It was a wet and dark morning in Dublin when I sat with team X for the first time.
I had been told: “Gus, these guys are struggling, they really need your help. They are always late, and everybody complains about the quality of their work, it’s bad, very bad”.
I expected a demotivated team of technically poor developers with its members playing video games or youtube videos instead of doing their job, but I was wrong.
No developer was slacking or pretending to work, on the other hand, I saw people with worried faces shuffling around, some listening to angry customers, some head down into code, some testing and quietly cursing.
To a newcomer, they looked super busy and doing their thing.
I perceived the first hint of trouble later in the day. I went to talk to some of them, just introducing myself and telling them that I was going to work with them to try to make their life easier. Each and every one of them was too busy to talk. All of them had something urgent, being a production issue, being a customer waiting behind their backs, or a release they had to finish by 5pm. Sorry, sorry Gus, I really can’t now, I have this blah blah…
I took it in and let them alone for the day. The day after, I kept on observing without saying a word. The amount of pressure that I saw applied on to these poor kids was frightening. In the same day I saw 8 different people go to the same developer and demand he finished something he was meant to have finished already. The requesters were different people and asked for 8 different things, all quite angrily.
The subsequent days, my observations stressed more and more this situation, the people were pushed over the limits and by trying to finish things quickly and relief some of the pressure were skipping steps and introducing new problems, new issues to work on, and so on.
I kept on observing and asking questions here and there, but the people saw me as somebody that couldn’t help them with the code, hence quite useless. I had to do something different.
On the 4th day, in the morning, after their standup, I told them to stop doing what they were doing and come and have a chat with me.
Believe it or not, It was almost impossible to get them off their seats.
They felt they could not leave the sinking ship, they needed to continue trying to flush the water out with their hands. Did I have a powerful drain pump and could save the boat easily? They didn’t have time to learn how to use it, they needed to keep on shovelling with their bare hands.
I eventually got them into a room. We had a retrospective. I disguised the retro to be something else, because I had heard from one of the developers: “we don’t do retrospectives anymore, what’s the point if we don’t have the time to change anything?”
That’s a very valid question. Very.
The team was obviously overloaded and didn’t have the maturity and the necessary negotiation skills to express that to their customers and stakeholders. They had reacted to the overload with what I call the “headless chicken approach”. It works like this: “Just do all you can, forget about quality, process, product, customers, just run for your life and even if your work product is terrible, people won’t be able to blame you, as you work like a donkey every day.”
Do you think this is uncommon? Well think again.
The first step we took was to visualise the work in progress. The guys were using Jira with no physical board and didn’t realise how much work they were really taking on. The board was scary, full scary I mean.
As the work came from many different products, another thing that we did was separating the products into different classes of service.
By doing this we immediately saw that one product had most of the tickets, why? We don’t know yet, but at least we are aware of it now.
After this very simple step the team members started having conversations that were beyond the need to finish MyNewFeature, they started looking at current priorities and talking about the whys of the bad situation they where in.
Then they started talking about experiments to fix it.
They were improving the system.
I looked outside the window, the sun had come out.
What were the 3 steps we made that enabled the behavioural change?
- Acknowledge we were in an unsustainable situation that needed changing
- Agree the team had the responsibility and the authority to improve it with my support and management agreement
- Visualise the work they were already doing
Just this small change had transformed a group of intelligent people acting like headless chickens into people that were trying to improve a complex system, not bad for a weeks work I’d say!
If you are curious stay tuned and I will tell you what happened next, no more chickens, I swear.
The new episode of the story of Team X is out