In this guide I explain how to turn around a team. Essentially, this guide is about turning around a failing or fledgling team (or growing a new team) in just 6 months.
This could be turning around a failing team, changing a team’s direction (say from Waterfall to Scrum) or fixing a dysfunctional team process.
6 months’ sounds like a long time to turn around a team, but when it comes to changing team dynamics, cultures, norms and processes that’s not much time at all.
In some teams, epic change may take years.
This guide is based on what I have done a couple of times and has heavy influences from people I work closely with, peers in my industry and observations from my time as an employee in teams that have been through big change.
Brief introduce to this turn around a team guide
This guide is brief. The reality of change is messy. Therefore, this guide is not complete but it can help sow the seeds that helps you turn around a team.
I encourage you to read more about management, change and team leadership. Read as many different sources as possible and make up your own approach. There are many ways to change a team and you’ll probably find success stories with any approach. The other ways will work.
This guide comes with no guarantees. If you follow this it may not work, but I believe the plan outlined here will help you greatly.
There are too many nuances and details in day to day “change management” that I simply could never have recorded in the first place, let alone crammed in to a article on LinkedIn.
You will face many blockers in your attempt to change the team or the process, most of these will be people problems (politics, resistance to change, fear, silent plotting, naysaying).
You will be a big factor in whether you can turn around a team. You will need to cultivate yourself as you bring about change. You will uncover hard truths about yourself. You will soon realise whether you can make it or not.
I encourage you to read two books that will help you cultivate your own mind to take on this challenge.
The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson will help you gain the slight edge through daily habits and good choices.
The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday will help you realise unforeseen (and sometimes bad) events will happen, but the story you tell yourself about them will make all the difference in how you deal with them.
Obstacles will block your way and send you on a different path than you planned – that’s fine. It happens. But it’s not a problem, your just on a different path now. Let this book be your guide to a better version of yourself.
What is Epic Team Change?
Epic team change is the kind of change that takes you from where you are right now to a future that seems almost entirely different.
Maybe you have a team that is failing against all possible measures; the future is them crushing these measures and exceeding all possible expectations. This is Epic Team Change.
Maybe you have a team that is demotivated, stale in their thinking and bored with their work; the future is them being highly engaged, motivated and fired up by work. This is Epic Team Change.
Maybe you have a team who are shipping their work in frequencies that are too slow and the company is being left behind in the market place; the future is that team shipping their work very frequently and the competition being blown away. This is Epic Team Change.
You get the point.
But three things are very important in all of this:
You must know where you currently are.
- What is your current state and how are you measuring it?
You must know where you need to get to.
- What is your True North and how are you measuring it?
You must be able to visualise this future, and so too must your team.
- If you can visualise this future, you can make it a reality.
The reality is you will likely never get to your true destination, but that should not stop you from trying.
You will get close. You will get near. Near is good.
Too many people don’t know what they want, or they cannot visualise a different way of working, or they do not believe they can do anything to change their current situation.
If they believe this, they are right. They will not make it to a better future. And that is why they should not try. Leave it to someone who can imagine a better future and believe it is possible.
Bringing about epic change in any team is hard, and the reality is that some managers are not equipped to make that change.
The following will help you to see what I believe is important. But I am just one person in a sea of millions who are bringing about change. Read what others say too – there will be someone with the opposite of the below who is achieving great success.
However, no matter how someone else has got to where they are I guarantee this -> they had visualised or imagined that future and they absolutely believed it was possible.
“Better” is a beautiful word
No matter the current state of your team, they (and you), can always be better; and that is your job – to make things better. To turn around a team.
As a manager or person of change you are obliged to help people to become better. We can all be better. And so too can the business we work within. You need to encourage those about you to take on change, to look inside themselves and bring out skills, insights and abilities they didn’t know they had.
Change around us is inevitable. It will happen. You may need to instigate the change, or you may need to react to it. But it will happen. Markets are changing all the time. Competition is fierce and often appears to come out of nowhere. Our life circumstances change. Change is constant. Companies that don’t change often find themselves on the brink of survival.
If you have nothing that needs improving or changing in your work then you’re not looking in the right places, or not studying your work correctly.
Change is part of being a manager, no matter what industry you work in. And if you aspire to be a manager (or person of change) then you’ll need to get comfortable with making decisions and leading change and helping people to become better in everything they do.
