Improve Team Collaboration with Strengths

It was about a year ago when my boss transitioned to a new team and a new person was hired to take his place. This new guy kept hearing from folks who had been directly interacting with my team. There was something special about it. Something he decided to investigate, so he called in my right hand person. I was not at this meeting, but my report swore it went very close to this:

Boss: What’s so special about this team?

RightHand: Well for one, we actually collaborate.

Boss: What do you mean? You send status reports, set up meetings, or something?

RightHand: We do those things, but that is not what I mean. I mean the team works together to achieve goals. The team understands each person’s strengths and weaknesses and we use that knowledge to effectively move team goals forward. We will handoff work to whoever’s the best able to do it based on time, skills, and interest… sometimes even in the middle of the work being done.

The environment was set up to allow the collective knowledge and skills of each person to flourish in a way that directly contributes to the team goals. In this way, everyone feels like they are using what they value in themselves towards goals that are valuable to our customers.

I have changed jobs recently and it is now review time at Microsoft and I’ve already been given a sense of what the team’s feedback is for me. Team-based Strengths discovery and focus is a win. For me, this means I am on the path to elevating Teamwork on my new team to the same level I did in my last team.

I want to develop Rockstar Teams more than I want a Team of Rockstars. I had succeeded in doing this once, and was well on my way to do it again. I’d like to share my technique with you today.

In this post, I am going to focus on the usage of Strengths, but there are a couple of other necessary ingredients needed to make this fit together and work sustainably. This technique works best when coupled with an environment focused on small, tight, and frequent feedback loops. I introduced both teams to the concepts of Kanban and Lean Agile, which fit the bill nicely.

In general my mantra was: Anyone can select whatever work they would like to do [from the ready column], but once they have, the whole team is responsible for getting it to Done. In a sense, the person selecting work was accountable for shepherding the work through, but the team was accountable for getting the work to its goal.

In particular, a several techniques were folded into developing a sense of whole team accountability:

1) Kanban has an aspect of pulling work, instead of pushing. I used this (amongst other things) to get idle folks to aggressively seek ways to help close current, inflight work, before picking up any new work. As a result, team members got adept at being able to collaborate on work already in flight.

2) Centers of Gravity, not area owners. “Everyone on this team owns all code on this team”. While it was often true that 1 person may have done the Lion’s share of effort on some architectural layer, they did not own it. They simply knew the context better than anyone else. I actively encouraged folks to do at least 1 work ticket in every area on a frequent enough basis to stay familiar with how the system works and design is transforming. If a person wanted to work on an area of the product they didn’t know, they would typically first pair program it with the Center of Gravity for that area. As a result, team members never acquired the bottleneck mentality. “This is my code. I am the only one who should change it.” Instead they saw knowledge bottlenecks as a problem and created slow successful strategies to eliminate them.

3) Weekly Retrospectives are a must. I don’t think the style of retrospective you do is important as long as you are focused on learning something valuable.

One style I use *a lot* is to:

  • sort the tickets by total calendar time
  • starting with the longest one first, ask the person who worked on it the following:

“What could the team have done differently to get this ticket done sooner?”

  • I try to encourage the team to think of late tickets as something the team failed the ticket’s shepherd, NOT the other way around. When people feel accountable for the success of others, teamwork thrives.

4) Strength-Finders framework brings interpersonal and self-awareness issues like no other I have found.

Strengths

The Strength-Finders framework was developed by Gallup as the result of decades of psychological research. While it’s quiz is similar to many psycho-typing frameworks, like MBTI, I have found it’s application in the workplace to be a lot more practical than those other frameworks. Strengths are a reflection of your psychology and as such rarely change in your adult life. They are important as generally your strengths are not only something you are good at and something you enjoy, but studies have shown that if you apply your strengths to achieving your goals, you will have a much greater achievement rate than if you applied those talents that you are weak in. Ie. If you are an introvert, you are more likely to succeed in convincing others by a series of 1:1 discussions, than by a large 1 time meeting. These same studies show you are happier when you get to do what you are strong in as well.

If you’d like to take the quiz, you can look at the resources I list at the bottom of this post. Once you take the test, depending on the test, you get a result that tells you the top 5 strengths you have (of a list of 34) and a good deal of verbage around what those strengths mean. One variant is the strengths-based Leadership test. I prefer this one as it shows the breakdown of your strengths into operational pillars.

