A lot of things in management become clearer when you realize it’s much easier to measure a team’s progress than its state.
A team produces 30 units of “x” in a week. Is this good? Well, we could start by asking what the value of each unit is, or by looking at the contributions of each individual on the team…
Or, we could look at how many units are being produced over time, and whether delivery is getting more (or less) predictable. This will tell us more about the trajectory the group is on. Is the team gelling, working together better, delivering more? Or are members of the team struggling, maybe with a lack of clarity about their mandate, or because they are onboarding new people without the right process in place to support that?
There’s a concept of “self-managing teams,” which I prefer to reframe as “self-improving teams.” Self-improving teams have feedback loops that make getting better over time a team effort; they respond well to failure and learn as much from it as possible, they use estimation as a way to better surface the known—and unknown—unknowns. They invest in collaboration that levels up individuals and the collective.
The question that might emerge from this is, well, if your team does all this on its own, what is the role of the manager? Doesn’t it render you redundant?
Not at all! Instead, it reframes the role of a team leader as someone who enables the team, who acts as an accelerant. It means moving away from the need to control and liberating yourself (and your team) from the feeling that the value you bring comes from the power you have. What it steers you toward is a coaching mindset, and the acceptance that the value you bring is shown best in output and overall team health rather than anything you actively, and obviously, do. This isn’t a natural feeling for most of us; every new manager struggles to let go of the individual work they were doing before, and in which they, presumably, achieved some level of mastery. When your idea of success is closely tied to your own individual performance, it’s difficult to suddenly make other people’s performance your top priority.
Even more experienced managers can find it difficult to enter into the mindset of someone whose main role is to enable the team. Many managers talk about servant leadership, which often just means they are either an ineffective doormat to their team or uncomfortable with the power they have—you can’t be the servant of people you have power over. Even worse are the managers who use this as a reason to abdicate responsibility for the day-to-day of their team, as though responsibility can only be a product of control. They conveniently forget that power without responsibility is a form of sociopathy.
Management styles that work with self-improving teams
The best leaders master multiple leadership styles and know when each is best deployed. They know how to take the hardline of the authoritative stance, when a situation is bad enough that a coercive style is necessary; they know when a team would benefit from someone setting the pace; they know when to optimize for the increased buy-in of the democratic approach and accept the slower progress, or when the team needs an affiliative leader to help them bond. They know when showing up as a collaborator will get the best out of people, and when someone needs a coach.
We all have our go-to style, the default we lean on, but it’s not appropriate for every occasion. The more we can build out capabilities in different styles, authentically, and deploy them regularly, the more versatility we can bring to different situations. The authoritarian leader who suddenly shows up as a coach will not be believed, but the coaching leader who suddenly shows up as authoritarian may not be taken seriously.
The self-improving team is a place for the democratic and affiliative styles, but above all for the manager as coach (and collaborator). Like all good coaches, you will want to ask good questions. Like any good collaborator, you need to be willing to get in there and provide active help.
Incentives and feedback play critical roles
If you want to encourage the creation or progress of self-improving team, the two questions I suggest asking are: What are we incentivizing? And what are the feedback loops?
In almost every situation, you will get the behavior you incentivize. If you say you value feedback, but you silence dissent, you won’t hear what people are thinking. If you say you value simplicity and user experience, but promote people based on complexity, you will get complexity.
The gap between claimed values and actual incentives is organizational hypocrisy. Being clear about incentives and then rewarding the things you want to see is key to making sure teams are aligned. If you want to incentivize collaboration, you can’t evaluate purely on individual metrics. If you want to incentivize honesty, you have to be willing to listen to the things you don’t want to hear. If you want to deliver user value, you need to make sure you recognize that work. Remember: one of the most vital roles for the manager of a self-improving team is to ensure that incentives align with team improvement.
Remember, too, that people only improve consistently if they get feedback, so feedback loops should be 1) tight and 2) positive. This doesn’t just mean feedback on what they can do better—although that is important. Making sure people get consistent feedback and appreciation (an incentive!) for what they are already doing well is crucial. It’s your job as the manager to build and contribute to healthy, productive feedback cycles.
An exercise I’ve been running with several teams lately is to distill their project process. It involves several hours and a vast quantity of Post-its, and starts with the premise that as a team, we want to improve our delivery. Every individual expresses what they consider to be the process of a project, and sees everyone else’s understanding. This gives them implicit feedback that can help them understand what parts of a project they see as most important, and what they are maybe not thinking enough about. Then, we distill everyone’s project process to what we call the “aspirational team process.” Once this is set, I ask the same question: “What part of the project process do you think you would most benefit—as a team—from improving?”
Doing this exercise, especially with teams I don’t work with generally, forces me to come in with less of an opinion and truly embrace the role of facilitator: They have the answers, and my best contribution is listening and running the process. Though I ask every team the same question, it invariably inspires different answers, decisions, and action items. That’s because every team is different: different people, different pressures, different problems. But every team, no matter where they are on their journey, can use a coach who is ready to help them to progress.
Cate Huston is an engineering manager at Automattic, where she has led the mobile and Jetpack teams.