What I present below is a plan for kick starting epic change in your team. You should take from it the relevant insights and leave what is not useful.
I’ve personally been through this plan a few times with success and I’ve coached many other managers in this way of working.
The plan is based around 6 months of high level themes.
Some steps/months could be skipped, some ignored, some new steps could be added. It’s yours to do with as you see fit. I merely organised my own approach in to high level themes. You could create your own plan from this one. You could treat this plan as a guide and iterate based on feedback from trying that which you find useful.
You should not treat this guide as complete – it is not complete.
Your job is to make your own plan and complete it in your own way.
Management is highly contextual. What works in one place may fail in another.
The key to good management and change is working out quickly which approaches work, and which ones don’t – and then iterating furiously until you hit on something that is providing the results you desire. But only do this whilst still adhering to the values and principles you hold dear. After all, it’s easy to change a team simply by threatening to remove them all – but this is a short-term approach, and a terrible one at that.
The following is a 6-month plan. The further out you are the vaguer the plan should be, and the less you’ll likely know. But as you learn and get more knowledge you should be able to go faster and be more focused. You will almost certainly need to change your initial plan.
Don’t be a slave to a plan though.
Stand, observe and iterate.
The key to bringing about Epic Team Change is to gain knowledge.
And knowledge is only gained by studying. Study the system and the people in it and gain the knowledge that will help you to make change. How you study is up to you and many ways work, but all of them should help you to gain knowledge, and that will help you to make decisions that help you to reach your goal.
And trust me, you can do it.
If you can visualise it, plot a course for it and believe it can happen, you’ve pretty much already succeeded. Well. Nearly.
So, what follows is a high level 6-month plan for bringing about epic change. I hope you enjoy.
In your first month, you should spend your time studying the business, the people who make it work, what works well and the nature of the work itself.
In your first month, you’ll need to resist the urge to change much.
Sit tight, study the system, study the people and learn as much as you can about the business. Studying is essential. Sit on your hands.
You should not change anything you don’t understand.
Studying will provide you with some of that knowledge and understanding.
Studying is how you will make sense of the team you are in and the work they are currently doing – consider though that what they are currently doing may not be what they should be doing.
Understanding Business Basics
You’ll need to understand the very basics of the business and how your team fit in.
- Where does the work come from?
- How frequently does the work come in?
- Does it always come from the same place?
- Is it predictable, reactive or generally random?
- Who does the work?
- Are the team empowered to complete the work well? (i.e. are they hindered by anything?)
- Who prioritises the work?
- Is there more work than you can handle?
- How long does the work take to do – does this match the estimate/expectation?
- Understand the boundaries of the work.
- Where does the work go after your team is finished with it?
- Are these people happy with the work your team pass on?
- Does the work ever come back?
- What is the value of the work?
- Does anyone care if the work is not done?
- Understand the business metrics and data surrounding the work (what is being measured? Who buys the service or product? Who uses/consumes the work? Who are the stakeholders? Who makes the decisions?)
- Who is the customer and what do they want?
- Is the work interesting?
Get to know the team
Relationships are essential to good management. You’ll need to get to know your team and the people either side of your work process (those who feed work in, those who then consume the work – and these people may very well be your direct customers).
- Understand who is in the team, what makes them tick and what work they do
- Start / continue 1:1s with directs (weekly if possible)
- Who do you report to?
- What do they want from you?
- What problems are you solving for them?
- Who do you work with?
- Who are your peers?
- What problems do they have that you can help with?
- Who is an effective employee?
- Who needs support and training?
- Is anyone bringing the team down with negativity, cynicism or generally bad behaviour?
- Give them feedback – ask them to stop, understand what drives their behaviour.
- Is the team working well together?
- Are they talking to each other?
- Are they energised, beaten down or frustrated – why?
- Spend some time getting to know them over a coffee or two.
- Take notes. Lots of notes.
Start to study the system
- Start studying the system by literally standing and observing.
- What is actually going on?
- Who is doing what?
- What impact is the work having on the system?
- Are you making a positive difference to your customers or causing grief for them?
- Are you providing the service the business tells itself it’s providing?
- Observing the system can be done where the work is happening, or it could be done via a proxy, such as metrics or second hand information like workflow maps. The reality is most proxies will not reveal the truth.
- Models and proxies are NOT the work but they can be helpful in the quest to study the system
- Ideally you’ll go and see for yourself though and take notes.
