Agile · Encouragement · Leadership

Structures that help in trying times

Leading a large product team striving to develop SaaS products for the B2B enterprise space can be challenging in the best of times. Keeping the team focused on the most important areas for discovery and development, ensuring consistent input and feedback from our target market, and strengthening connections across our sales, marketing, and consulting teams requires full-time effort when we are all in the office. But now, with the team and the company scattered – along with most of our clients and prospects – there are additional obstacles to surmount in order to maintain a sense of motivation and momentum.

Several weeks into this present period of social distancing and isolation, I am returning to five core practices to establish the structure we need to thrive as a team. Three of these are more ‘formal’ and two are less so, but all five should be familiar to product leaders operating in an Agile framework.

  1. Daily scrums. Each project team I work with starts the day with a 15-minute scrum to review what each person is working on, what was accomplished the previous day, and any obstacles to making progress today. Many of our teams have long included remote members or people across offices, and so in some ways these daily ‘stand up’ meetings have provided a measure of consistency in the midst of our new realities. While our development teams have used this daily practices for years, many of our other internal teams have begun adopting it as well since it provides a great daily check-in time for people who used to sit next to each other only a few weeks ago. Having this daily structure means that we can stay on the same page in spite of not being in the same place.
  2. Weekly planning meetings. A second of the more ‘formal’ structures that has continued to be helpful for us is our weekly planning meetings. These provide a great way to make sure we are on track with our goals for each sprint (two-week development cycles for our teams) as well as a way to identify any unexpected issues. Several of our teams found the rapid transition to working 100% remote a challenge in the first week, but using consistent planning times gave us the scaffolding on which to hang our development efforts and so we quickly adjusted and have largely kept up both our velocity and our code quality. Here again teams beyond our developers have also been utilizing regular planning times to make sure everyone stays focused, engaged, and motivated when no longer in the office together.
  3. Sprint retrospectives. A third more ‘formal’ structure that we have found helpful is our regular sprint retrospectives. We take time at the end of each sprint to review as a team what went well, what areas we’d like to improve, and questions we have (about the business, our team processes, or our development work); these times are helping us improve how we work together and they surface things that we might have glossed over when all working in the same place. For example, we are getting better now at writing clear acceptance criteria and providing clear comments on code reviews because we are more reliant on these ‘documents’ when we can’t easily turn around and ask a question. The discipline of regularly reviewing how we work together will not only make this time of being scattered more effective, but it will also instill some strong practices for us to continue as we grow our team.
  4. One-on-one meetings. On our team and across our company there has long been a solid informal practice of regular one-on-one meetings; these aren’t simply something ‘managers’ do but are a great way to deepen connections across the team. Back when we were all in the office I regularly took 30-minute walks with different people each day, learning from them, sharing mutual insights, and strengthening our partnerships. Now that we are working remotely I continue to prioritize getting these less formal times to connect with team mates and colleagues over Slack, Skype, or even Discord to continue investing in our connections. While slightly tougher to schedule than it was when I could just walk over to someone’s desk, I find maintaining a structure of regular one-on-one meetings helps keep the team feeling connected in spite of being scattered in our homes.
  5. Team hangouts. While the introverts I work with have found much to delight in during this time period, my more extroverted colleagues are nearly desperate for human interaction; instituting a consistent practice of informal team hangouts has been a great structure to add that thrills our extroverts while also serving at least our social introverts. Virtual coffees and happy hours give us ways to chat with each other that, while they don’t replace meeting together over lunch or after work, still give us a sense of teamwork and connection beyond simply getting a job done. These informal hangout times offer us a fifth useful structure during these socially distant times.

Continuing to utilize – or in some cases to adapt – these structures helps provide a needed rhythm for our team during this time of being scattered. If you’re interested in knowing some personal structures I’m using to keep myself focused and motivated under these unusual circumstances, feel free to reach out on Twitter @asbiv. We are facing some new challenges navigating these times of being scattered as a team; I’d love to say that these five simple structures give us the perfect framework for weathering this time, but in truth it’s not that simple.

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