August 31, 2021
Everyone is looking for a leg up right? How can we maximize team performance or wring just a little more horsepower out of our team?
Good news – what follows are 25 tips intended to give you that boost of horsepower. While you may not be able to use all 25 tips, you may find that some of these could be put to immediate use to help you for a short-term boost to accomplish some goal.
1. Work from a War Room – Whether it is a virtual room or a physical one, getting all team members into one room provides an immediate boost. Studies of teams that moved from the same building into the same room experienced a doubling of productivity. Why? Teams working together are more likely to stay focused, reduce knowledge scatters, and create fewer delays. A former coworker of mine works for an automotive manufacturer outside Detroit and they have a virtual MS Teams war room and everyone stays on with video for their entire workday.
2. Bring in a Wringer – To get an immediate boost, bring in an expert in the domain or the work to be done. I did this recently on a website development project and it made an incredible difference. Troubleshooting time was cut in half and that developer anticipated and solved problems I didn’t even know we were going to have. When you have someone who is an expert in the technology or domain you need, it is like a breath of fresh air.
3. Addition by Subtraction – Do you have people on your team that hold the team back in any way? You know the type, they ask ‘innocent’ questions or they push to be involved in every conversation even if they don’t have the skills or aren’t needed. Or they encourage everyone to just slow down and take it easy. I had such a person on a client project and we could see from the team velocity chart that the team had the potential but unfortunately they simply hit their modest sprint goals every sprint. There was no pushing – it seemed the person was always holding the team back. Strengthen your team by removing that person.
4. Train the Team – Sometimes the team is using outdated approaches. It could be programming tools or technologies. Or it could be that the team would move faster if they used test-driven development or pair programming but they don’t know-how. Providing training could boost productivity (though not necessarily in the short run) and lead to a high performing team. The photo below shows micro-services training being delivered to teams at Pivotal Labs.
5. Align the Team on Goals – This is a somewhat obvious item but not necessarily always the case. It is important to connect the work of the team to both the goals of the overall organization as well as individual goals. When people feel like they are connected to the goals or the purpose of the organization, they are more likely to give discretionary effort.
6. Develop a Team Values Statement – One technique that I use with new teams is to facilitate a session where they develop a team values statement. It helps improve team maturity plus it helps people to agree on what is most important.
7. Conduct a Team Retrospective – Sure you already do a retro every two weeks. Or do you? Perhaps it is time to step back and take a longer-term perspective. A great tool for this is the timeline retro. In a timeline retro, the team history is spelled out across a whiteboard, either in person or virtually. Team members work together to identify significant events that occurred over that timeline and they are invited to identify whether they are positive, negative, or both. See below for a photo of a team in the process of conducting a timeline retrospective after they had worked together for 7 months.
8. Conduct an “Offsite” – Offsite meetings vary by organization. Some are a complete boondoggle to a different city and some are in a different location in the same town. You can even do it via Zoom though I don’t recommend it. The point is to break out of the routine and get away from the distractions that prevent the team from focusing on their objectives. Sometimes a focused effort will boost team cooperation and trust and result in higher levels of productivity.
9. Drinks Out – A mini version of the offsite is to hit a favorite pub or another establishment for some drinks after work. These needn’t be adult drinks and it can be done virtually though I strongly prefer the in-person type with adult drinks.
10. Skills Analysis – Does your team have all the skills they need to complete the work they are facing? Do they know? One way to verify and shine a light on the importance of critical skills is to do a skills analysis. This is best as a facilitated session that is run in 2 passes. The first pass is determining what are the skills that are most important to getting the work done. These might be technical skills though they could also be skills related to the domain or an understanding of customer needs. The second pass is in identifying team member’s strengths in terms of those critical skills. The analysis could surface training needs (or hiring needs). The photo below shows the skills identified in the first pass with a mechanism for team members to rate their skills.
11. Bring in a Coach – Many teams can benefit from having a coach. Does yours? Is it the Scrum Master? Some Scrum Masters can coach really well but frequently Scrum Masters lack the experience and expertise to be an effective and credible coach, particularly for mature teams. In any case, a fresh set of eyes and a different voice can help stir improvements in a team.
12. Improve Psychological Safety – In a large-scale study of high-performing teams at Google, Psychological safety was identified as one of the key contributors to high-performance teams. While not easy, making it safe for team members to speak up, share openly, and risk failure and rejection could provide a boost for team performance.