This month you’ll need to deepen your understanding of the work and start gathering relevant measures (numbers and subjective opinions) to establish a benchmark.
This benchmark will give you your current state or condition and is essential when working out the impact of any change you make.
You can then start to articulate the future state and work out a plan of how to get there.
Gain a deeper understanding of the work
- How much of the work being done is work that was not done correctly first time?
(Failure Demand as John Seddon coined it in I Want You To Cheat – The Unreasonable Guide To Service And Quality In Organisations)
- How much of this work is Value Demand? I.e. work that your team exists to do
- Learn who is on the front line with the customers/buyers/users and start building relationships with these people
- These are the people who know how to make the world better for your customers – listen to them
- What do your frontline staff feel you need to do to improve the service?
- Can you measure any cycle times of work?
- Speak to your team and ask them what they think needs to be improved?
- The team doing the work will be the ones to improve the work
- Find out what they want to change and why
- Do any of these ideas correlate with what the front-line staff think?
- Speak to customers – what do they think needs to change?
- Do any of these ideas align with the front-line staff and other teams?
- Continue doing your 1:1s
- Outline training needs
- Start setting some goals and objectives for your team if you’re clear about the company’s objectives.
- If you’re not sure about company goals then set department goals based on your True North (future state), but seek clarity on the bigger picture goals from your management tier (unless of course you’re the big cheese)
- Misalignment of business goals is a major blocker and something which needs addressing early
- Start giving your team feedback about their performance – this is harder than it sounds
- Start measuring the team’s effectiveness, but do this with the team. And make sure they are team measures rather than individual measures.
- Involve the team in defining the measures.
- Encourage them to own the measures.
- Get feedback on the measures.
- Try to measure the work itself, not the person.
- You should assume that all employees want to do a good job
- They often just work in a business that doesn’t support good work.
- Continue to build relationships inside and outside of your team.
- Draw out some core operating values and align behind them.
- Communicate them
- Demonstrate behaviour that re-enforces the values
- Expect that behaviour from others
Map out the process
- Visually map or draw out the processes and work you are responsible for.
- Draw out how a work items flow through your “system” or management process
- Staple yourself to a work item and follow it through the process
- Where does the work item get stuck, or hang around too long?
- Does the item even make it to the end?
- What else can you observe?
- Does the journey of this work item look effective? Or efficient?
- Involve the team in this process – they will have insights you don’t
- Ideally they would do this process themselves.
- Keep this process visible in your work place.
- Being able to see the process will help people to see improvements to it. And there will always be something that can be done better.
- Work out where the work being done crosses a boundary, then speak to the manager of that process/department and see whether they also think the process could be improved.
- Almost all work for a customer will cross a traditional functional boundary of some sort.
- It is these boundaries that need removing or levelling to ensure a smoother flow of work and better quality for your customers.
- Try to break down any walls that exist between teams.
- Build relationships with people at the boundaries.
- Use a Kanban board, or other visualisation tool, to make the amount of work visible to yourself and your team.
- Visible work makes it more likely you’ll see problems with the work, the process or the way the work is progressing.
- This means you’ll be more likely to fix it.
- If you can’t see something, it’s hard to fix it.
- It can often be illuminating to see how much work you have to do.
- Visualising the work will show you bottlenecks, how much work is in process at any one time and ideally, who is doing the work.
- Once you start to visualise your work, combined with standing and observing the work, you’ll start to see what is happening, not what the numbers/metrics/measures tell you is happening.
Communicate the teams purpose/vision
- It’s incredibly important that you and the team know why you exist.
- You need to be clear about what the purpose of the team is and what the future looks like.
- Design this future with your team but don’t always expect to get a consensus over this future.
Your role is sometimes to show people a future they didn’t realise was possible and then to lead them there.
- You should strive for commitment to this future even if people do not agree with it. “Disagree and commit” is a useful conclusion to reach.
- Crafting a vision statement is crazily hard work and sometimes very frustrating but worth it.
- It’s important to know where you’re heading – you’d be surprised at how many employees crave this sense of direction.
- You should by now know the purpose of the team – communicate this to the immediate team and the wider business.
- Keep communicating this purpose and re-enforcing the message.
- Create a short communication plan to help to keep your communications consistent, regular and well crafted.
Setting a clear vision is important – be sure to state:
- Where your team currently are.
- Where your team need to get to.
- A rough plan of how you’ll get there.
