Teamwork Doesn’t Have to Suck

Let’s face it, teamwork can suck. A new project comes up, the team gets together and inevitably a small portion of the team does the majority of the work. Deadlines come, tensions run high, and suddenly you dread waking up in the morning to head back into the hell that has been created. We’ve all been there. Let’s talk about how to make all of our teams better not only for our own sanity but for every member of our teams.

Teams can be great!

Move together

Hard working team members can quickly lose their drive without a destination in sight. A common and achievable goal should be the first step to improving any team. Each member should know their role and how they contribute to moving towards that end.

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”
— Andrew Carnegie

Recently I was responsible with leading a complete rewrite of our company’s eCommerce site. The goal was simple, get us on a new open-source-based platform and clean out the crap. Over the years we had made customizations to our old open-source-based eCommerce platform to the point of forking it; effectively destroying the benefit of open-source technology. This project was our attempt at getting back into the community and “going vanilla”.

Bringing us together were the baby steps that we each made to move our large project toward the finish line. Those baby steps came from small tasks rather than large epics. Developers had clear features to implement, QA had specific guidelines to follow, and project managers had direct questions that needed to be answered. Everyone had something to contribute and because the tasks were small and clearly defined it was simple to feel like we were moving as each one was completed. After months of hard work we successfully finished the project and grew closer through our achievement.

That sense of movement, even if small, drives momentum and encourages teams. Set a goal, define a path, and let everyone run.

Cut the weight

Over the years I’ve worked on good teams and bad. The biggest team killer is a bad team member. One person can easily drag an entire team down due to their attitude, lack of communication skills, or the work they produce. The hard truth is that person has to go.

That can be hard to hear and even harder to execute. Do we just fire them? Move them to another team? Yes! Whatever it takes to get the toxic person out of your group is the answer. I once worked on a team where everyone was very communicative until this one person came around. Then everyone tensed up and were afraid to share their opinions for fear of being confronted about their ideas. This kills the team.

No organization or project is worth holding hostage over one team member. Shake it up and lose them. If it’s not working out then make that change sooner than later. The team will benefit greatly.

Build each other up

Praise never seems to come often enough. We should share in our defeats but build up individual accomplishments. When something goes wrong the team together holds the responsibility. When something goes right the individual people should be praised for their great work. This does two things to the morale of a team. First, a single person is not criticized for damaging your project. We are moving this thing together so we should share the load when things get heavy. Someone falters and we all get behind them to get everyone back on track. Second, individuals can see that their contributions are noted and matter. Even the person who may not be at the forefront of day-to-day additions should be thanked for every bit of effort given to the team.

Whatever good things we build end up building us.
— Jim Rohn

I’ve worked on projects where one or two team members contributed to a very high-profile feature that was talked about immensely while others did the less glamorous features and bug fixes. Were the latter’s contributions any less to the overall movement of the project? No, and they should be praised openly for doing their part as well as the others for the high-profile feature.

One way that we keep the praise going is using a Slack extension I created called Sticker Chart Party!. It gives your Slack team a digital emoji sticker chart similar to grade school days where we can quickly give a sticker every time someone does something noteworthy. Messages can be attached to the emoji to see why people got them and it’s a fun way to thank people for their contributions and help.

Sticker Chart Party! makes praise easy

My current team has grown closer together thanks to constantly high-fiving each other over all of our victories and banding together during the struggles. A good team should make every member feel comfortable and supported without alienation.

Small changes again and again

Iteration is key to life. Teams should always be evolving. As new people come and go the dynamic will always be changing. Open discussion should be encouraged on what is working and what isn’t and how to improve it. Tools, processes, and work styles should all be on the table for debate. If an idea is presented on making work life better by allowing for a remote work policy it should be discussed and tried. My current company just decided to go remote-first opting to allow employees to work wherever they feel comfortable that day whether it be at home, the office, or somewhere else.

Don’t be afraid to change how the team is working. I’ve seen people come in to a job and just settle into the routine saying, “That’s just the way it is here”. In all the companies I’ve worked for there is always room for change and improvement. Maybe as small as putting up art on the walls or shifting schedules around. Whatever makes the team happier will make them more dedicated and productive.

Be the change

It’s better to ask for forgiveness than beg for permission. Make your teams better right now. Be the positive change by publicly thanking those that are doing good work. Start the dialog in team meetings by bringing up possible issues that can be resolved as a group. It all needs to start somewhere and, in my experience, everyone wants to make things better and will rally around the idea of at least trying new things.

Shake things up and be happier in your teams.