Team Turnaround: Getting the best from your Product & Engineering teams.

Creating an effective turnaround strategy for a failing engineering team is crucial for Product Leaders, CEOs, and CFOs. Such a strategy not only revitalises the team but also aligns it with the organisation's objectives.

1. Acknowledge the Issue

The first step in turning around a failing engineering team is to acknowledge the problem. Leaders must conduct an honest assessment of the team's performance, identify the root causes of underperformance, and be prepared to address them directly. This might involve difficult conversations and decisions, such as restructuring the team or changing leadership roles, but it is essential for setting the stage for improvement.

It's important to understand that these difficult conversations might be at a leadership level, for example:

  • Micromangement, leads to demotivation
  • Lack of clear goals and kpi's leads to misalignment
  • Not playing together, building fiefdoms or popularty contests between departments and teams causes signifcant friction

2. Define Clear and Achievable Goals

Setting clear, achievable goals is vital. These should be aligned with the company's strategic objectives and broken down into short-term milestones and long-term targets. SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals are particularly effective in providing direction and motivation. Engage the team in the goal-setting process to ensure buy-in and commitment.

I personally believe that many organisations get caught up in the ceremony of OKR's or the Rockerfeller habits, because they believe they should be using them. At the end of the day, setting one simple goal and objective for a team to meet and be measured on is better than spending weeks getting wrapped up in planning bureaucracy.

3. Measure Success Accurately

To track the turnaround progress, establish key performance indicators (KPIs) that reflect the team's contributions to the company's goals. These might include metrics related to product quality, delivery timelines, budget adherence, and innovation. Regularly review these metrics with the team, and adjust strategies as necessary to ensure continuous improvement.

4. Foster a Positive Team Dynamic

Team dynamics play a crucial role in the success of any turnaround effort. Leaders should strive to build a culture of open communication, mutual respect, and collaboration. Encourage team members to share their ideas and concerns, and ensure that everyone feels valued and understood. Regular team-building activities can also help strengthen relationships and improve morale.

5. Invest in Professional Development

Investing in the team's professional development is essential for long-term success. This might include training programmes, workshops, and opportunities for further education. Encouraging continuous learning and development not only enhances the team's skills but also boosts motivation and job satisfaction.

I particularly like >SkillerWhale's model of helping engineers and leaders level-up as a team, and have rolled this out at a number of startups and scale-ups.

6. Implement Agile Practices

I personally loath the term "Agile" however, adopting agile practices can significantly improve the team's flexibility, efficiency, and productivity just through having a framework of rules and regulations to buy into and align with.

Agile methodologies, such as Scrum or Kanban, promote continuous improvement, adaptability, and collaboration. Implementing these practices requires careful planning and may involve training sessions, but the benefits in terms of team performance and product quality can be substantial.

Embracing Shape Up

Shape Up, developed by 37 Signals/ is designed to address some of the common pitfalls of traditional agile practices, such as never-ending work cycles and the lack of tangible progress in projects. Its approach is characterised by several key principles and practices:

Shape Up diverges from traditional agile by emphasising fixed cycles of work (typically six weeks long) followed by a two-week "cool-down" period. This structure aims to provide clear focus and deadlines, reducing scope creep and fostering a sense of accomplishment.

Betting Table: Instead of a traditional backlog, projects are chosen through a "betting" process, focusing on strategic decision-making about which projects are most valuable to pursue in the next cycle.

Shaping: Projects are "shaped" before they begin, defining rough outlines, scope, and goals to provide enough clarity for teams to start work, yet leaving room for creativity and problem-solving.

Building Within Boundaries: Teams work within the defined scope but have autonomy in how to achieve goals, encouraging ownership and accountability.

Breadboarding and Fat Marker Sketches: These tools help visualise and agree on core components and interactions early on, de-risking projects by addressing potential issues upfront.

While agile practices, including Scrum, Kanban, and Shape Up, offer frameworks for improving team performance, the choice of methodology should align with your team's needs, project requirements, and organisational culture

7. Lead by Example

Finally, leadership is key to any successful turnaround. Leaders must demonstrate commitment, resilience, and a positive attitude. Be transparent about the challenges and progress, and show appreciation for the team's efforts. Your leadership style can inspire and motivate the team to achieve their full potential.