I have a strong desire to contribute to making improvements and elevating the people around me. So, in June of 2020, I jumped at the opportunity to lead a team of developers and QA who had experienced some significant changes within their office earlier in the year.
As part of this involvement, I was mandated to deliver on corporate Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) of “Operational Excellence” and “Talented and Highly Engaged People”. While these objectives are certainly worthwhile and valuable, there were no clearly defined goals on how to achieve this.
There were several additional challenges we faced because this team was separated by distance in another city two time zones away, most of whom I have never met face to face. Because of these challenges, I laid out several goals for myself:
- Set out time to have proper one-to-one conversations with each individual to better understand their background, experience, and impressions of the status quo.
- Spend time ‘in the trenches’ with the team in each of their projects to gain insight on each member’s perspective. Seek to discover the practices that work well and the pain points they encounter in their day to day work.
- Translate these corporate OKRs into something meaningful and tangible for the team.
As I became more involved with the team’s day to day activities, I started to observe first-hand the challenges they encountered. With awareness of each individual’s personality, strengths, and struggles, I identified areas of opportunity for technical and/or collaborative growth.
Fundamentally, the team culture needed to change. The way of working needed to shift away from top-down leadership with siloed teams towards autonomous, self-organized teams working towards iterative delivery. The introduction of Scrum played a key part of this agile transition.
To determine the team’s OKRs, I asked myself what objectives would hold meaning to the team and would fulfill the spirit of the corporate objectives. I then created a goal framework based on several themes:
- Continuous Learning and Discovery
- Knowledge Sharing and Mentorship
- Individual Growth
- Continuous Improvement
To take strides towards the Operational Excellence objective, the team-level objective was:
- Identify and explore opportunities for improvement for our team’s project delivery and product quality.
The key results included participating in project and team retrospectives to identify improvement opportunities. Each individual set a goal to champion or participate in a new practice to improve three or more of the following:
- Feedback Validation or Testing
For these OKRs, each individual team member was asked to provide the specific examples of the retrospectives they participated in and the practices they adopted. A supporting aspect of these OKRs was to have the team member explain why these practices were important to them and what value the individual or team took away from this new practice. The significance of this activity was to allow the individual to reflect on the practice and understand the learnings or benefits that had come with adopting this change in behavior.
In follow up one-to-one conversations, each individual was able to identify the significance and benefits of the practices adopted by the team, including:
- The adoption of Scrum and its ceremonies
- The necessity of iterative development, a daily software build, and weekly demos to stakeholders
- Adopting an Acceptance Test-Driven mindset, incorporating Acceptance Criteria into User Story creation
This opportunity to reflect upon the impact and value of these practices allowed the importance to resonate further with each individual in a different way. There was a qualitative improvement in the way the team would communicate, collaborate, and tackle unforeseen challenges.
Furthermore, the impacts of these practices resulted in a measurable increase in software and process quality. Defects and discrepancies in expected behavior were spotted earlier and fixed before additional functionality was added. The number of certification audits to have the product comply with jurisdictional market regulations dropped to as low as 12% of previous efforts due to the additional focus on quality with tight product, developer and QA feedback loops. This resulted in material savings to compliance costs and project calendar time.
Talented and Highly Engaged People
The organizational objective of having Talented and Highly Engaged People required a number of strategies revolving around three themes:
- Autonomy — the capacity to be self-directed and take action
- Mastery — the opportunity to get better at something meaningful
- Purpose — striving toward shared vision and values
In the spirit of Scrum and agile teams, each team was structured to be cross-functional, having or learning the necessary skills to complete the tasks required to successfully deliver the product. The team was also coached to self-organize to fulfill the goals set within each weekly Sprint, and to address intra-team dependencies. If the team faced impediments outside of their control, I would facilitate a resolution or communication with the team that could help overcome this obstacle. Common impediments included knowledge gaps, communication barriers, permissions to resources, and dependencies on other teams. Once an impediment was overcome, the necessary knowledge or practice was built into the team’s ways of working to mitigate its future impact or recurrence.
Clear goals were communicated at the team, project, and weekly sprint levels to ensure the team aligned the efforts harnessed by this increased autonomy. Technical and day-to-day decisions that could safely be decentralized were given to the team to determine the correct path to take.
The cultural shift towards more autonomy naturally led to increased empowerment and accountability because actions were being taken by the team based on their collaborative decisions.
