Principle Five: Create a culture for speed
Last, but certainly not least, in our #Zone5Principles blog series by head of engineering, Paul Kiernan, we take a look at cultivating the right culture in your team when delivering digital products and services to market quickly…
Although I’ve included “creating a culture for speed” as the fifth principle in this series it’s no less important than the others and should definitely not be seen as the last step in a process. Culture is defined as “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.” If you’ve successfully implemented all the other principles in this series, you’re already 80% on the way to creating a culture for speed already, so that’s why I’ve decided to include it last.
What else do we need to do to create a culture of speed? Is it just about following processes or are there other things we can do? One hint… there is always more we can do, and I’ve clustered the main themes into the following high-level items…
- Cultivating trusted relationships to bring the team together and to get through tough times
- Creating clarity to avoid wasted time and confusion
- Leading without overpowering the team
- Collaborating and breaking down siloes
- Having fun!
Creating digital products or services is hard. They are complex and generally there are a lot of unknowns, both in regards to technology stacks and user requirements. Very few deliveries will go “as planned” but with great relationships, you can galvanise the team, persevere through adversity and deliver value.
A wise man once told me “If you have a good relationship you can get through anything” and so far, that’s proven true. I’m not just talking about relationships with your team, or a working relationship with a client, but both these and more. Every contact you make as part of a product delivery will benefit from a good relationship.
A strong relationship will get you through those hard times when the going gets tough. I don’t just mean when something goes wrong and you must surface it, but when tough decisions need to be made on scope, when you need to ask for extra support from suppliers, or when emotions run high if the team is under pressure.
When I look back at some of what I consider as the best deliveries in the places I’ve worked, a lot of their success has been down, in part, to good relationships.
As a technologist, I don’t claim to be the best in the business at relationship building. However, I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing people who have a natural talent and flair for building relationships. Over my career, I’ve spent time observing their methods and approaches (this sounds sinister, but it’s not meant to!) and I’ve noticed some common themes. These may seem obvious to some, but I hope they will help others…
- Be proactive: When establishing new relationships find a common ground or a mutually beneficial agreement that can be used to initiate the relationship and help build a bond. This shouldn’t be done in a creepy way and if you’re trying to build a relationship with someone, but they aren’t taking an interest, that’s OK — don’t take it personally. Try something, pivot if required, but depending on the situation, don’t be afraid to pull back and try someone else.
- Build trust: Be transparent, be honest, be candid, do what you say and say what you believe (coincidently, some of Zone’s company values). In my experience, trust is the number one thing that will make or break a relationship. It doesn’t matter if that’s trust with a teammate, trust with a client, trust with a leader, trust with a partner… Trust is always key.
- Be kind: We need to understand other people’s feelings and what stress and pressure they are under to truly know how to support them. Be respectful of others, and be inclusive, treating everyone fairly. Be honest and candid, honesty needs to be delivered with empathy which is also a key part of creating a human connection.
- Be personable: Actively sharing stories about your family, hobbies or adventures outside of work will lead others to also share and create a deeper, longer lasting connection. Work can be intense and it’s easy to forget that people have lives outside of work. Where appropriate, stepping outside of the constant work chat to understanding the person behind the job title can often help build great relationships.
- Give value without asking for the same in return: This is particularly important when individuals don’t work together directly, or they have no formal structure for their relationship. The value exchange might be providing advice/consultation, actively supporting the other’s work/personal ambition or just the act of discourse/discussion to formulate and refine one’s views on topics or problems.
After working for many years in the agency world, I’ve learnt it’s never too early to start building relationships. Some of the best client/agency relationships I’ve seen formed are well before any contracts are signed. This can translate to internal product deliveries to — if a new initiative is planned, don’t wait until day one of the project to have a kick-off meeting. As soon as people know they will be working together, reach out, start forming relationships and get ahead of the curve. The early effort will pay dividends in the future.
The key message here is… If you want to move quickly through challenges and adversity you need strong relationships built on trust, transparency and kindness!
The same wise man that told me “If you have a good relationship you can get through anything” also told me “We need to prioritise building teams with good communicators.” This especially related to finding people for our teams, but the sentiment pulls through to other areas — the ability to communicate, and communicate clearly, is key.
