Team-Building: The Human Factor and Basic Risks

27 junio
Artur Litvinsky, Project Manager, DataArt
Team-Building: The Human Factor and Basic Risks
I’ve been in IT for the last five years, and over that time I’ve coordinated projects with various technologies, wide geographic coverages, and scales of all sizes, from 100 to 50,000 users.

Let me start with a disclaimer, since the human factor in IT (just like outside of IT) is one of the most “holy war” topics up for discussion. Here we have both the most important risk factors, and a huge field of possibilities. I’m skeptical about anyone’s claims at being objective in this matter. Therefore, I’ll speak about my own personal experience and the decisions that helped me personally. I don’t consider them to be a panacea, and I can’t guarantee that they’ll work everywhere and any time.

I’m going to speak about one of the segments of project risks that is directly connected with people and their human qualities, personal motivations, etc. The questions and advice mentioned in this article are universal for the most part, which means they work for a 5th grade middle school class, just as well as for a team of miners at the bottom of a hole, or for your Agile/Waterfall-team. The main thing is that we’re talking about a group of people who are all working on the same thing.

Key Risks

I arbitrarily divided the conversation about each of the most probable risks into three parts: how the risk is expressed, how it influences the team, and most importantly, how to avoid it (or how to minimize it).

Toxic People

Any person who has a negative influence on the team can be considered toxic. This toxicity can express itself in various ways:

  • Procrastination. Everything’s clear here: an employee doesn’t do anything, constantly putting off important decisions and work. This kind of person isn't always toxic to others, however, when people procrastinate to the extreme, it negatively influences the productivity of other members of the team or the team as a whole.
  • Whining. The employee is constantly unsatisfied about something or other, and with no reason at all. Such an employee can find problems anywhere. Seven years ago I worked at an American factory that made oil well drilling equipment, and I had a subordinate who was an extremely professional employee. However, each morning he walked around the office, complaining to each one of his colleagues about how unfair life was, and explaining to each person how difficult it was for him to get all his work done in an eight-hour workday. Eventually, when everyone got tired of listening to him, I forbade him to ruin other people’s mood, and told him to come with all his complaints directly to me. And that’s what he did. My mornings became less pleasant, but once he whined and complained to me, he worked extremely well all day long.
  • Work-to-rule. An employee or a group of employees can work in strict formal compliance with their job descriptions, yet with extremely low results. In other words, “I work from 9 to 6 strictly as per my formalized work instructions, and no more than that.” It’s very difficult to fight against work-to-rule, since the employee tries to fulfill the official work demands, and formally there is nothing that can be said against this person.
  • Passive-Aggressive behavior. Such employees have constant conflicts, often with no reason, even in totally normal work situations. This person has inadequate responses to regular situations, and is always arguing.
  • Toxic person on the client end. This topic deserves a whole separate article. I suspect that this is one of the worst options that many of us run into. There are basically no ready-made solutions to these situations, and it’s very hard to give general advice

Any one of these scenarios can demotivate and slow down a team, making other team members toxic as well. In the end, in extreme cases, such situations can destroy the team if there isn’t an adequate reaction on the part of the team or the management.

What can I do about it?

  • Try to influence potentially dangerous (toxic, aggressive, lazy, etc.) people when you hire them or when you include them in your team. This is extremely difficult to do however, because people sometimes successfully pretend to be different than they are in real life. A candidate can seem really pleasant, and may work very well for some time, but then his or her behavior can change completely. At the same time, not every person whom you’re dissatisfied with is really toxic by nature. Try to figure out what happened and why this person changed for the worse. Often people like this need some help.
  • The next item will be repeated again and again: talk to people! Don’t avoid meeting with your employees one-on-one, and try to learn from them and understand their motives and their situation. Sometimes understanding the cause of the problem is already enough for you to be able to solve it.
  • Try to protect your team from having to listen to excessive whining and constant complaints. Remember how I got my whiny colleague at the factory to complain only to me? You’ll have to resort to this method of isolating the colleague if the person really is necessary to your team for their professional abilities, even though they ruin the lives of those around. You have to keep a constant eye on this person, because if a super professional becomes toxic to the whole team, then, sad as it is, you’re better off taking this person out of the team, or isolating him or her. Even if it will be hard for you without this person’s talents, often there is more harm than good from such a person.

Fractioning (internal split)

There’s nothing wrong with natural division among different members of the team. Developers will always be closer to other developers, and testers will stick together too. Often this not only doesn’t interfere with the normal work of the team, but even contributes to the team’s effectiveness, and saves a lot of time.

