How to find and implement a team improvement technique of your dreams. Or not.

I guess it’s the imperative of our times - to constantly evolve and improve or you’re somehow left behind. We have more possibilities for self-development than any of the previous generations and it seems wasteful not to use them. Especially in the workplace, where personal ambitions are accompanied by economic perspectives. The constant growth is encouraged not only on a personal level but also the organizational one. Nevertheless, there are limitations in the road to perfection and that’s mainly human IMperfection and, annoyingly, time. No wonder most advice for project management revolves around these two aspects and how to overcome them or make the most (the absolute most) of the resources we have. This, or we’re left in the battlefield for the crows’ feast. Cheers.

team improvement technique

“If you don’t name it, it doesn’t exist”

Ok, so you feel like your team’s time is slipping through the fingers. Eight hours pass and it’s hard to say what they were spent on. Or maybe it’s difficult to reach any constructive conclusion meeting after meeting and it’s becoming increasingly frustrating. Surely, there must be a better way. They can’t work like this at Google. So you google (ha) your problems to see how others cope and you are in the methods and techniques heaven. And they all seem to have names like “5 mugs technique” or “Grains of sand method”. Yes, I made them up, but they might as well be real - “Everyone takes one mug each day and the person who gets a yellow mug is the Negotiator for a day and the person with the blue one…”. That kind of technique. So you read through them, check every fancy sounding title, see what are the rules, what kind of gadgets you need, and what kind of projects they apply to. It is hard to decide really, so you go to the opinion pieces. The reviews are mixed, they always are. The main rules for me are:

  • Avoid anything too complicated - no one has the time or patience to learn about 20 roles or 100 steps, even if it sounds promising.
  • A red flag goes to the techniques that require fancy gadgets, as they usually become the center of attention instead of the actual goal of the technique.
  • Last but not least, think about the personality of your team members. If you look at the description and your gut tells you “there’s no way they’re going to engage” but your mind goes “ha, that’s why they should try!”, just listen to your gut. A little step out of the comfort zone is great but anything closer to a leap is a deal breaker in a work environment. A respect for other people’s boundaries will take you further than any trust building technique. You can always start with something simple and then switch to a more demanding idea when the time is right.

“Honey, we need to talk”

Let’s say you decide that the “5 mugs technique” is the best fit. It addresses the problems you seem to have and sounds like fun. Who doesn’t like mugs?

If this technique is to be applied for the whole team, you need to communicate it somehow. Do you just go to your colleagues and say “Hey, I would like to use this cool technique called 5 mugs now to motivate you guys a bit because you don’t work effectively enough”? If in doubt, always think about a more casual situation. Imagine your girlfriend or boyfriend comes up to you and says “Honey, I found this new cool technique to motivate you because you’re lazy”. I can’t say for everyone, but this kind of statement is a bit disengaging to begin with. Nobody likes to be a subject of even the coolest technique that simultaneously suggests there is something wrong with him. If you work as a team, everyone is responsible for the way you work and just blaming others is unfair. That’s also what the retrospectives are for, when everyone can express their feelings democratically. Hopefully, this is what you’ve done already.

So now if you really want to apply the “5 mugs technique” it might be better to just say honestly “Hey folks, I feel we agree that we might need to shake things up a bit, let’s try something new - see, I have these 5 mugs here…”. Even though the authors of such techniques need to pick a catchy name, you don’t have to use it. You don’t have to go all informative about who made it, when etc. as it can even make people drift off and lose interest. Just go on, show your teammates what’s so interesting and cool about it.

“But I don’t have a yellow mug”

It might be that your new super cool technique calls for a penguin mascot or a yellow mug that you don’t really have. And while the mug colour seems to be easy to replace, sometimes it’s not that obvious. Would it still work if we don’t use the Negotiator role because we don’t seem to need one? Can we use this technique even if we don’t have a cork board and will have to do it with some online tool?

If you like the method then just go on and try. There’s usually no Board Of Techniques that will come up and start yelling at you for doing things differently (unless there’s this guy in your team who thinks he’s the Board Of Techniques member. Sorry.).

Adapt, see how things go and then adapt some more. The goal here is to help you and your team - not to get a badge of approval from the (again, non-existent) Board Of Techniques.

… there is no mug

Sometimes it turns out that it was this technique you all needed. That switching these mugs really opened you up to different perspectives. That measuring your task in the grains of sand helped you to estimate better. And maybe you had to tweak a thing or two but in the end it really helped.

And sometimes it just doesn’t work. Because it felt weird and unhygienic to switch the mugs. Or the grains of sand were really Fibonacci numbers in disguise… or the problem is much deeper than any project management technique can reach.

And then, what is left is the ultimate, unnamed technique - listen and talk. Because no technique can help if the real problems are left unsaid. If you don’t check what is causing the issues, it will always be very difficult to choose the right tools.

That being said, I love a good agile technique - like the retrospective games that can help to change the perspective and get some new conclusions (4Ls, Starfish, Ship to name a few), the ones for estimating (t-shirts or dogs sizes) or brainstorming (the 7 hats method, where you don’t really need a hat). They are fun and helpful. Use these techniques more as a support for the overall approach rather than a magic potion that will fix any problem.

Choose whatever feels right for your team. However ridiculous it sounds. For some teams it would be great fun if they actually had to dress up for the scrum meetings and for some these poor 5 mugs would be too much. Embrace the imperfection, accept the time limits and see how you can all do the best you can.

And as I’m reaching the conclusion - it seems that most blog posts I write end in the same way. Smart and efficient is not enough. Be empathetic and kind. ‘Till the day you die. Thank you.