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When your team is in the groove it feels like anything is possible. Can we achieve this state through our processes?

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I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly groovy, but I do know what it feels like to be in the groove.

Musicians often talk about being in the groove when playing together, and the same happens for teams working together. Finding your groove enables a state of effortless flow where communication feels seamless and focus feels natural. 

“Flow is an optimal state in which you feel totally engaged in an activity… In a state of flow, you're neither bored nor anxious, and you don't question your own adequacy. Hours pass without your noticing.” – Susan Cain

When a team is in the groove, everyone knows how and where to direct their attention. Everyone’s in the right place at the right time, and it almost feels like you’re reading each other's minds. When you’re in this situation it’s exhilarating, and you and your team feel like anything is possible.

When you’re not in the groove, everything feels difficult. Miscommunication creates tension, decision making becomes painfully slow, and you start to doubt yourself. It’s a recipe for burnout.

I’ve been lucky enough to work on teams where the groove seemed to come naturally, but I’ve also worked on teams where it felt like a constant battle to stay in the groove. The challenge of what it takes to find your groove became an obsession of mine and even influenced my decision to start Range. As I investigated why some teams found their groove while others floundered, I started to better understand how much process plays a role.

Good Process / Bad Process

When you look at high performing teams, one of the things they have in common is a mature set of rituals and routines which provide a rhythm – or drumbeat – that underlies their collaboration and communication. Like a beat that helps dancers stay in sync, this rhythm of work keeps teams aligned and connected.

One of the challenges we face in developing team rituals and routines is that many people in modern workplaces are allergic to process. And for good reason. There’s a history of bureaucratic practices being used to constrain and control workers.

So it’s important to reframe: processes can be both good and bad. Jason Kilar (Hulu, Disney, Amazon) talks about good processes as mechanisms that empower employees and calm organizational stress, and these mechanisms should be embraced readily. In contrast, bad processes – the fuel of bureaucracy – inhibit autonomy and creativity, and should be eliminated whenever they’re encountered.

Let’s look at how to quickly identify and construct a set of mechanisms for your team that will form the backbone of your team’s operational cadence. This will create a foundational rhythm – the groove – that will make you and your team more productive, engaged, and aligned.

Start with needs

It can be tempting to start planning your operational cadence by identifying meetings that need to happen. Meetings are an important part of collaboration, but they’re not the only tool in your toolbelt to solve the collaboration needs of your team, and if you’re not careful you can end up in a situation where people feel overwhelmed, disengaged, and unproductive.

Every process needs to serve a purpose, and it’s important to be explicit upfront about what that purpose is, or you can end up managing processes for the sake of managing processes.

"Good process serves you so you can serve customers, but if you’re not watchful, the process can become the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us?" – Jeff Bezos

So, to start this exercise with a blank slate, write down the various needs you have to satisfy with your operational cadence. Here’s a few examples for an engineering team:

In order to be effective and happy, my team needs to:

  • Understand the purpose of their work and how it fits with the company goals
  • Know what they should work on next
  • Get help from teammates on making decisions and resolving problems
  • Feel psychologically safe and connected with their teammates
  • Get feedback about how they are doing

In order to achieve our SLAs we need to:

  • Monitor and fix bugs reported by customer success team
  • Apply security updates to production instances
  • Respond to bounty hunter emails to [email protected]

My director needs to:

  • Know the status of my projects and how we’re tracking towards goals
  • Understand risks and challenges we’re facing
  • Get a heads up on staffing needs

The customer support team needs to:

  • Know about the status of issues we’ve fixed
  • Be aware of upcoming maintenance
  • Know when new features are launching 

The company needs to:

  • Have awareness about what our team is doing
  • Know how we’re tracking towards our goals
  • Know about open positions available for internal transfer

As you can start to see, when you pull this thread there are many factors you’re having to consider when thinking about the effectiveness of your team. It’s unfortunately all too common to approach teamwork without intention and to just follow your gut. Best case, this leads to organizational debt as ad hoc practices accrue over time. Worst case, this leaves holes unfilled and your team lacking support in certain areas.

