Image by Samuel Lee Miller

Think You’re Ready To Hire? Try These 5 Process Improvements First

Getting more out of the team you have, and making them happier, too

You’d like to start shipping new features more quickly, and you’ve wondered if your team’s productivity could be boosted with some process improvements. You can always hire more people, but there might be a cheaper way to get a more done faster. Here are a few common process efficiency flags to watch for.

1. Priorities

Is the whole team laser-focused on MVP features, or have you noticed some people spending time on nice-to-haves before your most important items have been released?

The Fix

Make sure there is a clear product roadmap that is being followed by the PM or whoever is running development. You may need to clear up how important it is to have the core MVP version of your product complete by a certain date. Set some milestone deadlines to keep the plan on track.

2. Bottlenecks

Are there any team members that don’t have much work to do, or aren’t sure what they should be working on?

The Fix

Check with the PM, if you have one, and look upstream. Developers should always have clearly detailed user stories to work on from the Product Manager, including annotated design specs. Designers should always have a prioritized roadmap of product features to churn out. It’s the PM’s job to make sure this is all happening. There should be a clear, prioritized section of user stories (usually the “To Do” column) that are ready to be worked on from the top, down. (Note: any stories that aren’t actually ready should be moved back out. Allowing blocked stories to remain in the To Do column causes confusion.)

Already have a PM? Sit down with them to find out where workflow is lagging and what you can do to help. Make sure there is a crystal clear, prioritized product roadmap of features for the team to work on for the next few sprints. Make sure the PM has time to flesh out the feature requirements for the upcoming features.

Don’t have a PM? Consider hiring one, especially if your organization is showing other signs of needing a one. A dedicated PM will make sure work is correctly prioritized and properly documented with requirements ahead of every sprint.

Alternatively, you can put someone else in charge of making sure everyone always has (the right) work. Keep in mind this will affect that person’s usual deliverables.

3. Blockers

Are developers often blocked with questions about implementation during development? Blocking issues can waste a lot of developer time, especially if they get stuck waiting for an answer. Experienced product managers know how to avoid this by ensuring requirements are fully fleshed out before work begins.

The Fixes

  1. Communication — Encourage team members to speak up when they are blocked. A transparent venue like a Slack project channel is a great place to make everyone aware of the blockage and encourage collaboration on the solution.
  2. Beef up your user stories — If user stories (tickets) aren’t properly detailed with requirements for all use cases and annotated designs, your developers are going to have a lot of questions. Your PM may need some coaching on what good user stories look like, and if your process has been rushed they may also need more time to prepare them. Without properly detailed stories, development is going to be slowed by implementation questions, functionality debates and brain power lost to context switching.
  3. Sprint/iteration planning & feature kick-off meetings — Before new feature development starts, the user stories, requirements and designs (if applicable) should be reviewed by the project team. Developers should speak up with questions about use cases and functionality at this time, saving development time by avoiding blocking questions later.

4. Emergency Pace

Is the team always rushing to complete work in emergency mode? Do they work late and weekends to keep pace or get something out for a special client? This is problematic, because it’s bad for morale and is probably costing you in bad code and ill-thought-out product decisions. These features will need to be reworked later, often as yet another last-minute fire drill to account for a missed assumption.

The Fix

Have a plan set ahead of time and work on limiting last minute requests. The PM, designer and engineers all need time to work out the best solutions to ensure efficiency, scalability and sanity. Listen to team input for creative solutions to the business opportunity or problem. Being transparent about the opportunity can help with team buy-in and offer more opportunities for creative problem solving.

5. Knowledge Gaps

Are junior software developers often stuck on difficult problems?

The Fix

Encourage developers to help each other with tough problems. Reasonable delivery timelines will help here— a senior engineer will be more likely to lend a hand if they aren’t stressed out about their down deadline. A good PM will always be on the lookout for opportunities for team members to help each other, as this will make the whole team more efficient.

Measuring Velocity

Want to know which changes are actually improving output? Make sure you have the story points feature of your tracking tool turned on, and that all user stories are assigned points. This is usually done during (bi)weekly iteration and sprint planning meetings. This is the data that you need to iterate on your process.

Ready to grow the team?

Process checks out? Here are some signs your organization is ready to hire.

Developers/Engineers

  • You have well-defined product requirements and designs ready, waiting for developers to work on them.
  • You don’t have many blockers or lack or work issues from the Process issues above.
  • You have one or more junior developers falling behind schedule who could use help from a more experienced developer.

Designers

  • You have developers waiting for work due to new feature designs not being ready, and this does not appear to be a short term problem.
  • You don’t have enough UI/UX work for another full time designer, but may have some marketing materials they could work on while you ramp up.

Product Managers

  • You have some new features in mind with the designers or developers to work on them, but don’t have time to explain to the team what they should start building.
  • You have some opportunities in mind and need help figuring out what your solution should look like.
  • You have a solid product vision, but don’t know what the team should work on first.
  • You have a pretty lean MVP in mind, but aren’t sure how to keep the team focused on just those core features.
  • Haven’t had a PM before? Check out my list of 10 Signs Your Team is Ready for one here.

Project Managers

  • Team members ask what they should work on next.
  • Developers are often blocked or waiting for work.
  • Team members don’t seem to be working on things in the correct order.
  • Team members seem frustrated by frequent changes in direction.
  • You have some problems from the Process section above that you haven’t been able to solve on your own.

No budget for a PM yet?

Create a product roadmap, and make sure your lead designer and engineer are on board and willing to do some management. Efficiency improvements are possible without a dedicated manager, as long as the process is in place.