Nearly 7 years ago, I wrote a post on how to run a development team. Recently, I was talking to someone who needed to run a team which wasn’t focused on software development. I told him that the same basic principles applied, but instead of focusing on the theory I simply laid out the practice. Re-reading the old post I realized that while I had conveyed the strategy that had worked for me and others, I had left out any specific tactical details.
Time to fix that by presenting the 4 things you must have to run a team effectively. You may decide to add other aspects to optimize for your specific situation but these are the items which are either in place or causing you trouble.
A backlog is simply a prioritized list of everything you know that needs to happen. Prioritization is key – in the absence of further instruction, a team member should be able to pull the highest priority item from the list to work on and know that it’s the right thing to do.
2. In Progress List
To run a team, you need to know what’s in progress. If you (and others) don’t know what’s being worked on, then you aren’t really managing. The easier it is for you, and the team, to see what’s in progress the better the chances of catching the “Whoa, why is that happening now!” moments before someone wastes time on the wrong thing.
3. Blocked Indicator
Almost as important as prioritizing the backlog of work, blocked items are where a manager can really shine. When a team member marks an item as blocked, it’s a way for them to say, “I can’t work on this further until _____ happens”. The faster you can make ______ happen, the better off the team is. Sometimes it doesn’t fall on you, there are outside influences like other teams, clients, vendors, etc. – know the difference. Read every blocked item and ask yourself if there’s some way in which you can help. Also, since the backlog is prioritized, a team member should be able to roll from a blocked item to the next item smoothly.
4. Finished Indicator
I’ve been surprised on numerous occasions to find out that a team has no “public” way to indicate that a task is finished nor see what other items are finished. The rational I’ve usually heard (and it’s almost always smaller teams and companies) is that finishing is what counts and the manager is usually informed. This sets up a communications bottleneck where everyone has to check with the manager to get overall status or (more likely) no one really pays attention to what’s getting completed. Having a way for everyone on the team to know what’s done not only gives the group a feeling for where projects stand, it also allows for the “Hold on there, Sparky – that’s not actually done because you forgot _____”. This is more common where projects have lots of dependencies amongst the tasks.
There are dozens of good options (and hundreds of bad ones) for tools to make this easy. My tool of choice for a team which is starting from scratch is Trello. Create 3 lists: Backlog, In Progress, and Done. Add one label called Blocked and make it red. Boom! In 5 minutes (literally) you are now ready to start prioritizing and monitoring work while keeping an eye out for blockages. A lot of teams will later “graduate” to a more formal system, but getting the initial mechanics in place is critical and you don’t want to spend hours or days hunting around for the “perfect” solution until you’ve got things humming along enough that more advanced functionality makes sense.
If you feel your work day is too chaotic or your team could be performing more efficiently, chances are you’re missing one of the 4 items above. Do yourself and your crew a favor and put just a little process in place so you can start to troubleshoot and stabilize.