“Us” against “them”

However, unhealthy fractioning and fighting definitely won’t bring anything good to the team. Your team has problems if there is friction or confrontation between groups within the team. If you heard a phrase like: “We’re still working, but they run out the door at six-thirty as if the fire alarm went off,” or “We end up having to work extra just to cover them”, then this is a clear manifestation of an unhealthy “us” versus “them” situation.

Bullying

The modern IT world is generally a friendly place to work, but unfortunately bullying can happen here too. Open conflicts or quiet persecution of one colleague by another must be stopped immediately, strictly, and at the very root of the problem. Otherwise there will be all-around stress and problems that you can’t avoid.

What can I do about it?

  • Understand what the problem is. There’s only one recommendation here (I already told you it was coming again and again) — you have to talk with people. With each person individually, in fact. Sometimes, in an acute stage of the problem coming from someone on your team, you have to hold such face-to-face meetings once a week, or even every other day. In my experience, I try to "take readings" once every month and a half on average.
  • If the team has grown, and there’s tension because of this, perhaps the team should simply be divided into two or more groups / sub-teams, thereby reducing the regular communication between groups.
  • Spend time together outside of work, and plan team building as regular events. Sometimes a conversation in a pub can resolve a long-standing conflict between colleagues who previously didn’t cross paths at the workplace.
  • Reform your team if no other methods help. Sometimes you can change the team management, or the order of tasks, or simply rearrange people inside the team, by changing their roles.

How can I increase my chances of success?

  1. Try to get external expert opinions in complicated situations when you have even the slightest doubts about your own work experience. Even if there is no People Manager position in your company, there is probably an HR, DM, AM or other experienced manager whom you can consult with.
  2. Give it a shot. Sometimes you can reform the team in a test mode, and try different configurations using minimal time and resources, in order to resolve a specific case. If your idea doesn’t work, everything can be turned back the way it was.

How can I evaluate my results?

It’s very hard to set separate KPI for team satisfaction. But you still need to understand if people are happy with the team (yes, I'm talking about conversations again!). The key indicator of whether you are working successfully or not, including in terms of people management, is whether your project or product is successful. In the end, it's not about friendship or vacationing together, but about work.

Professional burnout

People with high productivity and motivation often face the problem of getting burnt out at work. If you don’t pay attention to the problem for a long time, then productivity declines, and apathy, or sometimes even serious health problems, appears. People start to view their job as being purely formal, or they simply leave their position.

I worked with an amazing HR director in one American company. She was just a super professional. She built all kinds of internal processes, and created an excellent team. Five years later she was invited to supervise several regions for a large international corporation, but the owner of the company where we worked did everything to stop her from going. He even promised her a share in the company's ownership, and in the end she decided not to leave. However, many years of fatigue and the break down that happened inside her as a result of all these conceivable and unthinkable persuasions and exhortations completely changed her. She wasn’t even half the specialist she used to be. She was burnt out, and broken down. She worked for the company for just three or four more months after that.

Situations like this have a great influence on the whole team. Therefore, a leader should be able to let go of even very necessary people if it’s time for them to leave and make a radical change in their life.

What should I do?

  • Figure out as soon as possible when a person is getting burnt out. Usually even serious problems can be resolved just by changing the project, or the person’s role in the company, or even as simply as by changing the person’s tasks within one and the same project. You can even just try moving the person to a different table, or offering a larger monitor.
  • Manage people’s expectations. You can’t promise what you can’t give, or don’t intend to give. If a colleague is waiting for something for a whole year and doesn’t get it, no matter whether it’s a serious wage increase or a new mouse – this will really get a person down. You need to know what the members of your team are waiting for.
  • Forced vacation. There are workaholics who will come to work even if they’re sick or completely unable to do something because of fatigue. They may get angry, or they may say that their presence is very important, but if you see that there’s no sense in them being at work, then send them home (or on vacation). At least for a couple days. Everybody will be better off this way, trust me.
  • Be ready to let go of even the best person in the team when the time comes for this.

Resistance to change

Probably we’ve all faced the unwillingness of a team leader or specific individuals to do something in a new way. Maybe you’ve even had this feeling yourself. Why change it if it doesn’t need to be fixed? Unfortunately, if we had followed this principle, we’d still be chasing wooly mammoths with stone clubs today.

Here’s a standard story: after particularly objectionable or inconvenient innovations are implemented, everyone continues working like they did before. Furthermore, everyone is talking about why the proposed changes won’t work. If a team is accustomed to working with a certain method, process or rules, it will very often defend these as being the only correct way. For example, why fill out time sheets if we didn’t do this before, and yet everything worked?

What should I do?

  • Separation of responsibilities and a horizontal company structure help. This means the PM and team lead do not put themselves above everyone else. If everyone feels responsible for the project, it's much more interesting for them to try new things.
  • Show the successful use of new techniques by other teams. Find early adopters: on average, 5-10% of all people are always interested in being the first to try something new.

