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Don't fool yourself: The team is the unit
Presented with a major disruption to how we were working, I was concerned about momentum and team morale; at that moment, I decided to become an umbrella
I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of engineering managers have been through this experience at least once in their careers:
At some point in your life, you may have joined a well-functioning team. However, one day, without seeking your opinion, the top leadership decided that the planning, reporting, and communication processes were no longer working and needed a complete overhaul.
Suddenly, there is a plan to move from methodology/tool/approach A to methodology/tool/approach B.
As soon as it was communicated, you knew that the changes didn’t make sense, and you found yourself thinking whether it was worth pushing back at all or just going along even though you knew those changes were no good for your team.
Going along feels like a defeat, but fighting for what’s right can bring all sorts of headaches you may not be willing to endure.
What can you do after all?
When these top-down changes happen, and they don’t make sense to your team, it is easy to default to survival mode, which sounds like this: “I know this does not make sense, but we need to do it anyway.”
Few engineering managers understand the demoralizing impact of surrendering to changes that do not make sense at the team level.
While company-wide initiatives can influence behaviors over the long term, it's the immediate team environment that most directly impacts an individual's day-to-day work, performance, and engagement. What your team does and how your team works largely determines their daily experiences.
So what can you do?
You protect what makes your team work well, regardless of company-wide decisions.
Under the Umbrella: Micro-interactions
Back in 2021, when our startup was acquired, our team had to adopt the acquirer's project management tooling. Before that, we had our own way of working that kept us efficient and fit into our framework of bets and small projects. But suddenly, we found ourselves in the confines of Jira and using points for estimating tasks. A practice that some of us hadn’t done for over ten years at that point.
Presented with a major disruption to how we were working, I was concerned about momentum and team morale; at that moment, I decided to become an umbrella and shield the team from unnecessary changes.
We still had to adopt the new system, but I could try to make this transition as easy as possible. I said to the team the following: “We would use Jira (because other systems are connected to it, so we get the benefit of that, rather than being an isolated island), but for all intents and purposes, we will use it just like we used our old system.”
The team feared that they would be held accountable for missing our “commitments” and fall into a rigid system of trying to play Tetris with the backlog and fit tasks within allocated sprint points. I removed that fear by assuming the responsibility of having those tough conversations with other stakeholders instead of dragging the team into endless meetings about why the approach didn’t work for us.
Points are imaginary numbers anyway, and we all know it. So, as long as we kept our old momentum, we were good, and we could tick off a box and not spend too much time thinking about it.
Here’s another example of how to be an umbrella for your team from the perspective of engineers working within a team. I found this while reading a thread on startup momentum on Hacker News (HN).
“I really like the approach of Netflix 10 years ago when it was still small. They hired mature people so they could get rid of processes. Indeed, they actually tried to de-process everything. As a result, things just happened. Non-event was often mentioned and expected on Netflix at that time. Case in point: active-active regions just happened in a few months. A really easy-to-use deployment tool, Asgard, just happened. The VP of CDN at that time said Netflix would build its own CDN and partner with ISPs. Well, it just happened in merely six months with 12 people or so. Netflix said it was going to support streaming and move away from its monolithic Tomcat app, and it just happened. And the engineers there? I can't speak for others, but I myself had just one meeting a week -- our team meeting where we just casually chatted with each other, to the point that the team members still stayed close to each other and regularly meet nowadays. I also learned that the managers and directors had tons of meetings to set the right context for the team so engineers could just go wild and be productive. At that time, I thought it was natural, but it turned out it was a really high bar.”
Team leaders and the immediate team environment shape a lot of what matters in an employee's work life, such as attention to strengths, clarity of expectations, and feedback frequency. This micro-environment often trumps the broader organizational culture.
Within this team micro-environment, a.k.a. Underneath The Umbrella, you can find an infinite set of micro-interactions that matter and impact people more than any other organizational strategy. A micro-interaction in this context is something you say or do that solidifies or reinforces the values and practices that make your team great. For example:
The language you use to provide feedback says much about what matters to you as a leader.
How you run meetings directly reflects your value for other people's time and sets an example for how they should conduct their meetings.
Does everybody get a chance to speak during calls, retrospective meetings, etc.? That tells the team how individuals are valued and how much their contribution counts.
As a leader, you evolve the team by taking care of the small interactions and designing the communication rituals and channels that glue the team together and reinforce trust.
Engagement, which is a significant predictor of productivity and satisfaction, is more closely tied to the immediate team than to the company as a whole. Team members feel more connected to their close colleagues, and their immediate team leaders play a significant role in determining their level of engagement.
For instance, consistently having 1:1s with team members is more important than the quality of the conversation itself. Yes, that’s right. Good 1:1s are developed over time; open and direct communication only happens when people feel safe.
The fact that you consistently have them says a lot about how important these conversations are for you as the leader, even if they are uncomfortable or not as productive as you would like them to be.
1:1s are sometimes the only way to discover issues you need to shield the team from; the same applies to retrospectives.
Paying attention to the small interactions happening every day within your teams is the superpower of any team leader that understands that the team is the most important unit.
Broader organizational changes may need to be adopted, but paying attention to micro-interactions is what will help your team survive and thrive despite any company-wide change. While company values and culture are essential, day-to-day interactions at the team level have a more significant influence on an individual's work life.
When decisions and changes come from the top with little context or regard for individual team needs, it is important to remember how powerful you are as a leader within your micro-environment.
A good team leader makes a substantial difference in the team's outcomes and the experiences of its members. Don’t relinquish that power, embrace it.