How do I make my people more engaged in the product or project? Various people have approached me with this question. Let me tell you something about my observations.
How do I engage my team more?
I won’t reinvent the wheel, because people have been thinking about that already and have published very useful and easy-to-use tools. Furthermore, it’s ready to use. All you need to do is get familiar with those.
I assure you, you will feel as if you can transform the culture for the better.
A lot of times people from various backgrounds come to me. Those are new technical leaders just starting, established and proven project managers seeking different approaches from what they are used to, and people who seek to convince their peers and stakeholders.
A lot of times I see the environments they and their peers and stakeholders are in using the same communication and engagement structures: Presentations, meetings without an agenda, brainstorming, and discussions where opinion whales bloat up and passive people have daydreams. I also see cultural differences, where people have been taught to only speak when they have been asked. Which is difficult to unlearn when they join an environment where candid conversations are expected from them.
This behaviour often leads to many valuable ideas, inputs, and data being lost, because people often lose the sense of candid conversations, and collaborations and make use of reports rather than making things transparent from a different point of view.
Maybe you have witnessed a project as well, where an anonymous tech person has analysed the technical capabilities and requirements of a project and the estimated expectations and requirements were far off the actual requirements and needs for the project. Of course, velocity estimations were off as well, due to the unknown problems hidden. The reason is, that people who are working hands-on on the project have not been asked and have not been engaged to participate in the conversation.
A simple example of comparison: A project is different for a junior and a more experienced person. A project is different for a product-driven person and a quality-driven person. You want to combine the different angles of a project and let the people speak.
I often see this as an anti-pattern if you want to drive engagement within the teams and expect people to be more engaged. It’s an anti-pattern if you wish to avoid single-person bottlenecks. It’s also something that leaders should not take if they don’t want to put all of the responsibilities single-handedly on their shoulders. They will never have a vacation again.
This type of leadership is not necessary for an IT environment and can hold back the rest of the team from reaching their full potential.
And this is great! Because once realised, we see, that we don’t need to be “strong” to be a leader, we don’t need to push our opinions on other people, and diversity kicks in. We can be introverted, soft, calm, happy, encouraging, motivating, and enablers so that people can make their own decisions.
What happens if you remove the strong leadership?
It feels like the team has lost security and comfortable thought of, if something goes wrong, there will be someone catching us. Someone is missing to make the decisions. There needs to be more confidence in one's own decision-making and learning from mistakes.
Learning from past experience is something that people overlook. Even if we have removed the strong leadership the team is still there! The people closest to the code. The people who have the closest idea of how the source code looks. This is where the actual expertise lies.
It’s scary at first for the team to make their own decisions if they haven’t been used to it. But this will quickly go away. Because it is easier than they think.
And not to take over the tasks and responsibilities we think we can’t do.
Imagine the promoted principal engineer who is not able to do their work as a principal engineer, because this person is very busy doing all the stuff on their own. Not trusting anyone else to do it and therefore not being able to go on vacation and even have a break when being ill.
Usually, management is about trying to figure out, where some impediments are that need to be unblocked. Managers use the information from Scrum Masters in Scrum, Kanban, or experienced people in project management to gain this information. All of these have something in common. There is at least one person who actually talks about the needs of the team. They don’t they: “We need a strong leader to do this”, they say: “We faced this problem, we require an unblock on this matter.” And then the manager goes around and manages to unblock the team.
If we want management and leadership to enable us, we need to make sure, that we do our work as well. They keep our backs free and we keep their back free. We need to be able to inform them about our impediments.
While listening to the developers’ concerns about the software quality and the lack of good testing, the developers explained, that they didn’t feel equipped with how to write end-to-end tests. I was a bit confused, because back then when I learned to code, I also learned to code e2e. I did not feel, that this was different. I still needed to look into documentation that I found on the internet, but that was it.
I had the feeling, that the developers have been trapped in their mindset and it was confirmed. And confirmed with the additional point that they think the production department would not give them time to fix the software quality. However, from the product, I already knew, that they have been complaining about the quality of the software. When I asked them: “Since you are unsatisfied with the software quality, would you be ready to take the time and money to fix it?“ and they responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”.
You see: The developer wanted a strong leader who knew how to do QA, but all they needed was a good talk with a product to get going with what they wanted to achieve. You might argue, that they still wouldn’t know how to write end-to-end tests. The thing is, there are so many things they didn’t know beforehand and yet still managed to create a product out of it.
As you can see, the problem a leader has is not telling people what to do. “Strong” leadership is not necessary. The only thing necessary is to facilitate the conversation, get people together at the same table, give them a push from encouragement and let the magic happen.
When watching the new Netflix series “Old Enough” I realise that being frightened about new things is deeply rooted in our psyche. The 2–4 years old children are being given an errand. Most of the time they go all alone on their own on the streets to buy groceries or deliver some groceries to a family member or neighbour. Some of those errands are quite complex for this age and some are really frightening, thinking that those children have to cross streets on their own.
When watching the series, I see that the children have been given clear instructions. However, they will take their time. They hesitate to ask for help or pretend that their grocery item is not in the store, because they are afraid to ask. Even being away from mom and dad frightens them and makes them run back to them. The sheer fact of not recognising the store, or not being able to achieve everything frustrates them and makes them cry. They wish to avoid that. Or even the fact, that they have been asked to buy three toys for them, but they feel so guilty about it, that they leave it at two. All of which is frightening.
However, I truly enjoyed watching it. Because there is so much growth to see and I believe we can learn from the 2–4-year-old children. We don’t act differently from them when it comes to new challenges. We need to embrace the experience, and the mistakes we make and observe what is happening when we do a certain thing. We will grow.
There are studies and report that suggest, that working from home make companies more productive. That is already in 2020.
Even new studies suggest that, however, those are more profound as they also take other factors into account I have noticed quite early: The mental health aspect. See, here comes anxiety, we have spoken before.
First of all, remove the online presentations. This can be an email or a Slack message. (Online-)Meetings exist to interact. They just add to unnecessary meetings. Meetings and offline conversations should be about interaction and exchange of knowledge that is not in a one-way flow.
Get the people together and start with (facilitated) discussions.
You will probably realise that in discussions, some people talk a lot, and others don’t. So again, you will have active and passive participation.
So this is where the recommendations come in. Short but effective:
Take these websites and books:
And get the people actively engaged.
The beauty of it, it also makes people learn to know each other better. Feeling more comfortable with each other and therefore feeling more comfortable talking to each other.
Since you and your team come out of a pandemic and you probably stay in a remote or hybrid environment, you will continue to deal with anxiety.
You don’t do Scrum? Still, I would recommend you to take the Scrum Master courses. Because you don’t only learn what Scrum truly is, but you will definitely learn actively how to be an enabler and a leader who serves.
I’d like to take on this separately because it takes different leadership skills.
Your empathy and your understanding of the situation are required. Many times I have seen leaders making various kinds of unfitting decisions on the same problem of someone showing anxiety.
However, there are a few options you can take to make someone feel safe:
Lastly, since these are probably not the only recommendations and background understanding I can give, it is wise to listen to your people. Not only in terms of what they say they want but also in terms of what they might actually need. This will help and guide you in the right direction. Do some research, ask some fellow leaders for advice and you will be on the right track.
I hope that helps! 👋🏽🥳