- Expected obstacles.
- Why this is so important.
- The why is probably the most important part of this process – after all why are you here?
Month 3 is about the right time to start improving the process, empowering the team to improve and driving through change.
You may choose to do some of this earlier, but be sure you have enough knowledge and that you have studied the system well.
By month 3 you’ll start to have some concrete numbers and observations and opinions about the work and the team. You’ll have more knowledge.
The time has come now to act on the research you’ve been gathering and the relationships you’ve been building.
You should only study for so long before you start experimenting and discovering the right way.
Don’t rush in to making change unless you need to, but once you have decided it is time to act, set out a clear direction and go for it.
Of course, you may conclude that nothing needs to change……
Empower the team
- Empower your team to start sharing more (meetings, daily stand ups, shared wiki spaces, 1:1, peer meetings etc.)
- Create a safe place for sharing – this is hard but start with creating respect for others, listening deeply and treating people like adults.
- The reality is it is hard work to create safe places for people to share their views and I’ve tried for years to work out what trust is and I’m still not clear.
- But it is easy to break trust and destroy it so go carefully.
- Empower those on the front line dealing with customers to contact whoever they need to in your team when dealing with problems.
- Yes, this may be controversial but your focus should be on doing the right thing for the customer, not making it easy for people in your team.
- If you must jump through hoops of fire whilst wearing a flammable shell suit to deliver the service your customers deserve, then so be it.
- Without your customers, you don’t have a business.
- Ensure those that may be contacted by front-line staff know that it’s their job to help our customers and bring learning back to the team.
- Believe it or not most teams get very little training in how to be better at their jobs.
- This includes management 🙂
- You’ll likely discover that the team doing the work have not been trained as well as they could be.
- Most companies treat training and self-learning as a bonus rather than essential. This is totally wrong – be sure to challenge this if this is happening – be sure to champion the need for constant learning.
- Learning is ESSENTIAL to the success of your team.
- Training and self-learning should be core to your business.
- Learning is the only way you will overcome the obstacles your business will encounter.
- You have no idea what the future holds so it’s essential you can solve problems and continue to head to your True North.
- Learning doesn’t just have to be about the immediate work.
- It should also be about time management, communication skills, marketing, presenting, process improvement and anything else that gives you the slight edge and the daily/weekly/monthly improvements.
- Discover cost effective ways to provide role related training such as group training, internal training courses with third parties and online resources like Udemy and Coursera.
- Consider giving your team 30 minutes each day to do learning.
- Buy books for the library.
- Send people to training courses and events after you’ve become aware of how to find budget (and this may take some difficult conversations with those holding the budget). I have some events coming up.
- Encourage people to sign up to webinars related to areas of learning.
- Start compiling a central list of training and learning resources.
- No matter the domain you work in there will be huge innovations happening – you need to keep up with these, or stay ahead.
- If you’ve been doing 1:1’s and building relationships, you’ll no doubt know a lot more about your team.
- Now is the time to start ramping up their progress, their careers and their ability to help the business succeed.
- A manager’s job is to make sure the business succeeds through hiring the right people, improving the process and retaining good staff.
- Secondary to that I believe a manager should ensure their team improve, grow their skills and develop a positive attitude to work.
I’ve always said that when one of my directs leaves the business – they should leave being the most employable person in their industry. I work hard to make sure that happens.
- Stop measuring your team’s performance with simple outputs, unless output is the only goal of the business.
- Output alone is often a bad measure as it may drive behaviour that has a significant knock-on effect to the wider business.
- Your team will often meet these arbitrary measures sometimes with a larger negative effect on the wider business system. (for example, selling stuff you don’t have, answering calls to meet a number without providing a service, solving problems you don’t have)
- Your job as a manager is to understand what the consequences of meeting these measures is, plan accordingly and communicate these consequences to your wider management peer group or execs.
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
- Double whatever communication your team is doing.
- Then double it again. And again.
- Start attending meetings in other departments.
- Start being clear with your directs about your goals, ambitions and your expectations from them in their roles.
- Be clear with your peers about what you need from them, and what they can expect from you.
- Start doing 1:1s with peers across the business.
- Start an internal blog or a wiki space to share updates, useful information and ideas about improvements.
- Teach your team how to improve their communication abilities
Dig deep with the team
- Take the team out for lunch, or some other team building exercise. Relationships are key.
