I’ve been in the fortunate position of building up a small team since the start of the year. It’s the first “official” tech lead role I’ve had for a couple of years and I’m proud to say that we have a pretty rockin’ team. Blending and appreciating lean ideas into how we work mean that we’re in a pretty good position all around.

Building what matters
The project work for this client meant tight deadlines. For once, it’s not just because the detached marketing arm committed to some random date without asking about how likely it would be. This one was based on pure legal compliance by a certain date. Although arguably arbitrary, it certainly has some merit (e.g. if we don’t do this, we simply cannot operate business in this country). All my UX buddies will be proud, championing the end user and what is it that need to be able to meet compliance. This neatly fits in with the systems thinking point of view – rather than building what we think we need, talking to people who actually did similar jobs and finding out what their problems and way of thinking was. We drilled out some personas, worked out some user stories, attempting as best to map them out.

Building strong teams
Teams are forged around a common purpose. Not because they simply sit in the same room. Calling a group of people a team does nothing to change they are, in fact, just a group of people. Although it took a while for the entire team to settle into shape (we had one join in here or there), we tried building a Team Charter to help understand what it is we valued in each other, and what our expectations were of each other. We took time to make clear roles, responsibilities, and who most people expected to fulfill those responsibilities, remembering that roles do not map 1:1 to people.

I think it’s helped that everyone comes from such diverse backgrounds. We have two British people, one German, one Polish, one Indian, one Pakistani and myself, the Australian. It’s useful to find common interests and cultural interchange as another team building exercise.

Preventing impediments and swarming around those that appear
Risk mitigation and issue management isn’t about simply identifying them in some spreadsheet and leaving them away. Instead, it’s about the rigourous act of trying to prevent them from happening as early as possible and dealing with them. We knew pretty early that the development time to meet this criteria would be tight, so we focused on ensuring as smooth a flow of work through the cycle. I won’t admit that we used kanban without explicit work-in-progress limits, however this doesn’t mean that we didn’t apply the Theory of Constraints. We choose development (coding) as our bottleneck, creating tools to optimise testing, and ensuring minimal rework by being thorough in putting work ready to be picked up. Me (as tech lead), our QA, and BA would sit down to tackle features from different angles and building consensus with our Product Manager. As a result, I can’t think of many stories where we discovered information too late, or ended up with large amount of rework. I hope that everyone else has appreciated the flow.

Two weeks away and things still ran fine
It’s a strong test that I always ask people in leadership positions. How would you feel if you couldn’t talk to your team/organisation for a day? For a week? For two weeks? With a properly built team/organisation people should be capable of working out problems without you. I would worry about not just the signal, but what it says about your leadership style, if teams could not last without you. Fortunately one week of skiing and another week for a conference and I came back to a team happily churning along (although there was one event early on that seemed to knock the team’s confidence).

Retrospecting on the Retrospectives
Strangely enough, we’ve only run about two or three proper retrospectives. The first time, our QA remarked on how this had been their first session where the Went Well’s far out numbered the Less Well’s. For the other one, the only things that came up in the Less Well’s were organisational things we knew about, and had either actions pending for or were things we realistically weren’t going to be able to change.

I strongly believe most organisations waste human talent, passion and energy when you can’t create a good environment for them. I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job. We finished development complete of our critical legal requirements two weeks early with one developer less than originally planned and nearly through the next “nice-to-have” tranche of work.

I believe most teams would benefit the most by removing impediments, and creating flow. Unfortunately I don’t think most teams get there. However, once you are there, I believe the next best thing you can do is to experiment and trial new things. I’m trying to encourage our PM to let go of estimation and working out how to encourage just the right level of experimentation.