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What Product Teams say and What They Really Mean — 10 Tips for Diagnosing Team Issues

Rob Boyett
Oct 13, 2018 · 7 min read

Originally published on Mind The Product October 2018

Team issues can have a negative impact on a project and your people long term. There are a bunch of ways they might manifest themselves — and I’ve written them down as I’ve heard them over a decade of building digital products in cross-functional teams.

I’m not touching on the upfront issues like bad sales process, junk briefs, confused business requirements, that’s for another day. This list is most useful for in-flight project teams, off and sprinting.

Reading these unfiltered issues will surface the symptoms. And in turn, help with diagnosis. All teams and situations are unique, but some pains are universal and understanding the issue is halfway to a solution.

1 — “Our Client is a ☠️ They Don’t Understand What we are Trying to do”

This is bad mojo for a team. In the same way that losing empathy for the customer can easily happen in long projects (good read here about this), it’s easy for a team to start classing the client as a hindrance to getting a project out. This can creep in from the smallest negative comments.

If the team doesn’t take the time to understand who they are working with, an “us and them” mentality can develop. The client is taking great risks, personally and as a business. Building client empathy is important. They might be frustrated or confused, which can result in curt communication…

2 — “Let’s Push Back This Next Check Till we Have More to Show”

This means the team isn’t confident in the direction they are going, and probably doesn’t have the right information. They’ll push the meeting back but go nowhere in the meantime, while the expectation gap between client and team grows and it gets harder to ask the simple questions they didn’t have the answers to in the beginning.

3 — “Wow, I’d Never Seen That Document Before”

Projects will produce a heap of documentation, and that’s normal. This is a challenge worth understanding from day one. Light documentation in favour of delivering is (in my view) always preferable. One consistent issue I see is the grouping of deliverables by phase or sprint. This starts out looking like a good idea, but soon makes it extremely hard to view a continuous thread across the project.

4 — “Our Meetings are Long and Have no Outcome”

It’s all-too easy to get into a bad meeting etiquette routine. If meetings feel long, then they are, regardless of their actual duration. Judging the correct length can be hard. The way the working day is broken into hours tends to mean a meeting will fill an hour (at least), irrespective of its content.

Setting a meeting goal or outcome is imperative. That could be to generate ideas, agree on a deadline or assign work. Whether the goal is hard or loose doesn’t matter, but having one is key.

5 — “What did They go Into a Meeting Room for?”

When things get a bit “interesting” on a project there is a tendency to get secretive and have small groups heading to a meeting room. It could be a bit of client drama, or maybe a team member issue.

But quite often it’s just everyday tasks masquerading as an issue. The point here is that the rest of the team wonders what is going on. It creates team drama, and ripples from it are disruptive.

6 — “I Just Don’t get Enough Time at my Desk”

All the meetings, planning, and alignment are hugely valuable activities. But a balance needs to be struck. If your week is peppered with team meetings and check-ins, how can you find time to get deep into work? This crushes flow time, that special mode that gets the best work and helps team members to feel job satisfaction.

Another issue to watch for is the double workload a team can feel when working on-site with a client. Close collaboration is hugely valuable and something I would always promote. But it’s worth recognising that it comes at a cost to the team. They are always on, staying professional, interpreting comments and filtering needs. Once you have been doing this for a few years you find tactics to manage the load and it can be very enjoyable for most. But for members of the team more used to crafting at a desk with headphones on most the day, it can be a great deal of effort to manage and not feel the most productive.

7 — “We Have a Presentation Today!?”

When people in the team seem confused about where to be and what’s happening this can be an indication of some poor calendars etiquette — things like moving meetings around without updating verbally, dropping them into calendars on the day or, even worse, five minutes before they start. This creates uncertainty, causes confusion, and quickly leads to a behaviour where you don’t start any major task because you have no understanding of how long you will have to work at it — why bother getting into it just to be pulled straight out.

8 — “The Sprints Just Feel Relentless”

Sprints can feel quite intense and exhausting — whether it’s because there’s a deadline in mind, or no end in sight. This can be made worse when a team doesn’t have a grasp of the roadmap, or when you haven’t paused long enough to recognise success. One thing I’ve heard in the past which rings true, is ‘sprinting a marathon’.

9 — “Did you Take Notes? No, but it’s Cool, [Insert Firefighter] has it”

Teams that seem to not be taking responsibility are a really common and bad sign. Most likely a key person is taking the heat. Firefighter is a great term for the people who parachute into the troubled projects and save the day. They have a job to do and little time to do it, so their style is to dictate action. It works in the short term. Clients tend to love them.

But remember firefighters love to fight fires. It’s not necessarily on their to-do list to build a strong team. This leads to disengagement — why bother when the firefighter has it covered?

10 — “Best not Disturb the Team, They Have a big Mountain to Climb”

I have often heard this said by well-meaning managers. It comes from a good place. The team may have started strongly with retrospectives, but that can drift if not carefully guarded and valued. Not allowing the team the space to address problems weakens its ability self-fix. Resilience becomes low and the general mood can stagnate.

…no time like now

If you have an issue in your team, and maybe one of these sparked that realisation, well good news! — one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that it’s never too late to take a moment, reflect, and start the conversation that could fix things.

As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t have any silver bullets for you — if I did I would have a book out 😀 Good luck 🙏

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