If you’re feeling burnt out by your team’s lack of progress, you’re not alone. We know from our own experience how frustrating it can be to feel stuck in one of two worlds:
- Struggling to gain speed with slow decision making or productivity
- Trying to stay focused when everything is a priority
Whether you experience one or both of these issues, they can block you and your team from high performance.
While identifying the source of friction is important, it’s only half the battle. Knowing what to do about it and how to get started are key to accelerating high performance in your team.
From experience building and running teams at LinkedIn, Degreed, and Sprintwell, I’ve made plenty of mistakes on my road to finding patterns that work. To help you understand the best way to get comprehensive results, I’ll cover:
- The negative practices that hold teams back from success
- What you need to focus on instead to get results
- What steps you can take to make meaningful progress
- How to get started now
What’s Blocking You from High Performance?
The challenges listed above are frustrating, but they are not the real problems. Slow decision making, burnout, and competing priorities are the symptoms. What really blocks teams from high performance is either:
- Lack of alignment
- Lack of speed
Lack of alignment comes from people issues (this is the most common), an incoherent strategy, or a strategy that has not been committed to and written down. Usually, this becomes evident when team members do not know what to align on or someone goes against the grain.
Lack of speed comes from poor habits and systems, lack of skills, lack of empowerment, and lack of motivation or engagement.
But when teams get this right (alignment + speed), their progress is fast, meaningful, and focused.
We call this team velocity, and it’s essential to high performance.
Side note: Team velocity is different than velocity in scrum. Velocity in scrum is a measure of the amount of work a team is capable of completing. It’s usually measured in story points.
Velocity in scrum can be helpful in providing a visual for teams as they think about how much work to commit to and if they are improving throughput as a team. But this can also be destructive as it’s easy to manipulate points and focus on output over outcome.
This highlights two ways we see teams fail to achieve velocity—focusing on speed and outputs as the only indicators of progress.
Why Team Velocity is More Important than Speed
Business team velocity is about the real progress your team makes.
Velocity = Speed + Focused Direction
It’s about delivering value and impact, not just output.
When a team’s performance is measured by speed or outputs (or both), they rarely get the end result they want. This is because neither one delivers value by itself. You can go fast around a track but make zero progress. You can ship plenty of features for your product, but not deliver anything of value.
Yet teams need to have speed and focused direction.
A team making a high impact on the business has high velocity. A team not making any progress (or worse, creating additional rework for other teams) is operating with low velocity.
And while struggling to move quickly is certainly a serious issue for many teams, we’ve found that lacking focused direction is where most teams struggle when it comes to high performance.
Aligning your team on a focused direction
As Shane Parrish articulates so well about individuals, direction has a lot to do with what you say ‘no’ to. A good strategy is as much about what a team won’t do as what they will do.
Always saying ‘yes’ is the path to mediocrity.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”Steve Jobs
This is what makes alignment on your strategy so powerful (and necessary).
It gives you the clarity you need to make decisions quickly and cut through the noise of tasks and projects competing for your attention.
Yet even once you’ve crafted a focused strategy, it’s easy to assume your whole team is aligned when they aren’t. And even after you have gotten initial alignment, you have to work really hard to stay aligned.
When I worked at LinkedIn, the CEO (Jeff Weiner) had a practice that worked magic for keeping teams aligned.
Every two weeks we had a company all-hands meeting. I usually attended in-person, but everyone around the world could join by video. Without fail, he would cover the same points each week:
He was religiously consistent about touching on these priorities, usually sharing the same metrics week over week. Because I was involved in upskilling leaders on the people development team, I heard Jeff train dozens of times about management lessons he’d learned.
One of my favorites was that by the time you are sick of saying something, your followers are just beginning to understand.
“As organizations mature, the job of any senior executive is about coaching and strategy.”Jeff Weiner
Getting aligned and staying aligned are the main jobs of a leader.
In the same way, being married doesn’t automatically mean you always love each other, so being aligned with your team at one point doesn’t guarantee perpetual alignment. With relationships, you need to invest time and energy to stay in love. Lasting love isn’t a result of happenstance.
Likewise, strategic alignment doesn’t just happen. You have to invest time and energy in re-clarifying and re-communicating often.
1. Setting up shared norms
Any experienced sprint facilitator understands the power of shared norms.
A sprint is like a game. It’s a step out of your normal day-to-day activities and environment. Setting up clear ground rules for how the team will interact is a must-have for getting the results you want.
These include decisions about who acts in what role (decider, facilitator, team member) as well as behavior during the day. Some of our norms for sprints include:
- No distracting technology
- Give constructive feedback using “I like …, I wish …, I wonder.”
- No silent detractors
- No armchair sprinters
2. Setting aside time
When we work with teams, we often hear someone say, “Wow, I can’t believe we haven’t taken time to talk about these things.” It’s easy to get caught in the daily work that consumes your attention. Pulling up to talk about important but non-urgent things is hard.
It requires intentionally setting aside time to discuss what’s going well, what desired outcomes matter most to your team, problems that are most pressing, or what principles you believe should guide the team.
This is one reason for doing a burst of focused activity in a sprint is beneficial. Sprints give you permission to take a step back and answer these questions. They allow you to decide on a focused direction and get everyone aligned.
