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If building a great team is the question, technology is not the answer

In this post Tess, one of our product managers, shares her thoughts on why making a great team takes more than technology, after giving a talk on the same subject

In this post Tessa, one of our product managers, shares her thoughts on why making a great team takes more than technology, after giving a talk on the same subject at the Canvas Conference in Birmingham.

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Tessa giving her original talk in Birmingham

Technology is invented to make our lives easier, to make us happier and in many ways bring humans closer together. But sadly, whilst technology can help us to solve problems, it can also create them. And instead of questioning our relationship with technology we simply layer on more, in an attempt to solve these new problems.

Ultimately we have reached a point where many of us have become so reliant on technology, that instead of thinking about the human beings we all are and how we work together, we get hung up on our technology, tools and processes.

As a product manager at FutureLearn, I am a huge advocate of technology and believe it can help to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems like access to education. But I also believe it’s my responsibility as a technologist to step away from the race to adopt new tools and technology and spend time with my team face to face to really make sure we’re a success.

Here are just a few examples of challenges teams can often face, and some examples of where I’ve seen technology fail and human interaction succeed.

I want my team to make progress

A mistake I’ve seen many teams make when it comes to running projects is that they automatically look to tools that track progress. The likes of Jira, Pivotal and Trello all promise to help with this but they can often end up being slowing any real progress as people gets stuck writing stories, estimating stories and making sure tickets are up to date.

I’ve found that in order for a team to be productive face-to-face discussion is vital. This is baked into agile methodologies with activities such sprint review and sprint retrospectives but there are other things I’ve done with teams that have really helped in the past.

One example is from when I worked with a large team at Comic Relief who seemed to have a lot of worries holding them back. To help tackle this I asked everyone at standup to say one thing that was preoccupying them, either work-related or from a personal perspective. I noted these worries down on post-it notes and after stand up handed each post-it note to a different member of the team and asked them to help fix it. Some team members went and resolved the issue immediately, others spent time chatting to the other person to understand more about their concern. It encouraged the team to understand one another and proactively help one another to solve problems.

I want my team to be empowered

I’ve underlined be here because I often hear people say they want their team to ‘feel empowered’. Lots of technology has been created to make teams ‘feel’ empowered but all too often this technology avoids the underlying question: how do you actually empower teams to take ownership and act on things?

Tools like Prodpad or Trello can help your team to feel empowered through having the ability to vote on features and ideas for instance, but unless action follows this, they’re not really empowered.

Actually empowering your team usually comes down to giving them the decision making power. There are small, simple ways you can do this i.e. if a team member asks you “what should I do?”, instead of responding with your own choice you can respond with “what do you think you should do?”.

9 times out of 10 they’ll already have the answer to this question. And their solution will often be better than yours as they have more context and understanding of the detail. This particular technique and how to use it to empower teams is well illustrated by Dave Marquet.

I want my team to collaborate

One of the biggest problems facing teams: ensuring effective collaboration. There are plenty of studies that sing the praises of collaboration so of course there has been a whole host of technology invented to help your team collaborate.

One example many teams often jump to is Google Drive. I’m a huge advocate for tools such as Google Drive, it makes tasks like getting feedback on blog posts and other documents much easier rather than going back and forth over emails. However, I worry that many teams have become too reliant on tools like this. Collaboration isn’t a series of comments on a google doc.

In our team we try to encourage face to face collaboration around a whiteboard to get to the bottom of problems. Doing something physical not only helps people who learn by doing to understand the problem but it gets everyone away from their desk and distractions. It means the team learnt quickly how to have frank conversations and offer difficult feedback face to face.

I want to know when my team have a problem

One final example of companies turning too quickly to technology is when they’re trying to understand if teams are struggling. Most companies have introduced survey tools to enable them to take a ‘company pulse’ on a regular basis, meaning they often see the data, but miss the people behind it.

This is why developing two key abilities in your team is crucial. The first is the ability to listen carefully, and with empathy.  This way people are able to anticipate problems and catch them early. The second is the ability to speak candidly and constructively face to face. By removing your laptop and phone shield you’re forced to really consider the other person’s situation.

You can encourage this behaviour is by setting an example. I try to be as honest as possible with my own team and I will tell them if I’m struggling to get my head around things, I will tell them if I’m frustrated by something that our CEO has said (and I will tell him too). I will even tell them if there is something going on at home that is making it hard to concentrate at work. By doing this my team know I will tell them if there is something they need to know and they learn to feel comfortable in doing the same.

Final thoughts

In order to create productive, successful, happy teams we must stop using technology as a comfort blanket. We must all make a concerted effort to turn our heads away from our computers and really start listening to one another. We must remember that at the end of the day it is the humans within the team and how they interact with one another that are essential for overcoming problems.

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