Alongside communication, providing clarity on processes and responsibilities will also allow teams to move quickly. In the agile world, this aspect of “clarity” is often forgotten about, and I put it down to one of agile’s key values, “Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools”. I’m not debating this value, but you need to have a framework and structure in place to allow the individuals and interactions to work effectively. I’ve seen a few projects where, for whatever reason, people aren’t clear on their roles or their goals. This ends up with a team stepping on each other’s toes and not all pulling in the same direction.
For example, in one particular project the team wasn’t getting on well together, they were arguing and relationships were strained. The team also struggled to produce work and complete their sprint goals, which is never good. As a leadership team, we did two simple things to fix this. First, we got everyone in a room and got them to agree on their roles/responsibilities i.e., who was leading UX, who was leading front-end etc, then wrote down what was agreed in a small document. Second, we asked the team to set themselves 1-week sprint goals they could all commit to. In a matter of weeks, the team formed, aligned and started delivering at speed.
Pulling this all together and taking it one step further, I believe creating a cultural theme around “clarity” in communication, process and responsibilities are fundamental to moving quickly.
So, let’s split out what a culture of clarity looks like:
- Communication: Whether that’s playback sessions, daily stand-ups, feature refinement discussions… whatever… the result needs to be a clear and aligned understanding/agreement between the communicator and the audience. Creating clarity in communication is probably a whole blog article in itself, but here are a few tips; communications need to be concise, confident, timely and the information should be delivered in a kind and relevant way for the specific audience (don’t confuse them with jargon).
- Responsibilities: Creating a simple RACI and getting everyone to agree to it can fix this… It’s that simple. Some people seem to fear clearly setting out roles and responsibilities on projects or accounts, that might be because they want everyone to be responsible and not have siloed working. However, in my experience, not having clarity on who should be doing what has caused a lot of wasted time and effort.
- Goals: A team needs to know what it’s pulling towards to make decisions quickly and move at pace. This includes long term goals, smaller iterations, weekly goals, and even daily goals (discussed in continuously managing scope). Setting goals as a team helps the team hold each other accountable. This doesn’t mean blasting someone for not completing their work but means that individuals will work hard to support each other and align to a commonly agreed target.
Leading without overpowering
To allow a team to move quickly, the leadership group needs to walk a fine line between leading and facilitating the team, but not overpowering or dictating what needs to happen. Done well and the team will relish the challenge of the project and produce their best work, done incorrectly and the team will become disengaged and lack drive.
Like with a lot of the subjects I’ve touched on, leadership is huge and far-reaching. I want to focus on delivery team leadership and specifically the key element that I’ve seen done well or poorly in the past, and the ones that have a large impact on the speed of delivery.
Have the hard conversations
Hard conversations can take planning and put a cognitive and emotional load on the team, when that energy could be better spent building the product. One role of the leadership team is to take on hard conversations with clients and set up the team so they can come in and then solve the challenges faced. This leads to my next point…
Get out of the way
Before or after the hard conversation has been had, it’s often tempting to take on finding the solutions as the leader in the team. Sometimes this is helpful and is required, but depending on the problem, challenges can be best solved by the people doing the work. You’ll often find they know the most about how everything has been put together. If this is the case, bring the team and stakeholders together, get out of the way and facilitate solutions. More often than not, this will be the fastest way to find solutions, create alignment and formulate a plan.
One anecdote I recount regularly to support this point was a new e-commerce value proposition we built for a client. The PO really needed one core feature, but we were up against a very tight MVP release. As a leadership team, we had an upfront discussion that if we were to deliver this feature, the PO would need to reset their expectations of the fidelity of the solution. Once expectations were set, we got the cross-functional team together in a workshop and set a goal of delivering the feature in x days. After the product team and the PO discussed the bare minimum requirements of the feature, we brainstormed various hypothetical solutions, the last came from our lead front-end developer, who sketched out a lean solution he estimated could be built in a couple of days. As a team we stress-tested the solution, agreed and put a plan into action. The feature was delivered as part of the MVP on time and was a core part of their checkout process.
