Jun 17

If you could narrow down the team leader's role to one sentence, what would it be?

Try asking your manager what they think your role is. They may say something like "make sure team members are doing their job". If you're lucky, they may even suffice with "make sure the team releases high quality products on time". Fair enough, both are components of a successful team. But I believe there is a principle that encompasses both of these and many other components that make a team successful. And it's a more positive principle to boot.

This is my answer:

Team leadership is all about making work fun for your team

The premise is simple: If the work activity is fun, people will do it in the best possible way. This includes quality, reliability and crucially but often overlooked, sustainability.

Now when I talk about fun in the work place it may conjure a mental image of playstations at the lounge and free beer on the tap. Those things are definitely nice (and I wish I had some of them in my office..) but I am of course talking about making the activity of working itself as fun as possible, rather than the peripherals of it.

The components of fun

Fun is by no means a simple thing. It is only due to the fact that it is actually a very involved task to make work fun that I can make the premise that this is what your job is mostly about. By striving to make work fun for your team you will derive almost every process, action and decision you make as a team leader.

Fortunately, fun is not only a powerful managerial concept, it's also an easy to remember acronym!

F is for motiFation (motivation in American English)

Motivation is the internal drive to do and complete the work without being coerced. We're obviously starting off with a tough one.

Workplace motivation is scarcely a new topic of concern. There has been academic research diving into the psychology of workplace motivation that we can look up and gain inspiration from. My favorite model is the Self Determination Theory. This theory identifies three needs that support or detract from people's motivation: Autonomy, competence and relatedness.

From a work perspective, Autonomy refers to the sense of ownership over one's work and project. The more you feel you are a part of making decisions and calls that determine the project's future, the more you feel ownership towards it. Inversely, the more you follow someone else's plans and the less input you have, the more detached you feel. Generally speaking, detachment reduces motivation while ownership enhances it.

Competence refers to the need to feel effective in the work environment. That can mean personal competence (aka software skillz), or organizational competence (a work environment that isn't bogged down by bureaucracy, hierarchy or overzealous management).

Relatedness refers to the need to feel a part of a group, both on the team level and on the department/company level.

Combining these three, SDT claims that an employee that is trusted to use their brains to achieve a task, within a framework of colleagues they can trust and rely on, within a context of a company that will not let their effort sink into a swamp of bureaucracy and apathy, will have a very conductive environment to being motivated and invested in their work.

If you take anything from this article, fun and motivation are already incredibly powerful and deep topics to explore.

U is for clUrity (aka Clarity)

Clarity is knowing exactly what is expected of you to achieve, so that when you finish your work there is very little chance of "oh, you did X? I actually meant Y". On top of that, clarity also means a coherent near future roadmap, where you can see how what you're doing right now is a piece that will perfectly fit in the larger puzzle.

The premise here is that ambiguity is demoralizing and clarity is driving. Having a firm grasp of where we are, where we want to go, and exactly what it takes to get there is very energizing. However, a team whose finish line is as predictable as the file copy dialog can easily slide from motivation to frustration.

Scrum offers great abstraction for creating clarity with stories, epics and themes. The Product Owner is in charge of Epics and Themes, and meets weekly with the team to go over the epics and make sure they are complete, understood and well prioritized. Then the team is in charge of stories, which break down the implementation details of epics. An epic is made out of about 2 to 5 stories, and a theme is made out of 20 to 30 epics more or less (for my team. Mileage may vary). When we deal with the present moment of the team we look at the story level, and when we look at the near future of the team we ignore the stories and look at the epics.

N is for communicatioN

The oil in the cogs of your team is open and honest communication. Communication that assumes trust and respect for each other. Holding grievances inside isn't fun. Feeling that there is no address for problems is demotivating. The more team members feel like they can be themselves with each other and you, the more things will gel. Good communication makes for positive interactions, shorter meetings, and a fundamental feeling of being a part of something bigger. On the flip side, everything falls apart when people feel the need to be dishonest or unpleasant. Small issues escalate. People get defensive and entrenched.

As a team leader it is in your power to cultivate healthy team communication, and you can do this by leading by example: Be vulnerable and honest with your team, the same way you'd want them to be with you. The more you put yourself out there and the more honest you are with your team mates the more you will be slashing a path for them to dare do the same. Therefore put your ego aside and jump on opportunities to ask stupid questions, to point out the good, the bad and the ugly (in a respectful manner of course).

Honesty is both freeing and infectious; when your colleagues see that you don't mind admitting your lack of knowledge, your mistakes, and are honest about everything, they will gradually follow suit.

Fun obsession

In this article I listed what I see right now as the most important components of making the work experience fun, but there are other components, and you may value some more highly than I do. That's perfectly fine; above and beyond theories, opinions and principles, you should trust your own instinct for what works for your team and what doesn't. Get used to asking yourself, with every decision you make, "Is this good for the company?"

No. That's not it. What I meant to say is, with every decision you make, ask yourself

"Will this make work more fun for my team?"

In every retrospective meeting I ask my team "what made work less fun this sprint?" and "what made work more fun this sprint?". I developed a habit to notice and write down instances during our workdays where I feel like something didn't go smoothly for one of us or all of us. Later I bring these up in the retrospective and see how others experienced it. I guess it wouldn't be a stretch to say that I see my role best served when I obsess about making work fun for my team. Everything else is simply the implementation detail.

Please let me know in the comments of what components of fun you value highly!

One Response for "A fun approach to team leadership"

  1. Vivi says:

    I really like this article. Interesting way of calling it stories and epics for SCRUM. I like that. Also the habit of checking with the team what was and wasn't so fun. (Which of course works better once you've reached a certain level of trust and comfort with the team members.
    Just would like to provide my humble point of view that motivation is not internal but rahter external. Internal drive to me means inspiration. And when people do things based on inspiration, it will be more meaningful to them and usually longer lasting. To me, motivation comes from outer factors such as rewards (salary, bonus..) and respect.
    Besides, I'd like to add the importance of allowing mistakes and even encouraging them for the higher purpose of learning. I worked at Booking.com and they seemed very good at this principle, which I appreciated and my IT friends definitely seems to as well.
    Also, I would love to recommend the book "Leaders Eat Last". I haven't finished it yet but it has taught me a lot. :]

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