Leading a Team: A Short Introduction to Chaos
22 July, 2021
Sr. Manager, Data Engineering, AI at Unity Technologies
I joined a very small team focusing on Big Data Engineering that was already in chaos. That takes a great toll on you as a leader. Simply put, the team was reduced from 50 to 6, and as a result, the morale was very low. The team members did not know where they stood in the company. Some were not sure of their responsibilities, while others were afraid of losing their jobs. In short, there was no direction or vision that they could work towards. They ended up doing operations, just ran the show by keeping the pipeline up, and waited for somebody to come in and assign them some tasks.
As I stepped in, I felt that the rest of the team would also leave if that went on, especially if there were no career opportunities for them in the organization. I asked myself, "How does one set a vision for a team that is already sinking?" Although there were minor discussions about setting up the OKRs, roadmap, and framework, no engineers were involved from the ground up. It was not an organic effort, there was no shared voice or inclusion. It was more like bringing product and engineering managers together and working on some OKRs so that they could put something on the table.
I felt that the right thing to do towards building up the team's morale is through setting the clear vision a.k.a our North Star, and the roadmap for the execution with a clear set of ownership and direction. In the back of my mind, I felt that we lacked a clear sense of motivation, ownership, trust, and empowerment. Without leading towards further demotivation, I worked towards building a happy team.
After I joined, I looked at the team composition. To my surprise, there were some fantastic players. There were a couple of people who were in the mid-engineering level and some open positions. That made me believe that we could build a team. However, even hiring was not compelling without setting up the vision, but it was a situation where we could still salvage the ship.
Understand the landscape - observe
I gathered as much information as I could. I understood the context. What was clear to me was that the North Star was just as compelling as the story, but there was no leadership or proper guidance. As their leader, I had to know every person, show empathy and understand what had happened previously rather than changing anything around without knowing the past occurrences.
Understand shared values - what do we truly believe in
We started talking about core values; what we believed in as a team. For us to develop as a high-performing team, we had to collaboratively set some shared values. In that regard, I gave them a small exercise where everyone could frame their values. Some said that they believed in honesty, some believed in accountability, some chose fun, and others believed in teamwork. I made sure that it was only a few that they could pick on. Afterward, I found the intersection point between teams.
I tried to examine the common 4 or 5 core values that we all believed in. After all, that was how we were going to build everything around each other; the empathy, trust, mutual respect, and accountability showed up in our performance. In the past, the team just did not realize the substantial cross-section of values that can lead to a shared vision.
Articulate purpose and a mission - why we (Data Engineering) tem exist
Once we had our vision, it was time for us to work towards our purpose. We carved out a mission statement and figured out what our mission will be from here onwards. For example, our goals were to help one of the stakeholder groups and then run the business efficiently in real-time. We had to make some data-driven decisions and take the revenue on to the next level. All of that fed into the drafting of a compelling mission statement for the team. Most importantly, it was the team's mission built through shared understanding of our customers and their needs for the future as opposed to a top down mandate.
Define Your Strategy - set of objectives to achieve the mission
Finally, we had to start figuring out strategies to reach for our North Star. We all had clear metrics in mind, we knew where we wanted to take our team, and so we focused on producing the results and defining meaningful OKRs for the team. The key result of the exercise was that we were a very motivated and empowered team. We turned the team around. We hired a couple of talented engineers following that. The team that I had built still exists today, and they have more to work towards in the future.
- Many teams do not have a great understanding of what a vision is. People interchangeably think that vision and mission are the same things. It's really important to make a clear distinction between these two in order to understand the themes and identify the purpose. Build a shared vision with your team, avoid top down mandates.
“Vision is everything about what drives our work. Core values, purpose, mission and strategy are all part of our vision”. - from rework.withgoogle.com.
- Put your team members through meaningful exercises to build a shared roadmap. They will learn a lot about each other's strengths, weaknesses, fears, and capabilities. Altogether, it will contribute to a deeper understanding and trust among team members.
- Transfer the strategies into concrete roadmap with meaningful prioritization that aligns with business outcomes. Always be ready to answer the question, ‘what do our customers get if we do this’ OR ‘what happens if we do nothing’
- Communicate your vision to the rest of the organization, share your mission statement, and discuss your roadmap preferably in the form of OKRs.
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