3. Creating space for dialogue
Conversation is important. It fosters shared understanding and encourages all members to contribute.
But it’s easy to only allow for monologue.
Monologue happens when you rely on robust documentation and don’t have safe forums for discussion. When you allow the loudest people in the room to dominate the conversation. And when decisions are made by those at the top with little or no input from those on the front lines.
Alternatively, sprints are sanctuaries for true dialogue. And I’m not talking about endless group discussion here. Ironically, the constraints during sprints around who talks and when actually encourages richer dialogue.
This is similar to the forcing function of Amazon’s 6-pager approach to meetings. Taking time to write a document before meetings and then taking time to read it at the beginning of meetings makes for richer meetings.
4. Encouraging “Both + And” thinking, not “Either + Or”
All too often we think of a decision as a dichotomy. You either have to choose one or the other. If you’re right, that means I have to be wrong. While this does describe some situations, far more often we can use Both + And thinking.
Instead of saying “No” or “But,” you add to what’s good about what someone has said. Example: I like what you’re saying, and I think we can make it better!
These practices give you space (time + environment) to align. Too often we are rushed, do not include the right people in a productive way, and cut down input that harms both the quality of the work and the motivation of the team.
Speed still matters
With all this said on the importance of focused direction, speed still matters.
Hiten Shah missed a billion-dollar opportunity because, after initial success with KISSmetrics, they moved too slowly.
Speed really does matter.
“You can’t just capture the market once and expect to keep it. You have to do it over and over again and faster than everyone else if you want to keep distance from competitors coming up behind you and disrupting you. That’s how you get ahead of the market.”Hiten Shah
When you sprint (whether a 4-day design sprint, a 3-hour brand sprint, a 2-day strategy sprint, or a weekly agile cadence), speed matters.
But we humans aren’t naturally very time aware. This explains why one UC Irvine study found that it took an average of 23 minutes to return to a task when you get distracted. Setting a timer and having a facilitator help.
Setting a timer
Time-boxing is one way we encourage speed.
We will naturally take an allotted time and fill it with work. That’s why when given an hour meeting, it’s typical to take the full hour. A good way to speed up work is to break it up into smaller chunks and time-box getting those chunks done.
When I need to go fast on personal projects, I use the Pomodoro technique. It’s one of my favorites for personal productivity. If you aren’t familiar, I encourage you to learn about it. You pick one task, set a timer for 25 minutes, and focus on that task. When the timer rings, you get a 5-minute break. Then you repeat. Take a longer break after four Pomodoros.
A sprint is similar. You break tasks down and time-box each one. It’s amazing what you can do with a series of 15-60 minute activities. The time-boxed nature keeps everyone mindful about the clock and discourages irrelevant tangents. It helps create the urgency you want.
To help keep a group aligned on time, we use a time-timer in sprints.
Designating a Facilitator
A facilitator helps a group move quickly. This is one way we work with companies—through facilitating sprints. Product management done well is a lot of facilitation. PMs keep track of the necessary moving parts, help everyone know where everything is at, and encourage people to participate or pipe down at the right times in the product development process.
One way to think about this role is that they are the driver. It doesn’t mean they are calling all the shots, but they are responsible for forward movement. They have their hands on the wheel.
Having a single, identified driver is a critical element of speed. Group driving usually ends in a mess and happens often when roles are not well defined.
How to Increase Your Team’s Velocity
Here are some practical steps you can take to increase your team velocity immediately.
Identify sources of friction
When you’re feeling burnt out and frustrated, it can be difficult to identify exactly what’s causing the most trouble.
Set aside time to think through your team’s speed and direction. Where are your biggest challenges? What have you tried to fix it already?
Get alignment on what matters most
We’ve already laid out why alignment is so important for your team. A quick way to get started and check the alignment in your team is to go to 5 different front-line employees. Ask them to articulate their understanding of the current strategy.
“Why are we doing this project?”
“Why does this team exist?”
“What are we trying to accomplish?”
The answers are a quick but important data point to show you if you are aligned. If the answers are different (which they all too often are), you need to create and evangelize your strategy better.
We run 2-day strategy sprints to help executive teams align on strategy. They walk out with a clear, one-page living document that guides their teams. This strategic roadmap is a communication tool you need to use at every team meeting. Make it visible in a place that every employee can find in under 30 seconds.
Know that agile is about mindset + mechanics
Most botched agile implementations fail because teams adopt the mechanics of scrum without understanding the mindset of agile. This happens because teams lack experience using agile and/or the company culture is at odds with agile values.
Read through the survey results Agile Alliance gathered about failed implementations.
Leaders need to realize that agile is going to be more of a change for them (especially when it comes to mindset) than it is for their teams.
If you haven’t read the agile manifesto, that’s a good place to start. It’s also helpful to talk to those who have built and run successful agile teams—not just as coaches but as product leaders who have shipped successful products.
You’ll know you have velocity when your team can clearly answer questions such as:
- Which priorities drive the most value for the business?
- What results are we measuring to positively reinforce our goals?
- How can I make the biggest impact today?
Teams with velocity don’t just create more impact, they are fun to work on. High-velocity teams happen when each employee is closer to flow.