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Getting Team Alignment on Goals and Operating Principles

Goal Setting
Internal Communication
Collaboration
Productivity
Sharing The Vision

28 May, 2019

Jon Matthews
Jon Matthews

VP, Engineering at DataGrail

Jon Matthews shares how an exercise in communication can get your team working together on the same page.

Problem

A scaling team has a unique dynamic. Team members have different career experiences, some are junior while others are more senior, and company tenure could be long or short. Though these differences are explanations for why someone joins or is already part of an organization, what holds true is that every team member should hold a shared mental model of the team's goals and the operating principles. So how do you get new and tenured individuals on the same page?

Actions taken

To be clear, as a team grows there are different phases that it will go through, and this is a continuous cycle. Bruce Tuckman describes them best in his stages of group development. The four stages are Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. Eventually, the team will reach equilibrium, but as you add people to the team the cycle will start over again. Therefore, it is crucial for leadership to facilitate successful team development by following the subsequent strategies.

I recommend sitting down as a team and doing an exercise where you as a leader orchestrate a conversation on the operating principles and goals of the team. Start a dialogue on what people believe the goals of the team are. What you will likely find is that maybe one or two developers have a keen understanding, through intuition or through conversations that you have had together, and that person gets the goals. The others will probably give three or four different answers in varying directions. The idea is to get everyone headed in the same direction and to boil it down to one or two responses. Otherwise people will be working towards different end goals. What you want is all of the team to be going in a very focused manner towards your goal.

I have found it effective to distill what the mission is down to two or three sentences. Once this has been established and reiterated with every tenure and new hire, then it is time to test their understanding. You should be able to walk up to any individual on the team and ask "What is the purpose of our team?" and they ought to be able to rattle off your mission statement. It doesn't have to be exact, but they should be able to paraphrase or give you a close approximation of it. If I meet someone whose reply is a little off, then I remind them of our meeting, instruct them to go to our Wiki where the statement is written, and take some time to really think about and process the statement. It's more than simply stating what we are doing, it's comprehending how we want to operate. This type of alignment will bring the team together and set expectations for what success looks like.

Lessons learned

  • Don't be afraid to be frank. Be clear and transparent about what you expect from the team. Both group meetings and one-on-ones are opportunities to present this information.
  • At my company we operate in an ambiguous manner. Meaning that the teams aren't order takers but smart groups who take on a tasks and come back with solutions. We empower them and expect them to make decisions. As a result, our operating principles aren't totally prescriptive but more like guidelines. We give our teams the guard rails to operate within and they have the freedom to bounce off those walls. This works for us, but find what works best for you.
  • My job as a manager is to make my teams better so that one day, in an ideal world, they won't need me. I set my team up for success by getting them aligned, working together, and empowering them. Basically, it's my duty to manage myself out of a job.

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