Lack of qualifications

There is a risk that when you hire a Senior Developer for your team, once the person starts working, you find out they’re just a strong Junior. I bet lots of readers have encountered the situation when your expectations turn out to be much higher than the new colleague’s real level and real benefit to the project.

I know many cases when the results of a new Senior’s work terrified the whole team, and put the whole project into chaos, simply because he or she fell short of their grade in reality. Or maybe you’ve seen other cases where people say they personally instructed Turing when he created his machine, but in fact, a few weeks later, they still haven’t been able to write a line of code.

What should I do?

  • It’s often extremely difficult to determine a person’s true technical level. You can minimize the risks by collecting feedback from past projects / employers. If you have doubts, try assigning additional technical interviews.
  • A person who disappointed you may not have misled you intentionally. This person might not be guilty of anything, so don’t rush to part with him or her. Maybe you just need to give a different task within your project’s context. Try to train people, using mentors from among your experienced colleagues.

Over-qualified

This happens quite often. But this is probably the easiest problem of all to solve. And there’s only one piece of advice here: if you hire an architect, don’t give him or her the task of making a one-page website.

Misunderstanding

Sometimes two entirely adequate professionals simply can not work together. I came across this in one of the projects I worked for. Two very experienced specialists – one, a phlegmatic front-end developer and the other an explosive backend developer – had to solve a task together. In the end, this resulted in a personal conflict and a complete reluctance to communicate. So, because of their personal incompatibility, unnecessary tension arose between them from nothing. The solution was to involve a communications mediator between them before they finished their task. Then we tried simply not to put them together on any other tasks, and everything returned to normal.

Such situations often occur in distributed teams, and sometimes they can be solved even just by changing the means of communication. The most difficult thing is to negotiate by E-mail (especially if a sense of misunderstanding has already arisen). Instant messaging is slightly better, and even better than that is voice calls and video conferencing. But the best option, of course, is personal, face-to-face communication.

What should I do?

Don’t let the misunderstanding smolder: you should be aware if someone in the project has hostile attitudes towards others. All members of your team should understand that they can talk with you about any problems, and you will try to resolve the issues calmly, without scandal. In most cases you need to identify the reason of the problem in order to understand how to solve it.

Bus-factor

What will happen if one of your team members is hit by a bus? If the answer for at least one of your team members is — everything will fall apart — then you have problems!

Usually you won’t pass this test if your team has one talented workaholic who does all the work, or a technical star, or an indisputable authority who actually affirms any decisions that are made (this can be either one person, or completely different people and cases).

This situation also speaks about the presence of another risk: what will happen if your star gets too high on him or herself? But, of course, most often problems arise when such a strong colleague leaves.

What should I do?

Try to make decisions collegially and distribute areas of responsibility, even if your team consists of only two people. If your project has a very strong specialist, then you’re lucky, but don’t let that person become a dictator and / or take on all the work, “eclipsing” the rest. If others are afraid to argue with this person, then the probability of a critical error increases many-fold. It's another matter if you manage to make the best one of your colleagues a mentor for all the rest.

Unfortunately, there are extreme cases when it becomes more effective to part with your star. This always looks like you’re shooting yourself in the foot, but if you’re sure that your strongest colleague is giving less and less, and is demanding more and more worship, then you have no other choice. Try not to foster a situation where 80% of the work of a group of ten people is done by one person alone.

Everything changes

Some of my colleagues believe that any team should be cultivated to a state of self-government. But I personally haven’t seen a single large and long-term project that could be safely allowed to govern itself without any risk. Often, if you stop communicating regularly with people and getting feedback from the client, you may not even notice that the project has fallen past the point of no return, even though on the outside everything looks fine.

I’ve made myself the rule of periodically coming to the customer, sitting down, and asking how they enjoy working with us, what they like, and what we can improve. Practically all clients view this communication very positively. It doesn’t bother me that this idea seems obvious, because many people ignore this simple rule. Be honest - when was the last time you started such a conversation?

Tips and tricks

It’s impossible to eliminate all risks. But if you manage to assemble a team of people that is not only technically savvy, but which also shares common values, your chances of success will grow exponentially. It’s difficult to do this, and most likely it will be fully possible only over a long period of time, and as a result of natural selection.

Try to take part in recruiting the team at the earliest stages, collect information about potential members’ past projects, and get feedback from colleagues who worked with them earlier.

Be a part of your team, not a superstructure from above. Listen to your team and hear what it’s saying, and help people develop their talents.

It’s always easier to prevent problems at the early stages (although identifying these problems is more difficult), than to eliminate the consequences.

And most importantly, try to make it so that both the team and the client are happy all the time – this, I think, is the mission and the basis of any project manager's philosophy.