For example, my strengths as reflected from the Strengths-Based Leadership test:

Name

Rank

Executing

Influencing

Relationship Building

Strategic Thinking

Brent

1

     

Ideation

2

   

Relator

 

3

Restorative

     

4

   

Individualization

 

5

     

Analytical

This calls out 4 important pillars:

1) Executing – basically, this is the drive to get work done.

2) Influencing – the ability to sell your team’s ideas to others

3) Relationship Building – think Team building – creates connections between the members of the team.

4) Strategic Thinking – the ability to think through and about the work needed.

It also mentions #1 strength is Ideation and #5 is Analytical etc. This, in short, shows *how* I do those things in the pillars that I am strong in.

If you’d like, you can think of the A-Team when thinking about the pillars:

  • Hannibal Smith is the Strategic thinker
  • BA Baracus is the Executor
  • Faceman is the Influencer
  • Murdock is the glue that keeps the team together

Together they are a super effective team and partner with one another to achieve objectives. I wonder…. Does the A stand for Agile?

Ok, so why strengths-based focus?

  • Creates transparency around the most important part of getting work done – the members of your team
  • Exposes actionable ways for your team to collaborate optimally.
  • People are more productive when utilizing their strengths
  • Creates a more effective and enjoyable work environment

The magic really happens due to the transparency of the team sharing and understanding each other’s strengths.

If you are familiar with Agile techniques, then you are already aware of how transparency into the system makes the throughput much higher. This is *very* true when that system is your team of people.

Ok, enough of the explanation. My recommendation:

Step #1 – Get the data

  1. (optional) Get yourself a Strengths Coach. I happen to know one where I work and he has been very helpful in working with myself and my teams on creating the strength and team based culture.
  2. Get your team to take the quiz (see resources below) and have them send the results to someone to aggregate
  3. Use the format above and simply list out the whole team.
  4. Get the team prepared to meet by doing some homework first. Tell them to:
  • Go through the list of 34 strengths and see if any jump out as additional strengths (1 or 2).  Write them down and bring them to the meeting.
  • Go through the list and see which ones jump out as definitely *not* on your list  (1 or 2).  Write them down and bring them to the meeting.
  • Think about *you* and be prepared to answer what each one of your strengths means to *you*.     Which of your strengths are the most exciting to you and why?
  • Think through the other members of the team and identify 2 people on the team that you suspect have strengths that are low on your own list.  One indicator:  they achieve results in very different ways than you do.

Step#2 – Meet and discuss

  1. Have each team member talk about themselves and share what strengths they are really proud of and why. Have them list out what strengths they think they also have (not in the top 5) as well as strengths they think are very low in their list. [aside: the purpose of this is to get folks familiar with each team member as well as the strengths themselves]
  2. Show the aggregation of the whole team. Ask they the team to look at the data and see what insights they gain from it. Is the team mostly strategic thinkers? Is there a particular strength that is dominate on the team? Etc.
  3. Go around the room again. This time have each team member talk about the 2 people they thought did results very differently from them and ask them a new spontaneous question:

Who are the two people and what is something that you hate doing that you think they 1) would love to do and 2) have a strength in doing it?

Step #3 – Follow through

  1. Continue to discuss Strengths to remind folks real time they are using it. Encourage your team to point out when they see other members using their strengths. This helps to reinforce this new knowledge and lets everyone see and acknowledge the strengths others are bringing to bear.
  2. I make this a part of all my discussions with my employees.
    1. I use 1:1’s and strengths to target career development
    2. I use strengths at standup to help guide decisions around who should pick up what tickets.
    3. It’s a great way to set up partnering relationships (pair programming is fantastic with this data)

This last step is absolutely the most critical. This is where the theory turns into application. You gain important insight. For example, it shouldn’t be a surprise if you have a person with all Strategic Thinking strengths who is the slowest to execute on your team. I can pretty much guarantee that his work is *well thought-out* though. This person probably would be happier if they were involved in the design phases of your work. Whereas a person, who is everything in Execution, is going to be happiest work hard to get things done (whether or not, their done is the “right” done).

So that’s it, there’s several moving parts, but once you go through it once, it’s not all that complex. I can state that I have received really super high reviews from my employees as a direct result of learning and then teaching this framework. People feel understood, valued, and know better how to fit into the team process in order to maximize productivity.

Resources:

1) Want to take the test yourself? You can go Gallup’s Site to take the simple test for $10 and 30 minutes.

2) Want to try to lead a team yourself? I recommend buying the Strength’s-based Leadership book as a start. I use mine as a reference book *all* of the time.