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Turning Around an Underperforming Team

Performance
Leadership
Motivation
Team Processes

8 September, 2021

Alfredo Fernandez Acuna
Alfredo Fernandez Acuna

Engineering Manager at The Workshop

Alfredo Fernandez Acuna, Engineering Manager, shares how he diligently turned around an underperforming team.

Problem

Think of your team as a rowing crew 一 a good amount of joint effort will help reach the finish line. There was a perception that a specific team had not delivered much business value for a couple of months, and I was given the challenge to take over and turn it around.

Actions taken

I did not jump into any actions right away; instead, I listened, observed, and collected as much information and evidence as possible. I identified the team dynamics, and I was the “silent-observer” for one sprint, trying to get through the real problem and what factors needed improvement. I did not want to appear to be the overconfident newcomer that knows better, and that starts telling the team what to do without really getting to know them.

My main observation during that time was that the team did not understand what they had to deliver and more importantly why. They did not know the overall big picture for the project they were working on. It was clearly not a surprise that even though they were working hard, they had not delivered meaningful business value so far. I also discovered that there wasn’t much coherence in the product’s backlog, and the team had not defined at least 2 or 3 upcoming sprint goals. Ultimately, the team did not have a plan they could get behind. Given these findings, we reviewed with all the stakeholders what it is they wanted to get out of this project and this team and built a high-level roadmap involving the team for at least a few sprints to come.

On top of that, there was a lack of technical leadership within the team. As an Engineering Manager, this is part of my job, however, I selected one team member who had the potential to be in charge of this task, and with my coaching he managed to grow and deliver exceeding expectations, and more importantly, to help the team to deliver.

Lessons learned

  • Take a step back and identify the problems before jumping into solutions. Invest the time you consider prudent and push back on any pressure to take urgent action. Your team members will appreciate you having taken the time to identify and understand their problems properly before proposing any solutions.
  • As a manager, you have to spot and grasp any opportunities that you get to delegate work that others can do. You should focus on doing the things only you can do. This will help you grow as a manager, but also grows your reports and makes your team members more autonomous.

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