#31 - Keeping morale up
Plus: Keeping stakeholders up to date remotely; 8 leadership myths; A framework for technical management; Debugging technical team velocity; Psychological safety in virtual teams
Our AMA - Ask Managers Anything - last time was “How are you keeping morale up during these challenging times”? We got a couple of answers:
I’ve been doing basically the same communications work I did before but more of it - focussing on the big picture vision (which the team really cares about), lots of listening in one-on-ones and keeping an eye on slack. Early on we tried some team lunches (ordered delivery for everyone) and a couple team happy hours, and they were fine I guess but didn’t seem to move the needle.
So, no surprise: one-on-ones, starting always with “How’s things?” which generally gets a non-work answer to start. Team morale has been good, even when challenged by children at home but in school (March - June), remote training […], vacations to nowhere, remote family illnesses, etc. I encouraged the staff to meet on the clock for up to half an hour twice weekly (Tuesdays, Friday) in the afternoons after meetings were over to recreate the office environment of banter without the boss (me) in the room. Others have virtual hangouts as a team WITH the boss and I hear they’re not enjoyed much; I wonder if the presence of the manager has something to do with it. Our staff meeting is fairly casual (but with an agenda and rough internal schedule stated up front), so the staff and I are together then and it’s not “formal” but it is work.
There’s definitely been a ramp-up on the importance of routine communication. I also really like the manager-free virtual hangouts idea, I think that would have a better chance of being successful, maybe I should try that instead. When I was in grad school there was a graduate student seminar series where profs were banned - grad students welcome, even senior postdocs were a little iffy - and it completely changed the dynamics.
We haven’t gotten any new AMA questions for a bit, so unless we get more submissions, this will be the last one for a while:
“For non-embedded teams, what do you do to keep researcher clients / stakeholders up to date on progress of work?”
This is really interesting, there’s been a tonne of conversation about communications within teams in our newly distributed world but less about communications with stakeholders.
My experience is that senior stakeholders are even harder to get “together” all at once for a call than they used to be. I’m trying something new now, putting together some status materials and questions, circulating it, then offering one-on-one discussions on the status with the stakeholders - and only once that’s done bringing people together for short conversations. It’s more of my time (though not that much more – many don’t take me up on the one-on-one) but it seems like it actually works and it makes the “everyone-on-one-call” discussion much more effective.
What have other people been doing? Reply to this email and with your permission I’ll share an anonymized excerpt with all the readers; and feel free to submit a new question.
Now, on to the roundup!
Being a Manager
8 Leadership Myths Every Manager Should Know About - Kate Dagher A bit basic for long time readers, but it may be useful to send new managers (or someone you’re growing towards management), and it’s always useful for us to remind ourselves of the basics.
Of the below, I’m still working on not leading everyone the same way, and bringing others into the spotlight. Even though I know intellectually those are the right approaches I still tend to use my default settings on all my team members when busy, and take on a lot of leadership-y tasks like giving talks myself.
A position will make me a leader
If I am not hearing anyone complain, everyone must be happy
I can lead everyone the same way
Leaders must be extroverts
Leaders can’t show vulnerability
Leaders have all the answers
Great leaders are always in the spotlight
Great leaders are born, not made
A simple framework for software engineering management - Andrei Gridnev
This post describes a nice simple approach to structuring thinking about software development management; three categories of responsibilities
People management - hiring, team member career development, ensuring people are content and engaged with their work
Delivery leadership - execution on delivering new work or changes
Technical system ownership - maintaining the technical systems under your stewardship
and then labelling priority areas under each responsibility with
issues - things that need to be changed
ok - things going well but should still be monitored
ideas/aspirations - things that you’d like to try or change in the future
That makes for a simple “dashboard” of things to keep your efforts focussed on in a simple three-by-three chart:
Does anyone have a similar framework for keeping high-level track of things? I may actually try something like this at the start of each week to keep my focus through the week as things get busy.
Debugging engineering velocity and leading high-performing teams - Smruti Patel, LeadDev
This article talks about debugging productivity problems (defined as seen from outside your team) with your software development organization. First off is to identify that the problem exists:
Are you hearing discontentment or lack of engagement in your regular 1:1s?
Does the team feel unsure of the impact they are driving?
Are you seeing unexpected or regretted attrition on your team?
Is the broader organization questioning the value of your team?
Is your team feeling stagnant, in terms of growth and recognition?
Second is to make sure the issue is that you’re doing the right things:
Alignment, between your team and the larger org, or within your team
Prioritization - is the team prioritizing things correctly?
Finally, if it’s true that you are, to focus on the execution.
Focus - is the team doing too much? Should you reduce the amount of WIP?
Are there things that need to be unblocked - whether technical, with people, or their tools?
Would smaller iterations work better?
How to Foster Psychological Safety in Virtual Meetings - Amy C. Edmondson and Gene Daley, HBR
We’ve talked a few times about the importance of getting everyone to contribute their ideas, including - and especially! - dissenting ideas. Edmondson and Daley point out that some of the tools we’re using all the time now make it especially easy to do that, whether it’s by asking for “hands up” or “yes/no” (green check/red x) indicators, or - and I think this is a really good idea - having polls which aren’t just yes no but, e.g., “on a scale of 1-5”. Polls are nice because they can be anonymous but let everyone chime in. Chat and breakout rooms are also mentioned, as are suggestions as where audio works best and where video works best.
We’re using these tools constantly now anyway, we may as well use some of their features to make sure that everyone gets to make their contribution. Team members will feel more engaged and we will be getting valuable input.
Managing Your Own Career
Expiring vs. Permanent Skills - Morgan Housel
This is a nice way to think about the distinction between the technical skills we started our careers with and those we’re trying to develop as managers. Our technical skills - whether it’s coding or systems work on the computer side, or domain expertise on the science side - degrade over time, and a lot of work has to go in to keep them current. The management skills we’re building - stakeholder engagement, working with team members, large-scale prioritization, planning, and strategy - are more or less permanent. There’s no future where those skills won’t be valuable, and there’s very few jobs we could end up finding ourselves in where they wouldn’t be useful to us and to those around us.
This is also a good reason why it’s important to make sure that those of our team members who are interested in developing those skills have us or someone else available to help coach them in those skills. A vital part of our job as managers and leaders is to grow more managers and leaders.
Hadn’t seen this when it came out - mini-conf is a simple but pretty complete setup for virtual conference.