Reducing Team Drift

Use informal celebrations to keep your team focused.

Teams don’t always work on the right thing at the right time. If feature X would benefit customers but the team is working on Z, they are working on the wrong thing.

I call this “team drift.” (I use this term instead of “scope creep” which implies helplessness — teams can absolutely solve this problem.)

On the surface, it seems as simple as, “Don’t work on Y, work on Z.” But solving adjacent problems is often necessary. When the necessary work is part of the main thing there exists a “team drift” trap. The farther the work is from the main thing, the bigger the trap.

The worst of these traps are large, multi-week initiatives. Sometimes you have to completely refactor Y to get X. Period, no negotiation.

In these situations, keeping the team focused on the main thing is critical. One tool I picked up at my last startup was the demo celebration. These mini-parties were team-wide and frequent. The outline is simple: Someone presents progress on a particularly significant bit of work. Then we celebrate both that person’s effort and the progress at large. (Claps, cheers, high-fives.)

A short Q&A session follows with one hard rule: suggestions and criticism are not allowed.

The benefits of this simple ceremony include:

First, it creates a slight pause for everyone to take a breath and peek at other adjacent work in progress.

Second, it hones the ability of team members to communicate the value at large of what they are building.*

Third, it boosts morale and camaraderie. Because there is no criticism it’s a safe place where excitement and pride in work can grow.

Fourth, any drift will become obvious. (An enthusiastic bunny-trail extolling the latest version of whatever for example.) This is an amazing gift that allows leadership insight into blind spots. It also makes it easy to nudge back toward the main thing.

When closing the ceremony I’ll reiterate the main thing and how the work pertains to it — lending a bit of an exhale or reset.

At first, this ceremony was a bit awkward. After a few, this faded and so did team drift.

* This is an indicator of a senior engineer vs. a jr. engineer.

Mark Ovaska is a long-time business leader and turn-around artist with deep experience in technical SaaS products. Recovering journalist with contributions to the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, TIME, and many others.

Serial entrepreneur and photojournalist. Husband, father, global citizen.

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