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It’s no secret that in order to succeed, companies must be responsive and resilient to market and world changes. Many, however, struggle to achieve this. Agile ‘transformations’ and investments in DevOps do not always lead to the desired performance or delivery improvements. Instead, these companies suffer from a crisis of disengagement, lackluster performance, and increasingly unhappy customers.

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Why is this? In my experience, while many companies attempt to adopt agile ways of working by implementing new structures and processes, they neglect some key cultural changes that must take place in order to succeed. As a result, there remains an untapped opportunity to improve performance and create a better workplace culture. I recommend leveraging a concept called mission-based teams.

Mission-based teams are made up of a cross-functional group of people working towards the same goal, which prioritizes business outcomes and problem solving. These teams enable companies to provide greater clarity about the work and objectives, while still enabling autonomy. This accelerates decisions, drives improved outcomes and increases employee engagement. While many agile teams are cross-functional, true mission-based teams have a compelling reason to be: to actually ‘move the needle’ by solving a problem or delivering on outcomes.

In this article, I cover the key criteria for successfully establishing these teams, thus leading to a happy, healthy and collaborative organizational culture – one where people are engaged, productive… and working on the things that are actually important. So, if your organization or team is still struggling to see the promised value of Agile, then read onwards.

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Where can you start?

In a nutshell, mission-based teams are very clearly oriented on business results (not features) that are tied to company goals and direction. The teams have authority to deliver on those results within their operating guardrails.

The good news? Many organizations already embrace the idea of cross-functional agile teams. These teams can evolve into being mission-based teams. There are a few things they will need in order to succeed: a compelling mission; the ability to understand the big picture; knowing what success looks like; a clear understanding of how decisions are made; and defined core values and principles.

Define your team’s mission

A true team is not merely a collection of individuals working on their own project – their work is interdependent. The first step is to make sure that everyone is clear about what joint ‘mission’ they are on. Why does the team exist? Who are the customers and inputs for the team? For what customer benefit? What is the team’s goal? What roles are required in order to accomplish objectives? Make these points clear and compelling for everyone. In Google’s research and analysis of high-performing teams, it lists structure & clarity, meaning, and impact are some of the key dynamics needed in order to succeed. Team identity and a clear purpose also drive engagement, allow focus and reduce distractions. Ensuring that your team is aware of its role in accomplishing impactful work will increase collaboration, engagement, productivity, and performance.

Understand how your team fits into the big picture

If your team or organization is struggling to think holistically or understand how their activities fit into the overall customer journey, consider organizing a value stream mapping activity. The goal of a value stream is to produce a particular value for customers. It includes the people, information, and work steps.

Many people think of it as visualizing the process steps, but it is so much more. This should be an in-depth activity that includes the entire team, because the people doing the day-to-day work on the value stream have the best insights. The team collaboratively maps out the current and future states, defines activities and customer end value, whilst understanding the delays, pain points, and how they measure (or will start to measure) success. Ideally, you will find an experienced facilitator who has done this before.

Some benefits of the value stream mapping activity are: a shared understanding of the team's purpose; hearing and understanding challenges that others face in getting their work done; learning to work together to solve problems; uncovering pain points; and a ‘coming-together’ to understand the journey to improvement. It can be transformational for teams – I have seen teams experience a reduction in time to deliver value by up to 70% and engagement increase significantly. For most people, it’s the first time they have seen and can understand the ‘bigger picture’ and the impact that delays and pain points have on customer happiness.

Define what success looks like

Many companies focus on features on a roadmap instead of success measures, problems to solve and actual outcomes. I once encountered a scenario where five teams had spent two years building a new, supposedly ‘game-changing’ product. Six months after the release of this highly-marketed product, they declared they had twelve customers for it (and they weren’t sure how their customers were using it). I asked, “Is this what you expected?” and the answer was, “Well... it’s more than last quarter.” No one had crafted a hypothesis for what ‘customer adoption success’ would look like three, six, twelve months from its release.

Remember that all the customer research in the world will only take you so far – that’s why we should be delivering in small batches to validate our assumptions. Market forces and customer behavior are volatile. We can do some due diligence to make sure we start to work on the right things, but we won’t really know much until those ideas are in customer hands. Start asking questions such as, ‘how will we know if this experiment or feature is successful?’ Find a few easy ways for your team to start to release early and measure customer adoption or other measures, and don’t call it ‘done’ until your team has seen some results.

Examples of outcome-focused metrics:

  • Reduce the time that it takes to install and start using the product by 20% over the next six months
  • Increase the number of customers who are using the product daily to perform X activity by 10% over the next quarter 
  • Reduce customer acquisition costs by 15% over the next quarter

Get clear on how to make decisions 

I find most roles and teams do not have clear decision rights. When decision-making powers are ambiguous, people tend to put off important conversations or have multiple meetings without a clear idea of who or how they will decide. This is not only a waste of time, but also causes disengagement. Most of the focus on decision-making today is still on doling out decision-making responsibilities to individuals rather than working collaboratively as a team. Additionally, structured approaches to gain alignment in a team setting are not often coached or understood, leading people to conclude that group decisions are chaotic and unproductive; must be consensus-based; or lead to the worst outcome possible through compromise. Define key decisions for the team and how you will agree on these, as well as understanding various decision-making techniques.

If you need additional guidance, I have collated information on various structured collaborative decision-making frameworks you can use.

Define core values and principles

Values and principles are used to drive decisions and create culture, and as a result they shape people’s behavior. When a common set of guiding values and principles is established, people better understand how to operate. Run an activity with the team or ideally, the wider organization to align on some core principles. Don’t impose them; co-creation is key! Some examples:

  • Organize around value – the smallest unit of value creation is a team that is empowered to solve customer problems together
  • Do the right thing – we set high standards and stick to them, even in difficult situations
  • Courage – we challenge the status quo in our quest for continuous improvement
  • Differences are our strength – we embrace all forms of difference, allowing each of us to confidently express our authentic selves

Similar to team norms, guiding principles should address ‘who you want to be’ or ‘what are some core beliefs that guide our daily work.’ The core values should align with the mission.

A collaborative journey

The journey to a more collaborative culture obviously means engaging people in the process, and the team should own and be fully involved in these initiatives wherever possible. If activities are imposed top-down on a team, it might initially seem like you’re moving forward, but the change could be short-lived if they are not bought in.

It also might seem appealing to do or fix everything at once. Remember, continuous improvement is a journey without end. Start with one or two things. If you change many things at once, you won’t know what made the difference. Additionally, change initiatives take time and will increase the cognitive load on the team. Make sustainable changes and embed new ways of working in the day to day operations. Start with a hypothesis of the impact the changes will have, and inspect and adapt them along the way.

Conclusion

Instilling some of the concepts for mission-based teams will give people ‘superpowers’ to deliver results. With clear goals, guardrails, principles, and information, a team will feel responsible for their work. They will be able to prioritize, make informed decisions, and deliver outcomes – with a strong identity and ownership that'll go beyond delivery. They’ll have empathy for each other and for customers, take ownership of quality, and have an inspiring and empowering team spirit. The focus will shift from working solely on their own project, to collaborating to solve customer problems. Teamwork improves outcomes in complex product development and increases employee happiness and retention.

I hope I’ve given you some inspiration to encourage a healthy, collaborative culture where people have clarity of purpose, values and principles, decision-making capabilities, an understanding of what outcomes they’re working towards, and how their work fits into the bigger picture. These drive effectiveness, engagement and productivity, leading to improved business results. If you try any of these ideas, feel free to connect with me and let me know how it worked out.

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