Firestarter - You are the Lowest Performing Team I Have Ever Worked With. Ever!

Guess I got your attention because of the title. Be assured, our boss had our full attention when she used the phrase, “You are the lowest performing team I have ever worked with,” as the underlying welcome message to a 3-day team building offsite with the three flagship product teams. To be fair, it was 5:30 a.m. her time and she was dialed in, which does not help with connecting to an audience.

In the past, I have to say my team was renowned for producing awesome features quickly.

But lately, I admit we were not producing features at the same rate, if at all. The team felt a lack of guidance and leadership, mixed with apprehension from mandated initial bad technical decisions.

We had to fix upstream stability issues before implementing new features: you cannot build castles in the sky without the right foundation. This is what drove my direct reaction to the “welcome message.” Before she could finish saying “ever,” I shot my hand in the air to object, candidly. My frustration, even disgust, was probably evident on my face. My message was: how can we be low performing when we haven’t been given a clear vision and we have been stuck fixing technical issues with an architectural choice we had no say in?!

Encouraged by me speaking up, my team was equally angered and candid in their response. This included the technical lead and my manager. Side note, I was later reminded on the third day that our “5 dysfunctions of a team” coaches had been in the opening session, and this interaction was something they had never seen before. Nice way to kick off a meeting and to introduce ourselves!

All of flagship teams, until then, had been addressing issues produced by another team. To add insult to injury, that team was not even present at the workshop. Everyone was wondering why this other team wasn’t present.

The first two days of our offsite was about “Agile.” But, since everyone on my team was already doing agile for the last 10 years, it became a therapy session for the team where we used the presenter of the course as a moderator. Besides the team discussions, the most valuable thing was the slicing and dicing story points to help us plan our sprints better. The most repeated phrase that day was: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” first law in the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development”, or as defined by Isaac Asimov as first law in “Three Laws of Robotics”: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” …robots being processes and tools.

Our next topic was “sprint planning,” kicked off by my colleague, Robin. My team felt comfortable enough to invite guests (our chief architect and VP of engineering) who could help clear up the reasons why we were there. After we were able to prove that we knew how to plan a sprint (thank you, Robin, for your patience and guidance), we started to get to the bottom of why we felt a lack of guidance and clarity. Finally!

The answer, after careful moderation (thanks Alex), was to focus on what was needed to change the vague product vision into something tangible, without the chief architect having to say a word, the smile on his face had been enough.

Collaboration

We identified “collaboration” as the key missing item: the “buy-in/commit” from the floor. We brainstormed ways to get “buy-in” from the other teams by creating a new team that included one engineer from every team plus product management, product marketing, and two designers to align the team. No managers. We decided to figure it out without them!

We proposed the creation of a discovery team to translate the product vision to an implementable product (how to define, move on, and reach minimum viable product) in the next six months. The room supported the proposal of not involving management in this team. The last day of the meeting was a bit different as we cleared our concerns and proposed a plan of action. We left that training relieved.

In reflection, that session enabled us, as a team and me personally, to unleash our superpowers. Getting first-time thoughtful and sincere praise showed me and my teammates our real strengths as a team. After receiving candid feedback, I realized that I also need to make space for others in conversation. After the training, I have a new understanding of me, my team, and my company. This was the first real feedback I have received in three years, including asking for a performance review every six months.

I feel empowered now to walk our talk (I will discuss the meaning of this in a later post) based on my strength to give radical candor and take ownership to fix the most important problems in our company, in my humble opinion: listen to the people and enable them to grow to their full potential.

Why? I was able to step up because I have trust in people and their good intentions. Furthermore, I knew that my team had  my back. I also had trust that enough people at the company trusted my ability to fix people problems. If I had to boil down CloudBees’ culture (thanks Kathy and Kohsuke for clearing this up for me): one team - we always help each other to do a better job as a team.

firestarter team photo“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” —African Proverb

Bottom line: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now, put the foundations under them.” -Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Honoring Antonio Muñiz, if we lose humor, we lose everything. Following the lead from our UK branch, we took pictures with T-shirts reminded us that we need to have a sense of humor. Thanks, Christina, for not taking offense but laughing with us. I now understand what it means when our CPO says “walk the talk.”

Tune in for the next blog, as we continue with our transformation. My next post will describe how we establish trust and build a culture where radical candor is expected: “Kryptonite and Superpowers: an exercise to establish radical candor,” and “Momentums: Justified by any means necessary.” I can’t wait to see how this story continues as we are empowered to do the best work of our lives.

The title “Firestarter” is a tribute to Keith Flint, The Prodigy. who died shortly after the underlying events of this article. R.I.P.