here is reduce waste through education, and in so doing enable people to deliver their best.
3. Fake it ‘til you make it
Given our aim is to develop a bought-in team that takes ownership, getting people to identify as a team is critical.
In social science there is a well-known concept of in-groups and out-groups where groups who identify with each other build bonds and provide support for each other. This is entirely natural for humans and undoubtedly you have experienced it at some stage, in politics if not in the office!
To help this along with a new team, speak and act in terms of the team being a team. Use group language like we did this, our achievements are, our goals are, etc, putting a focus on any whole-team achievements to build pride. Complement this with ‘artificial’ sessions like team workshops, activities or lunches and bonds will quickly develop.
A word of caution, what you don’t want to create is a ‘them and us’ sentiment, where your team isolates and distances from the organisation or other teams. “My end of the boat isn’t sinking” isn’t a sustainable strategy! To keep balance, include wider or whole-organisation sessions to help the team identify as part of the greater group, and pick up immediately on any behaviours that indicate isolation.
4. Feedback, feedback, feedback
How do you learn a new tennis stroke, to play a new instrument or to deliver a perfect King Lear?
Practice might be your first thought, and that’s right if what you’re doing is good enough. However, if I practice alone on a tennis court, I could be reinforcing mistakes meaning sub-optimal results and possibly related issues (i.e. joint pain). To learn best, we need feedback, and in a new team that’s particularly important.
The first few weeks of a new team is likely to be a very steep curve with technologies, expectations, boundaries and priorities to be understood. Receiving no feedback in that period leaves teams with doubt or assumptions about the value of their work and changing that view only gets harder with time. Finding out later that you could have done something different if people hadn’t held back is frustrating at least.
So, establish a habit of providing frequent, specific and outcome focused feedback early, and encourage that behaviour between everyone: peer to peer, you to team, team to you. Actively seek feedback from stakeholders, customers and other interested parties, and encourage practices like pairing and group Q&As. All this can help hugely to support teams and feeds into an open-by-default culture as the team matures.
5. Be human conscious
Due to the learning curve in a new team, the number of errors or missteps is likely to be higher at this stage. If there’s a complex mix of international, online, remote and part-time people, misunderstandings and duplication of effort will be common too. A leader’s response here – and in general to failure - has a fundamental impact on teams taking ownership.
If the response to failure is to seek a culprit, call out a mistake publicly (humiliating those involved), applying high pressure to not fail again and so on, what behaviours will be promoted? Perhaps we encourage greater attention to detail in the future or better risk planning, but we definitely create fear.
A team that are fearful of consequences will hold back on their ideas (not wanting to be caught out), will stand back from risky activities and might fixate on process to protect themselves. Is that the team we want? A team that doesn’t step up, innovate or make use of their collective potential?
Far better to make it safe for people to admit fault, make it OK for people not to know the answer and make it safe to provide critical feedback without recrimination. Begin by encouraging blame-free investigation of mistakes and errors to maximise learning, celebrate people who learn and develop from their failures, and openly share your own errors and responses. Couple this with a clear awareness of purpose and your team have real freedom to innovate and act on their amazing ideas to achieve it.
Guest blogger bio
For over a decade, Stephen Morris has held senior leadership and consulting positions for cloud-computing providers and other companies with very high scale and complex IT. He was named “Most Influential Business Leader” in the 2016 UK Agile Awards, with one of his teams receiving “Most Improved Agile Team” the same year. Stephen now runs his own business, consulting, training and mentoring IT leaders that want to grow, build amazing teams and deliver better, more consistent results.
Find out more here - https://opensquareconsulting.com/