13. Go Volunteer – I’ve been on teams that have had the opportunity to do community work and service projects together and I am amazed that I still remember the experiences so clearly and fondly. I really bonded with those teams! Consider engaging your team in an effort that allows them to volunteer and give to others without expecting any “return”. The boost they will feel and the bonds they build with each other will have a lasting impact on performance.
14. Expand Team Autonomy – Self-organizing teams have been part of agile since the manifesto though the reality is, the amount of power, control and authority that teams have or exercise is usually quite low. Some teams are not even allowed to pick their own names and that is a pretty low bar! Dan Pink’s book Drive documented how autonomy is one of 3 things that lead to team member motivation. Letting team members decide all aspects of how the work gets done or delegating decisions to the team can only boost productivity.
15. Skunk Works – This idea builds on #1 and #14. Skunk works were used extensively in the aerospace industry to develop new planes and other innovations. The basic idea is to locate the team offsite, give them a big challenge AND full autonomy to figure out the best way to accomplish that big challenge.
16. Try 1 Week Sprints – Assuming you are using agile and Scrum, you may be able to boost productivity by working in the shorter cycles that 1-week sprints provide. Short sprints support shorter feedback loops, smaller deliveries of value, and more opportunities to improve both the process and the solution
17. Try 1 Day Sprints – Do you like things spicy? Then you can take that previous idea and add habanero peppers by using 1-day sprints. That’s right – plan for the day in the morning and then end the day with a review and retrospective. One of my client teams in healthcare did this when COVID hit. It was exhausting – and not sustainable – but they there able to lead their industry with solutions that addressed real problems faced by their members.
18. Try Mob Programming – Most teams have experimented with some form of pairing or paired programming. Studies have shown that this can help boost productivity. Take it a step farther and use Mob Programming. The idea was pioneered by thought leader Woody Zuill and it involves the entire team working together at the same time on the same problem.
19. Improve Team Member Tooling – Are the tools your team using current and the best for the job? Sometimes people use what is available and not what would be the most productive. For example, I have clients that are using the Planner in MS teams as an agile development tool. Others are using Trello. Both are good tools but they aren’t the best fit to support Scrum Teams.
20. Shrink the team to 5 – Large teams are more productive, right? Hardly. My own experience has been that teams of 5 or 6 team members tend to outperform those with over 10 team members. If you have a large team (over 10) consider splitting them into two or more teams of 5. If you need a few more people to enable end-to-end delivery, consider adding one more but no more than 7. Small teams have less overhead and can move more quickly. Plus team members feel more accountable for the goals of a small team.
21. Add a Bulldozer – I coached an IT professional years ago to help him learn the role of Scrum Master. He took the job seriously and frankly he was a natural. He took to calling himself the bulldozer for the team. And he acted the part – he cleared the path for the team just like a real bulldozer. If you don’t have a bulldozer for your team who is willing and powerful enough to kick some ass, find someone who is.
22. Go Into the Wild – Teams that are working to build solutions should have a deep understanding of their end-user or customer. Schedule a field trip for the team to go and observe their customers in the wild. Watch actual customers or users doing their job and applying the solution you are developing. Or go see how competitors are doing the same thing. Even a short visit to a real customer will prove enlightening and energizing to your team members.
23. Roll Up Your Sleeves and Help – This article is written as if the reader is not an active member of the team. Perhaps they are a coach, manager, or team leader. In any case, you should be able to make a contribution to team performance by rolling up your sleeves and helping. Pitching in to help not only lightens the load but also demonstrates your willingness to do whatever it takes. If you don’t have the skills that the team needs, why are you the coach, manager, or leader? Time to level up!
24. Assess the team with a DISC or Myers Briggs Tool – There are lots of tools out there for team members to identify their working styles or strengths and begin to develop an appreciation for the strengths and working styles of others. DISC and Myers Briggs are two of the most common tools but any tool that helps team members learn about each other and work together has the potential to boost productivity.
25. Make Continuous Learning a Priority – An Agile coach that I had years ago told all team members to allocate 20% of their time to learning. The form of learning did not matter; it was the idea that you had permission as well as an expectation that you would always be learning and growing. Peter Senge’s book speaks of the Learning Organization. In practice, learning is often the first thing to go out the window when a team is under the gun to deliver. The natural inclination is to simply put your head down and grind it out. That may work in the short term but will not optimize overall productivity over the long haul. Make learning a regular activity that has priority and permission.
That is my list of 25 ideas for boosting team performance. I am interested in your comments as well as your own ideas for improvement.