Valuable technical innovation was an additional byproduct of increased autonomy. Objectives were set to tighten feedback loops and shift the validation and testing of product components during or shortly after implementation. Strides were made that enabled the team to validate mathematical models months earlier than previous projects. Data visualisation and analysis techniques arose that were ground-breaking for the organization.
To complement increased autonomy, team-level OKRs were structured to enable individuals to discover and pursue opportunities of growth and learning.
Goals were set with each individual to:
- Identify an area of interest to invest time for learning and development.
To set the foundation for continuous learning, each person was asked what they learned from their growth objective, and how it may have helped them at work or in their personal life.
The key was to allow each person to reflect on why the learning and growth opportunity was important to them and explore the impact it made.
- Share an area of interest with the team through a demo, forum, wiki article, or any other means of verbal or visual communication.
This knowledge-sharing based goal encouraged the team to discover common interests and facilitate group learning. This goal also helped support the value of continuous learning by familiarizing team members with topics and ideas they may not have otherwise been aware of. Members were encouraged to continue exploring new ideas and deeper discussion together.
- Find three mentorship opportunities with peers. Individuals could mentor other team members in an area they were strong in, or seek mentorship from another person in an area in which they wished to grow in.
The team was encouraged to adopt a growth mindset supported by a two-way mentorship culture. Senior team members had a wealth of domain and company experience to bring to newer members. In addition, new members were able to leverage their outside knowledge and experience to inject new ideas into the team.
Each individual had the autonomy to set their own growth and learning objectives based on what was important to them. This allowed them to set the new boundaries of their knowledge and comfort zones.
Bringing a meaningful sense of purpose to each individual team member required context and empathy. I endeavored to understand why each member’s work was important to them and sought opportunities to allow them to understand why their work was crucial to the organization and those around them.
An example of valuable feedback for the team was to see how the product they developed performed in the market. This was the first time they tangibly saw the value their efforts brought to the company through quantitative metrics. One particular product was generating significant traffic and revenue within the first four weeks of release, far outperforming previous releases from the team.
Another strategy I utilized was to build a collective understanding of the bigger picture illustrated with an end to end process map. This map visualized the end to end efforts to conceptualize, design, implement, and deliver our product to the customer. Once this perspective was drawn out, each member understood how our efforts contributed to the success of the entire delivery team, especially those with heavy dependencies on our work. The message received by the team was “We’re all in this together, to support one another, and enable each other for our team to succeed”.
By conveying the importance of the team’s work traced down to each individual, it demonstrated the value of each individual within the company as we strove towards the common goal of producing exceptionally performing products focused around user experience.
Employee engagement and high performance are objectives many organizations strive for but are very difficult to achieve. Many factors play a role in success, but embracing some simple values and principles build a strong foundation towards achieving these goals.
- Autonomy — Seek opportunities to extend individual and team autonomy and empower them to be self-directed towards well understood and meaningful goals.
- Continuous Learning and Growth — Awareness and discovery are important first steps towards individual and team growth. Accommodate for exploration of knowledge and skills based on interest or need, and see where this direction leads. Encourage individuals to push their boundaries, reflect on what they’ve learned, and how they’ve expanded their knowledge or skill set.
- Knowledge Sharing and Mentorship — Knowledge sharing with peers builds awareness for topics others may not have realized existed and is an invitation to converse over common interests. This may inspire someone’s passion to delve deeper into a subject and start their own continuous learning journey. Mentoring someone to grow in a specific area also challenges a mentor’s knowledge,allowing them to exercise critical communication and coaching skills while benefiting the individual learning from them.
- Continuous Improvement — The drive to continuously improve is an investment in an individual, their team, and their organization. Challenging the status quo, identifying the most valuable opportunities for improvement, exploring options to do things differently, and standardizing successful change formulate the cycle of continuous improvement.
- Purpose — Utilize empathy to understand what is important to each individual. Tie these values to the team and the broader organizational vision. Guide each individual to understand why their work is important to themselves and those around them.
By giving the team and its members the opportunity to explore and mature in the above areas, engagement in the latter half of 2020 increased over 40% from the engagement survey conducted in 2019. More importantly, this shifted the culture to empower the team to move forward and be accountable to their own success and growth.
- Pink, Daniel H. Drive: the Surprise Truth about What Motivates Us. Riverhead Books, 2009.
Special thanks to my editor Dr. Jennifer Sanchez