Inheriting a dysfunctional team

Robert Watts

VP Engineering at Wonderbly



"I had three months to get a team back on track to build and design a brand new platform. However, the atmosphere in the team was not good and the team didn't know how to prioritize their work. The source of the problem was unclear requirements from the business. This, combined with a lack of experience, led to the team to work on the wrong things and burden themselves with an overly complex solution. With an impending product launch in three months, the team simply had to deliver."

Actions taken

"First I worked with the stakeholders in the business to truly understand what needed to be delivered for our deadline. To reduce noise for the team I excluded everything that wasn't dependent on the deadline. This included removing some original stakeholders from the process.

While I was gathering requirements I was observing my new team. The most obvious problem was a lack of process and focus. This was exacerbated by a large team with lots to do. Through requirements gathering I was able to identify independent streams of work and split the team in two. I was able to agree milestones with each team and turn them into a roadmap for the business to track. This enabled the teams to focus on smaller problems while giving the business some certainty.

Ultimately we were able to deliver on time. The business was pleased but our problems were not solved: we still had an overly complex system with technical debt that took a long time to pay down. However with a continued focus on ensuring clarity around business requirements, I was able to make better decisions about priority while improving the platform."

Lessons learned

"From a team perspective, only work on the problem you need to solve first. In this example, what they did is that they worked around the problem instead of working on the problem. What was missing was a manager filling the gaps. A manager's role is to set a vision for their team and then to turn that vision into a concrete plan."

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Robert Watts

VP Engineering at Wonderbly

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