Fear and despair in product teams (and how to navigate them)
Making successful digital products is hard. For many businesses, it’s still a step into the unknown. It requires teams to experiment with new ways of working, disrupt their way of thinking, and accelerate to a faster pace of decision-making. At Made by Many we are lucky to have guided all kinds of client teams through that transformation.
At the completion of a project it’s easy to look back and feel proud and satisfied but during those projects, happiness probably isn’t the only thing teams are feeling. In an agile environment, projects rarely sail smoothly from problem to solution. Your team will face challenges it has never faced before and it’ll be hard to remain confident and not lose hope. Plans will change, assumptions may not test well with users, and you might find that the real problem is completely different to what you initially thought it was.
In these moments it’s easy to become demotivated or get tied up in frustration. So how do we deal with them at Made by Many? How do we keep the excitement up when times are hard, and how do we keep on pushing for a great outcome without losing ourselves on the way there?
Here are a few rules of thumb:
1. Welcome fear on Day One
You read that right: make sure every single team member’s worries get heard. Our kickoffs aren’t just designed to talk about project missions and goals, they’re the moment to bring up personal hopes and fears. The sooner they’re talked about, the sooner the team will feel comfortable. You want to create a team culture where people feel it is acceptable to open up. The more people are vocal about their worries, the quicker the rest of the team can react and support. So next time you start a project, divide a whiteboard in two, with the left column for hopes and the right for worries. Get them all down on Post-Its and discuss!
2. Know when to pause
Sometimes it’s hard to take a step back when deadlines are approaching, but it’s so important. Make a constant effort to get an outside perspective in the team. After each sprint we ask someone to facilitate a reflection session: what’s working, what isn’t, how can we improve? Ask developers, product managers, strategists and colleagues for feedback on the approach. Disciplines don’t matter, but a diverse perspective does. The best-performing teams are curious and are constantly looking for knowledge outside of their own opinions. Getting out and asking will lead to greater insights.
3. Celebrate often
Don’t wait for the final demo or launch to turn on the celebration switch. Every small victory should be celebrated! By way of an example, we recently started experimenting with “Awesome Cards” which are handed out when someone in the team has done something outstanding: tried a new way of presenting to a client, or took initiative in user testing sessions, for example. A demo is a great time to focus on challenges and celebrate how you overcome them. So don’t only focus on the good times.
4. Less meeting, more making
The start of the project is often the most vague phase. The opportunities are out there, but aren’t clearly articulated. Everyone has their own idea of how the product or service should take shape. It’s good to get those thoughts out among the team, but as soon as you feel that discussion is preventing you from making progress, start sketching. Gather around a whiteboard or organise a sketching session with the entire office. The sooner you got those provocations out on paper, the sooner you can start testing them. Discussions will never give you the confidence of knowing whether a route will work or not, but feedback from users will. So get making!
5. Keep motivation up
On some projects, especially longer ones, it can be hard to keep motivation on a high. We do regular catchup sessions with the wider client team, not just to show the progress we made, but also to get them thinking beyond the product we are building. Each phase of work will reveal new learnings, and future opportunities will bubble up. Yes, they might be distracting for the product or service you are building right now, but make sure they don’t get lost! Stick the user’s hints for the future in the team’s Slack channel, and plan a session where you’ll look at the team’s mission in a week, a year or a decade. That’s how you keep the team excited: by constantly looking at what’s next.
At Made by Many, we are continually reinventing the way we work. After every project, each team shares their learnings with the entire company, which helps us get better at the “how”, making sure our process is adapted to the ever-changing method of agile. And now we want to hear from you: how do you guide teams through times of fear and despair?
Let us know!
Made by Many is a new type of consulting company that brings together product design, business strategy and software engineering as a unified discipline. For 10 years we’ve been helping forward-looking companies to re-imagine their customer experiences, create new models for growth and build new capabilities. See our work .