- If you’ve been doing your 1:1s and giving your directs feedback, then you’ll likely know who’s performing well and who isn’t.
- Keep giving feedback to all employees and keep providing opportunities for people to grow.
This podcast can help you if you have a constantly under-performing member of the team (https://www.manager-tools.com/2014/05/corky-story-part-1)
Start changing the process and work
- Start running experiments and changing the process to improve it.
- Measure as much of this as possible to make sure your change is having a positive impact.
- Not everything can be measured by numbers.
- Stand and observe the changes and the work – is it getting better?
- Only make the changes to improve the output for the customers.
- There is no point making an internal process better if it hurts your customer.
Doing the work. Cultivating the team, yourself and the process.
This is the month when you ramp up changes and experiments and you start to align your teams to be high performing teams.
This month you should start running larger scale experiments if you haven’t already begun.
- I suspect some members of your team (i.e. the top performers you are retaining) may need a pay-rise, career advancement or new role titles
- Start planning how you will approach HR team or managers with these requests
A small, agile and nimble team focused on self-improvements, and being paid above market rates will outpace a large, slow and underpaid/undervalued/mis-trusted team any day.
- Put people on relevant performance coaching plans (coaching plans are not a bad thing)
- Re-assess who is part of the team and what skills gaps are missing
- Plan to fill the gaps through training or hiring.
- Improve the working environment
- Provide better kit, better environments and better office spaces if necessary (if possible). If this requires extra budget put in a compelling business case and fight for it – that’s your job.
- Identify further process improvements around the work.
- If you’ve been improving the process for the last few months you’ll likely be left with either really hard to improve processes or those requiring a broader improvement, say across functions. (I talk about Visible Impact in this post)
- You may also be left with a handful of smaller identified improvements to make
- This month should be focused on speaking to customers (or peers) and understanding whether you are addressing some of their concerns
- Basically – are you improving the service from your customer’s point of view?
- Ask the team how we can improve things further.
- Gather feedback on how they feel the work is improving
Retrospect – Are things getting better?
This is the month to sit down and ask where you are now on your journey.
Is it better than where you were?
What still needs to improve?
Should you still be on the same journey?
Retrospect with the team
- Run a retrospective with the entire team and include any stakeholders you feel you need to.
- Be sure to keep it a safe environment where people will be honest. For example, would they be honest if the CEO was in the room?
- Is the process now better than it was before? (Using the same or new metrics you put in place in earlier months)
- Are the team happy with how the work and process is changing?
- Canvas opinion on what is good and what could be better.
- You should know from your 1:1s how things are trending.
- And you started 1:1s back in month 1 so you shouldn’t be surprised too much in these retrospectives.
- Is the customer happier, more productive and more likely to remain a customer?
- Is your manager happy with your performance?
- Are you delivering value?
- Seek feedback on the work and the process and the end results from everyone in the business.
Set goals for the next 6 months
- Work with the team and set some goals for the next 6 months.
Re-assess whether your measures are still useful and valuable.
- Do you need new ones now the nature of the work has changed?
Is your vision of the future still the same?
- If so, share it with your team and ask them how this makes them feel.
- Do they share your enthusiasm?
- Can they hold this vision in their minds?
- Do they believe it is possible?
Is this still the team that will help the business achieve this future?
- Do you need new people?
- Is the current team still performing?
- Create a plan for the next 6 months
- Put it in to practice every single day
- Iterate furiously
- Help provide the right environment for the team to fix the work
- Get feedback
- Focus on everything from the customer’s point of view
- Study the system deeply – get knowledge
- And then move fast to execute the plans
The above outlines some thoughts and questions and ideas.
By fostering trusting relationships, helping others achieve greater potential and relentless studying and optimising the process you will create change. But it takes time and effort and lots of head scratching and frustration and relentless optimism.
But above all else create the sort of team that you yourself would enjoy working in.
If you do this, then the chances are you’ve created a team that will succeed.
Unless of course you like to work in a team where you’re not trusted, you’re shouted at, you’re undermined and you don’t have the basic tools to do the job…..
Please note that much of this publication is based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence. Although the author and publisher have made every reasonable attempt to achieve complete accuracy of the content in this guide, they assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. Also, you should use this information as you see fit, and at your own risk. Your situation may not be exactly suited to the examples illustrated here; in fact, it’s likely that they won’t be the same, and you should adjust your use of the information and recommendations accordingly.