How to slow down a team without even trying
Here’s a really simple way to block a team’s progress. You can do it whether you’re managing the team, a stakeholder, or even a member of the team. All you need to do is tell the team to do something specific.
That ‘something specific’ could be almost anything - deliver a product, a feature, or even a report. Just tell the team to give you specifically what you want and chances are that work will go more slowly.
That sounds odd. After all, teams are supposed to deliver those things. Asking for them seems reasonable. And it is - until you get specific. That’s when it all starts to fall apart.
Yet by being specific, you remove autonomy, and flexibility from a team. You're saying: don't do anything without permission. And that's slow.
The team that stopped
Let me give you an example. A while ago a team that I was coaching came to me with a problem. They’d had uncovered a number of opportunities. Their manager's response was: write a business case for each of these so we can identify what to do next.
They’d tried. But they lacked the information to write business cases. Some of the opportunities were too small, some needed clarification, and some were so new that it was hard to quantify costs and benefits.
The deadline was looming. Anxiety was rising. Work ground to a halt as the team struggled with the request.
What they need, not what they want
I thought what was being asked for was understandable, but the level of detail required made it impossible. My suggestion was to think about the need, not the request.
‘I know she asked for a set of business cases,’ I said ‘but what someone in her position really needs is a clear recommendation for what to do next, backed up with a solid rationale. Focus on that, instead.’
You could see the team relax. They already had a pretty good idea of the right answer.
They quickly put together a draft presentation and checked with the manager who said yes that was exactly what she needed.
Team unblocked, disaster avoided.
By asking for something specific, the manager had removed the team’s flexibility and the team had quickly become bogged down in details they couldn’t deliver.
This can, and does, happen at every level of an organisation. And it applies to individuals as well as teams.
The more specific the output, the less room for flexibility, and the more acute the problem.
Even if the team realises this quickly and queries it, most organisational cultures don’t like changes to plans, and the effort to justify and approve changes can set back teams significantly.
Teams do this to themselves, too. They often ask a manager to specify what they’re expected to deliver, assuming that this reduces the risk of mistakes, re-work, or delays in sign off. It doesn’t. It's all too easy for the manager give specifics which turn out to be wrong once the team gets going. At which point, the team needs to go back for clarification. More delay.
Think of the number of times teams receive requests and instructions, and how often they're specific and you can see why so many projects fail to deliver on time. It’s a wonder that any work gets done at all.
How to talk to teams
If managers could change the way they give orders think how much faster teams would work. Without the confusion, futile work, and changes to plan teams could fly.
For most organisations, that would increase the pace at which work gets done immediately. And all it takes is a change in the way managers talk to teams.
This focus on flexibility is something that the armed forces have been perfecting for centuries, ever since they realised that rigid plans of battle often lose out to speed and decisiveness.
In his book, Turn the ship around, former submarine commander David Marquet describes how he instilled a culture of flexibility to turn a poorly performing crew into one of the best in the fleet. One of his techniques was to change the way he gave orders.
If you’re a manager talking to a team, you can boil the approach down into three parts.
- Focus on outcomes - ‘increase conversion in our checkout process’ (not ‘make our checkout process like Netflix’s’). By avoiding specifying a solution managers give their teams more flexibility to identify solutions that work.
- Discuss constraints and priorities - ‘we have to deliver in four weeks, unless you find a legal obstacle’. This is enough to let teams know what kind of solutions will be acceptable and allows them to make decisions and keep moving without checking in.
- Frame instructions as questions - ‘how can we reduce errors?’ This emphasises that the team is responsible for finding a solution, and that they should begin by aligning with the manager on the best direction. These kinds of discussion inevitably lead to a better understanding of the challenges and constraints that teams face, meaning managers can focus on setting direction and removing roadblocks, rather than checking on quality.
And if you’re a member of a team, you follow similar steps.
- What are the outcomes your manager wants? How do those support his or her strategic goals? (Or more simply: what does your manager’s boss want?)
- What tools do you have at your disposal? Form a plan based on what’s practical.
- Take control of the situation by suggesting the plan that makes sense to you - ‘because you have [these goals], I intend do [do this]’.
At first this can feel awkward and unnatural. Some people (managers or team members) aren’t used to the feeling of uncertainty that accompanies a more flexible approach. They can secretly (or not so secretly) slip specifications and details into the conversation.
One way around this is to acknowledge that this is unwanted but normal, encourage everyone to look out for it, and publicly congratulate team members for doing so. Just be sure not to shame anyone who accidentally slips into the old ways. Learning to change takes time.
As it takes hold, managers and teams find the format motivating and liberating. Teams anticipate problems and bring solutions. Managers find themselves offering support rather than asking ‘why didn’t you do it like I asked?’ The sense of mission and purpose improves.
We are used to thinking that speeding up delivery requires more resources, more effort, and perhaps a little taste of the whip.
It’s surprising, and rather delightful, to discover that the real problem is often the instructions the team is given, and the solution is as simple as changing the conversation.