There are times when teams will be more stretched than usual. Very often, this is due to unforeseen circumstances resulting in unprecedented demand expectations. The unexpected scenarios are varied and could be, a new industry entrant, regulatory event, key personnel changes (good people make things look easier than they are) or the team needs to evolve rapidly because the business is booming.
What should leaders do?
Leaders play a critical role, and this is when good leaders come to fore, through being the ‘lighthouse in the storm’. They should endeavour to remain genuine, sincere and balanced, with a positive outlook, and avoid the danger of being insincere. They need to accept that there will be an expectation of thought and action from those that the team services on all the items requested, ideally simultaneously, as many may be unaware of the various areas requiring numerous items.
As the work banks up; it is likely that conversations within the organisation will shift from the work at hand to speculation on what’s next. People will fill the void if there is limited communication of how the work is not progressing (sometimes because everyone is busy working), leaders should be prepared to hear this third hand and encourage the team to communicate clearly.
At some stage, there is likely to be frustration with the teams completing the work. Identify areas that may break away or revert to their bunker and reach out to those teams early on. If this continues, there will be a heightened risk of losing key personnel due to uncertainties, so review your talent and key-person grid, and commence scheduling thirty-minute conversations with these people.
What is the list of initiatives, beyond BAU? What now are the business priorities? These priorities might not be requested projects; they could be a significant amount of work added to an Agile team’s backlog.
Leaders must support their teams by avoiding committing to undertaking these priorities as they arise. Stack rank them based on a sensible range of business criteria and make this process visible. Openly share these priorities across the organisation, allow people to review and contribute, and invite debate. This list is dynamic. Maintaining the file should be the responsibility of a small group. In establishing this process, things may initially slow down, but it will ultimately allow them to go faster.
Further, some initiatives may need to be cancelled before doing this, consider the following:
- Accelerate things that are two-thirds complete (consider yourself an air traffic controller clearing the skies).
- For those that remain, look for opportunities to integrate initiatives. It’s surprising how many times you will have a similar request from different areas.
Regarding the initiatives that may need to be stopped, be open and communicate the points made above and list the more essential items. When it is evident that assessment rigour was used to select priorities, people tend to accept what is best for the organisation.
Regular communication creates transparency that builds trust and then empathy; these are important for ongoing constructive relationships. Relationships across organisations become strained when teams are under additional pressure. The leaders and senior team members can lead by example to the broader by making communication a priority.
Check on how the team is communicating. Start by reflecting upon what is being made visible across the organisation. Is this information—as 6pt font line items in an excel spreadsheet—showing selected operational metrics? Is it a newsletter sharing topics of interest without details of the priorities? Is there any commentary offered? Is this information easily accessible? How regularly is it shared, or are you communicating by exception? Does the info reconcile with other functions, consider data and perspectives? Is there alignment and debate invited? This debate will be necessary if you are to prioritise appropriately. Also, diversity of thought is likely to improve the quality of outcomes, plus possibly contribute to innovation.
Stretched teams require leadership, prioritisation and communication to balance time, quality and costs of prioritised initiatives. The information must be shared regularly, beyond a scorecard with commentary. The commentary should offer rationales and insights. When these are routinely shared and consistently across an organisation, it builds trust. Further, it enables people to consider practical and meaningful actions. Stretched teams don’t be tempted to seek understanding and empathy when there is no transparency as this is likely to be a credibility killer, consistently prioritise and communicate.
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