Empowering Teams Delivers the Enterprise’s Most Crucial People Outcomes

Trusting teams to discover, build, inspect & iterate unleashes more than just better solutions

Either explicitly or implicitly, every organization drives towards four people-focused outcomes:

  1. Deliver great client-centric experiences that also work for the business
  2. Attract and retain top talent
  3. Inspire people to give their best effort
  4. Create a company-wide culture of continuous learning and innovation

The current pandemic has created an incredible pressure-cooker, stress-testing nearly every organization’s readiness to suddenly leap five years into the digital future. But it will take a fundamental mindset shift in how organizations plan and deliver their work to thrive in the face of these challenges and demonstrate whether they truly put their people first.

Time to Convene the War Room…?

Newly-digital leaders who have tested the waters of Agile and Digital transformation may be tempted to abandon their initial forays into servant leadership in favor of a return to the classic “war-room” playbook, grinding scores of developers through brutal 80-hour-plus work weeks to deliver detailed stakeholder-driven roadmaps.

The Comfort of Action

In the face of the current unprecedented circumstances, forcing teams to churn blindly through feature delivery might provide leaders with the comfort that the frenetic activity teams are engaged in amounts to constructive action.

While outwardly impressive, team morale and product quality are the first victims of this unscalable approach. Crucially, by pinning everything on disjointed initiatives, organizations risk not only failing to deliver client-centric experiences, but completely jeopardizing the other three people-focused outcomes noted above.

At What Cost?

Pushed past the breaking point, organizations risk massive employee burnout and attrition. All those great people, hired and onboarded at such considerable effort and expense will deteriorate, waiting for nothing more than the end of the workday and the weekend before they can leave at the first opportunity. Is this a culture that attracts top talent?

What if What the Team is Building is Something No One Wants?

Those who choose to stay, mindlessly building whatever they’re told to may still succeed in delivering something. After the launch celebrations are over, and someone bothers to look more closely, it frequently becomes evident the features they’ve been so busy building for the past 4-6 months are things that can’t be properly built, no one can find, no one can use, and no one wants.

Organizations need to actively question if dictating and forcing teams to follow these “roadmaps to nowhere” are really worth their employees’ lives and careers.

Fortunately, there’s an approach that can provide a central clue to all four people-focused outcomes, offering not only a viable solution to navigate the current pandemic, but to face the equally dramatic competitive landscape yet to emerge.

Managers Don’t Need New People and They Don’t Have to Work Harder 

Counterintuitively, leadership can accomplish far greater results than their planned features could have hoped to have achieved with the people already on their teams. And those people don’t need to work anything more than reasonable, sustainable work weeks. As improbable as this may seem, managers who succeed in making the mindset shift and adapt to this way of working will have opened the door to all four people-focused outcomes.

Empower Product Managers and Their Teams

The prerequisite of empowerment is trust. Instead of dictating lists of features for teams to build, management can get more from the smart, resourceful, and dedicated professionals they’ve hired by providing clear product outcomes to their teams, and empower them to own, end-to-end, how teams deliver on those goals. 

Simply put, leadership can get far more from their people if they empower and trust them to get the job done, and provide them a safe, supportive environment in which to function. 

The people on those teams are closest to those clients and their needs. They are in the best position to ideate and deliver the most appropriate and innovative solutions.

Start with a Clearly Communicated Strategy 

Why are we doing this?

Leadership can start by inspiring teams with their shared purpose. Teams work best aligned to a clear strategy and set of objectives, the “why” underlying their work. Leadership needs to own and master the inspirational narrative of what makes their work so critical for the business, and consistently keep telling that story across all employee touchpoints. In a quote attributed to Bill Campbell, “By the time you’re tired of saying it, they’re just starting to get it.”

Clarify the Product Strategy

In order to formulate a clearer and more compelling strategy, Jeff Gothelf shares how leadership can formulate an effective product strategy by answering three simple questions:

  1. Where will we play?
  2. How will we win?
  3. How will we know you’ve won?

Without a clear strategy, teams won’t have a foundation for the hundreds of prioritization and optimization decisions they need to make every day. Short-term activity by paying for users? Long-term nurturing of brand-loyal clients?

Empowered to deliver, and focused on a unifying strategy, teams are ready to work. Before writing a single line of code, they’ll need to kick off ongoing cycles of Continuous Discovery.

Coach Teams to Address Risks Up Front in Discovery

Leadership can support product managers and the teams they lead to deliver improved customer-centric solutions through Continuous Discovery. Teresa Torres defines Continuous Discovery as 

Weekly touchpoints with customers
By the team building the product,
Where they conduct small research activities,
In pursuit of a desired product outcome

The Real Value of Discovery

Discovery isn’t used once to test something and create absolute assurance that teams are building the “single best thing.” It’s a continuous activity to reduce risk as teams gather empirical evidence in the course of iterating towards better client-centric outcomes. To help with this, leadership should encourage teams to follow the Lean wisdom of reducing batch size, and allow teams to quickly iterate through the “Hypothesis, Build, Measure, Learn” loop.

Empower Teams to Build the Smallest Thing, and Watch It

Leadership that trusts and provides psychological safety for teams as they rapidly discover and build the smallest thing they can quickly learn from have taken the biggest steps in the right direction. The next biggest mindset shift is to understand that once the first iteration is built and delivered, the work has only just begun.

Celebrate Effort…

Traditionally, launch parties have been one of the few ways for management to give back to their teams. Showing this kind of gratitude is extremely important given the extraordinary effort and sacrifice teams make on a regular basis. However, management needs to reaffirm that simply having shipped doesn’t mean the team’s work is complete. 

…But Spend More Time Monitoring Afterwards

Leadership needs to continue to coach teams to be empirically data-driven, and have them closely monitor and take ownership for the fledgling solutions they’ve launched, continually monitoring, discovering, and iterating in pursuit of the product outcomes within their control.

Not Yet Set Up to Monitor?

Without the accountability of data, management and teams have no empirical basis for success or decision-making criteria. Setting up a product operations team, and getting products properly instrumented with actionable analytics, alerts and dashboarding is crucial to provide both leadership and teams a clear picture of user activity and funnels.

Make Sure They Learn from What They’ve Built

Regardless of the outcome, when teams are coached through continuous discovery with regular client conversations, continuously deliver the smallest pieces they can, and regularly monitor the right analytics, they’re well on their way to feeding that information back into the product and iterating towards the client-centric outcomes that can truly move the needle for the enterprise.

It’s All About the People

Through these approaches, progress toward the four people outcomes is now possible: 

  1. Teams engaged in Continuous Discovery and Iterative Development have a far greater chance of delivering better client-centric experiences that also work for the business
  2. Top talent is far more likely to want to work at an organization that trusts and empowers their teams 
  3. Empowered teams create the internal accountability where people are far more likely to give their best effort
  4. Teams that engage in continuous cycles of discovery, inspection, and iteration can’t help but contribute to a company-wide culture of continuous learning and innovation

Leadership that truly empowers their teams has embarked on the journey of enhancing the experience for every person their organization touches.

Thanks to Maarten Dalmijn for reviewing an earlier draft of this article and providing much helpful feedback.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

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