Setting the stage and getting the PO and the product team together was key to the project’s success and something I’ll always remember.
Maintain an eye on the future
As discussed, part of the leadership team’s duties is to clear a path for the product team to move at maximum speed. Leadership should be planning ahead, not so far that they lose contact with the team, but enough to sweep aside impediments, collect research/information and plan the fastest route to the objectives. The key thing here is that all of this is in support of the team, and should not take away from the team’s ownership or their empowerment to deliver.
You can think of the relationship between a team and leadership as a long-distance bike road race. In these races, you have the individuals racing and the support team or local authorities in faster vehicles. These faster vehicles race ahead to clear any blockages or possible obstacles, they also come back to the team, providing them with race logistics and support.
Collaborating to break down silos
The fastest team is always the team that works together as one unit to deliver against a shared goal. Silos are bad, whether it’s in management teams, between developers and operations, between engineers and experience designers or between business departments and IT. They are proven to get in the way, slow down progress and create confusion.
Wherever possible, seek to break down silos, get everyone in a meeting together, create shared workshops, be transparent, and communicate freely. Setting well defined, shared goals and metrics to measure the whole team’s success will incentivise them to pull together in the right direction and deliver for the greater good.
At a product team level, starting the core team all at the same time on day one can also help increase speed and ownership from the team. Not all engagements have that luxury, if you can do it, do it. In particular, making sure the design, technology and delivery roles all start at the same time is key.
Throughout the project ceremonies, like immersion workshops, design studios, example mapping sessions, whole team retrospectives and cross-functional backlog refinement, create alignment and give everyone a voice.
Humans need “fun” to get headspace, recharge batteries and keep a healthy mental state. The fun doesn’t need to be forced or awkward and often takes the form of light-hearted games, non-work-related activities, or freestyle end of week discussions.
Fun also bonds teams, creating an environment for teams and stakeholders alike to relax and let their guard down, which in turn builds relationships and lets everyone feel more human.
I’ve always strived to create a fun environment for the team to work in, keeping meetings light-hearted but effective, taking time out to personally connect. But over the last couple of years, this need has been emphasised by the pandemic, and I was surprised at how much effort really needs to be dedicated to creating a fun environment where people can thrive.
This was particularly highlighted by the lockdown where teams were feeling isolated, burning out and struggling to function due to a focus on video calls, meetings, delivery and lacking any form of fun, social interactions to unwind.
Fun at work creates a healthy team with strong relationships, and a team that has fun is not only a happy, resilient team, but it is also a fast team!
In this article, we’ve walked over some of the key areas to focus on if you want to create a culture for speed. In summary:
- Cultivate trusted relationships to bring the team together and to get through tough times
- Create clarity to avoid wasted time on confusion
- Lead without overpowering the team to find the best solutions and help the team own their delivery
- Collaborate and break down siloes to move at speed
- Have fun!
Blog series final words…
This is the final article in the series, and I hope this and the other articles have been interesting and provided some value to anyone who develops digital products or services.
It’s obviously not an exhaustive list of everything that is required to balance quality, speed and value, but I think it covers the big-ticket items based on my years of delivering this sort of work to clients from all different types of organisations.
It’s an iterative process to get all these practises and processes in place. Start small, experiment, persist with what works and take the learnings from what fails.
Big thanks go to Ciaran McGuinness, Steve Newstead, Will Dixon and Ricky Wallace who gave their own time to help with this article series.
If any of the topics discussed resonated with you, or you’re currently facing challenges with product delivery, or you’re simply looking to get a new product into the market, please do reach out to us and we’ll be more than happy to help.
This article is part of an overarching series aimed at people who develop digital products or services, either in-house or agency side, and have been frustrated by missed deadlines, poor output quality or the overall experience not delivering the value you hoped for.
The information discussed isn’t new or groundbreaking; however, it is generally talked about separately and in silo. These articles will provide a holistic and balanced view of the key focus areas to help teams move quickly while still delivering value.
It’s an iterative process to get all these practices and processes in place, so start small, experiment, persist with what works and take the learnings from what fails.
For a full introduction to the series please read the series introduction article.