Posted in Team Dynamics, Working Agile

What a shared purpose can do to your teams

I have often heard managers expressing:

  • I encourage the team to take the responsibility
  • I need you to collaborate with other team

Only to hear the same manager complaining about why it doesn’t happen. Why is that? I mean, the Manager just expressed what they wanted.

There can be many reasons for this. One of them is most likely, that teams are not used to having the responsibility and managers are not used to giving away the responsibility. If managers suddenly give responsibility, it will be awkward, because no one knows how to act. I have seen this situation too many times, which will eventually result in managers taking back the responsibility. “If the team would just take the responsibility as I do, the problems would be solved. But they don’t, and that’s why I have to do it myself.”

The interesting perspective is not who has the blame, the interesting stuff lies in The interesting perspective is not who has the blame, the interesting stuff lies in discovering why this situation happens in the first place. If we understand and truly believe that everyone are doing the best job they can, given the knowledge, skills and abilities and resources available in the situation at hand, then we can free our minds from blaming each other and start investigating the actual causes. So if both managers and teams are acting with good intentions to be more efficient, then why are we often in this situation? Let me elaborate on this using a real life example.

3 software development teams were practicing collaboration and alignment techniques, such as big room planning(Together with other teams as well). The teams were experienced in the techniques, but both managers and teams felt something was not right. Managers would like to see the teams taking more responsibility for the solution, the quality, and the collaboration needed to get done. However, the teams did not feel why all this cross team collaboration was needed, after all the work was already specified, so each team just needed to execute their part. Then, from one day to the other, the teams worked closely together, taking the initiative to coordinate and build the best possible solution to meet the objective and deliver the solution faster than anyone had hoped for. The same people with the same skills, were suddenly able to do what management had longed for.

What made the difference? The main difference was that the management did not have time to prepare. They had to involve teams early, and because of the urgency the management didn’t have the time to specify the solution in as many details as they were used to. I want to stress that this was a real urgency, like losing market opportunities if they didn’t succeed. Not the kind of urgency where a manager picks a random date, and calls it a critical deadline.

Because of this urgency the management acted differently. Instead of specifying what the team should do, they specified the objective they wanted to achieve. They explained very clearly “Why this feature/capability was important to the company and to the customers, and why it was needed fast.”

The teams then instantly started working together. The collaboration practices that did not previously make sense to the teams now made sense. They were now on the same mission, they had a shared purpose of working together, and they knew they couldn’t succeed without each other. Nobody discussed if it was important to meet up, they just met because they needed to, in order to meet the objective.

Also the teams were now making decisions about their work that previously was done by others. The time pressure didn’t allow for the traditional decision making process to take place, there wasn’t time for asking for permission, and after all the objective was clear. This resulted in people with the actual knowledge were the ones making decisions.

If we look at The surprising truth about what motivates us, we will recognize 2 out of the 3 elements that Daniel Pink defines for unlocking intrinsic motivation. The opportunity described above created room for giving the teams a shared purpose, and provided autonomy in the teams to make decisions to meet the objective.

If you are a manager or a Product Owner reading this I would recommend you to figure out how you can help your teams by setting objectives, and explain why the work they need to do is important for the customers and the company, instead of explaining the work you want to be done. Then truly trust that your teams will make the best decisions to make the best solution within the given circumstances. Doing this will help set the purpose and give autonomy to the people with the needed knowledge.

What about Mastery then? All people have a desire to get better at something. Why do one want to get better at playing an instrument? Because it is fun! When creating a (shared) purpose and when providing room for autonomy, you will also create opportunities for learning and growing together and as individuals. The desire to get better will only increase, as it will now serve a purpose!

Despite the significant improvements the organization experienced in my example, there is still lots of room for further improvement. It became nowhere near perfect. But I can’t imagine the magnitude of improvements we would see if we started to define purpose and give autonomy as a deliberate practice, instead of waiting for market opportunities to demand us to do so.

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