Notes

Transparency and communication on small teams

January 22, 2019

I saw a post on dev.to that talks about dysfunctional teams. This is a response that focuses specifically on how to prevent burnout from overworking. This is aimed at senior/lead engineers and engineering/project managers -- because everyone in a leadership role is responsible for the health of the team and the company.

In an otherwise good company with hard-working, ethical employees, overworking happens because of imperfect communication. If neither of those premises hold, you have more serious issues and have no need for this post.

The primary subjects of poor communication are:

If any member of the team (or worse, the entire team) is not honestly reporting on their capacity and capability, this will drive them to overwork to make up for what they couldn't accomplish on work hours.

If any member of the team (or worse, the entire team) is not honestly and publicly reporting on what they understand to be the priorities, they will end up needing to work overtime if true priorities become apparent too late.

And if any member of the team (or worse, the entire team) is not honestly and publicly reporting on what they accomplished, they will end up needing to work overtime if discrepancies become apparent too late.

Solution

Put a sprint process in place and schedule at least one meeting every sprint. Discover every political, technical, and structural stakeholder and find a time they can attend this meeting. At this meeting you will cover at a high level (perhaps with some demos) what was accomplished in the sprint and what you intend to accomplish in the next sprint.

If any stakeholder cannot make this meeting, find a time to sync up with him/her separately.

Your sprints should not last more than two weeks because any longer is too long to go before talking to/reviewing with your stakeholders.

Finally, publish a report on what you accomplished this sprint (and also what you did not accomplish!) and what you plan to accomplish the next sprint. For example, I send an email to the engineering organization with two docs at the end of each sprint: 1) a review doc listing tasks accomplished/not accomplished and 2) a list of tasks planned for the next sprint. This gives your stakeholders (and anyone else interested) an opportunity to review the contents of the meeting at their leisure.

Doing this can be difficult and embarrassing at first. Hard-working, ethical employees never want to be seen as not accomplishing their share of work. But the most important thing for the mid-to-long-term health of these employees is to get them reporting honestly.

This helps make it clear where these employees can legitimately improve (i.e. receive more training) and where it's necessary to hire more or different employees. You'll likely need to put pressure on every team member to report honestly and to do so without fear.

And as a result of doing this, you've done everything you can as a senior/lead member of a small team to push responsibility for your team's work up to your stakeholders. This is the best position to be in.

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