How an Organization Restructure can Enhance the Energy Levels & risk appetite of a Team
7 January, 2022
How Group Thinking Inhibits Innovation
Around eight years ago, I began a new leadership role, where I inherited a team of around 30 engineers. I noticed that everyone in the team had a similar level of experience in their careers. They had all worked for five to eight years in their field and had been with the company for about two to three years. The challenge with such homogeneity was that the team was making a lot of decisions based on historical context & experience rather than thinking of newer and innovative options, which would increase productivity and fresh ideas.
In the past, I built my team's ground-up hiring process in my previous management roles, allowing me to build with the right diversity. In the above scenario, the inertia was so strong that group members had strict procedures to complete certain tasks in this group. Team members would follow each other's leads & past experience rather than paving their own path & learning from industry innovation. As the tech industry was moving rapidly, I felt uneasy knowing that my team could not pivot or innovate as needed.
Restructuring the Team with New Hires
Discussing the Problem:
I brought my challenge to the attention of my manager and my peer group. I was able to gain insight into my situation and hear other perspectives. From there, I began aggregating ideas from my peer group and came up with an approach to restructure the team mix.
Balancing Knowledge and Energy:
After discussing the challenge at hand with my network, I began hiring newly graduated engineers. In total, I recruited 30% more juniors to balance the knowledge within my team. With their energy levels and curiosity levels, these juniors brought high energy and excitement across the team. They didn't know what worked and what wouldn't work, so these juniors were more bent to try anything.
At the same time, I hired a few seniors who had 15 years of experience in their roles. Essentially, my approach was to improve both the energy, knowledge level and make the team more diverse. As a positive impact, many of the existing team members were also encouraged to try new techniques. At the end of six months, my team was more complete with juniors, existing team members, and senior engineers, making for a diverse group.
Establishing Smaller Teams:
Within my team, I broke up the juniors and seniors to be paired into groups with each other. I tried to ensure at least two seniors to each junior, so these college graduates would have ample opportunities to learn. I called these pods, and they consisted of three to four engineers.
I found that since these pods were so small, the seniors and juniors formed strong relationships. As the team size shrunk, the bonding grew, as team members had a small cognitive load and a closer connection with each other.
Projects and Initiatives (Needs & Wants):
Previously, product managers would give my team exacts asks and projects they needed to do. After restructuring my team, I coined an approach that I called "projects and initiatives." The company wanted us to do projects for the business goals, while initiatives were standalone mini-projects to try new methods and techniques of developing proofs of concept to improvise how software engineering is done. I emphasized that initiatives are as important as projects, as many juniors were using these as learning experiences, with low risk to business. (Like a Google 20% time)
Putting this system in place seemed to increase the skill levels & risk appetite within my team. Juniors were excited to use their own ideas and create innovative problems and PoCs to solve them. On the other hand, seniors were excited to coach juniors and passed along their industry knowledge.
Successful Strategies for Smooth Changes
- Psychological safety is the founding principle when creating change for a team. Speaking with transparency and honesty is the essential thing you can do during a restructuring or major change. Indicating a threat to a team will negatively impact your relationship with those people.
- Celebrate small milestones. As a leader, we need to share & celebrate small victories and tasks that the team has accomplished. By doing so, the team's energy and motivation will be increased. Reflecting on progress & acknowledging small milestones is vital to reaching the final goal/mile.
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