Build your rhythm

At this point you may very well be feeling overwhelmed by all the needs you’ve identified. But don’t worry. Things fall into place pretty quickly.

The next step in building your operating cadence is to determine how often you need to be checking in on different needs. Your timeframe and the cadence will be unique to your team, as they are  dependent on both the composition and experience of your team, as well as the type of work you are doing.

An experienced infrastructure team who tends to work on large projects might only need to review the roadmap and priorities once a quarter in order for everyone to know what they should be working on, while a more junior team building frontend features may need to sync a couple of times a week.

Look through the list of needs you identified above and start sketching out how often they need to happen. Should this be daily? A few times a week? Weekly? Every two weeks? Monthly?

Think of this cadence as the default amount of time between behaviors. For example, just because you make time to give people feedback every quarter doesn’t preclude you from doing it at other times.

Identify your mechanisms

Now that you know what needs you have to satisfy, and how frequently they should happen, you can start sketching out the mechanisms you want to deploy.

Ideally, mechanisms that require multiple people and in-person communication should be infrequent and satisfy multiple needs at once. In-person time is very valuable, but it’s also expensive, so you should be sure not to waste it.

As an example, your weekly team meeting could be used to build stronger connections through a short, fun game at the start, as well as for taking time to brainstorm new features or distributing tasks across the team.

When you evaluate needs you may also realize the way you historically solved for that need is no longer necessary. For example, do the status updates you give at your team meeting really keep the team in sync the way they should? Perhaps text-based check-ins prior to the meeting would work better. Or perhaps you’ve been doing daily standups out of habit, but when you think about needing to help your team make decisions or resolve issues with their work, a longer session twice a week might be more impactful.

Write these things down in a doc and schedule recurring calendar events. 

Here’s a sample operating cadence for a small development team:


Monday morning
Support Handoff

Round-robin a “support” role through the team so that one person is responsible for monitoring support tickets, triaging bugs, and handling security emails. 

Monday afternoon
Weekly Briefing

 

Team meeting where we review projects and assign tasks. At our Weekly, we make sure people are unblocked, and also take some time to play an online game or answer a team question.

Wednesday afternoon
Collab Time

Open agenda where teammates can demo work, talk through tech specs, or discuss problems they’re dealing with.

Friday Lunch
Recap

Virtual brown bag lunch with a mini-retro of the week. What went well, what could have gone better, lessons learned. Each week a different team member teaches the team about something they’re interested in.

Daily
Async Check-in

Every teammate checks-in on what they’ve been working on, their plan for the day, and how they are feeling.

Every two weeks
1:1s

Private meetings with each teammate to make sure they have everything they need to be successful, to answer their questions, help put their work in context, and discuss their career goals.

Monthly
OKR Review

In-person meeting where the team goes deep on metrics and reviews the current state of each objective. Result of the meeting enough information to share with the company.

Monthly
Progress Report

Provide our Director with a summary of the team’s work via email. CC the customer success team so they can be kept up to date on changes.

Monthly
Process Review

Look at the mechanisms we’re currently using as a team. Identify informal or ad hoc processes that should be formalized. Identify processes that are no longer serving their needs effectively. What should be changed?



Humming along

This exercise may seem daunting and like a lot of effort, but once it’s in place you’ll see that it streamlines a lot of things and frees up your mind to focus on more novel things: things that require deep analytical insight or creativity. 

Create a living document for your operating cadence, and evolve it over time. Spell out things that need to happen, who is the responsible party, and when to expect different activities to occur. Making sure that everyone is aware of the purpose of a process helps everyone have a sense of shared ownership. This in turn leads to agency amongst the whole team to optimize what keeps them in the groove, and do away with what doesn’t.

This clarity will help your team, and the rhythm you create will leave you feeling more connected, more aligned, and more in sync. Not only will you find your groove, but you’ll get better and better at keeping it over time.