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Death to deadlines

Death to Deadlines: 5 Ways to Make Your Team More Effective

It’s 72 hours before you ship your next big feature. Your team has been grinding late nights for the past week, mainlining coffee between bites of cold pizza. Everyone’s exhausted, nobody is very effective, but the continued success of your company lies in shipping the product.

If you’ve ever wondered about the glamour of startup life, it looks a lot like this scenario.

When you’re a young company with one person controlling each facet, you don’t have to spend much time thinking about time management for teams. But then you grow. Each member of company is doing their level best, but what works for an individual may very well kill a team.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I’m watching our own teams push forward to release FullContact for iOS, as well as our Mac app. What I’ve found, through observation and research, is that there are some specific needs that teams have in order to be effective. So whether you’re just starting to build your team, or wondering how to make your existing one work better, here are 5 ways to keep your team on-task:

1- Pull, Don’t Push

There’s an article on Time Management Ninja that uses a metaphor that I love – Visualize a string. Now push that string and see what happens. It bunches up and doesn’t really move. But if you pull on the string it will go wherever you lead it.

Product owners and managers are often told to push their teams, but I think that the idea of pulling a team is likely going to be more effective. Pushing people tends to lead to demands and raised voices. Pulling them means that you set the tone, empower them to do their jobs and give them the autonomy to complete them.

In Simon Sinek’s brilliant TEDx talk about how great leaders inspire action, he makes the point that the most effective names in business will start with the question of why, rather than what or how. Think about it – your team likely knows what they’re building, and if you’ve hired well then they also know how they’re going to build it.

That’s why great leaders will reinforce the “why” of the task at hand, showing how it fits into the bigger picture. In the context of why, seemingly menial tasks take on a new light, employees are given access to the vision, and they’re more likely to take ownership of a problem.

2- Stop Collaborating

Many companies have built cultures where collaboration is enabled by default. While this is often fantastic for morale (because every employee feels like they have a voice), it can be deadly for actual productivity.

Your company should be different.

We all know the adage about the company who builds a product, then shows their customers. The customers say that they’d buy the product if only it had X, so the company includes X. And the customer still doesn’t buy. The same can be true with companies that put too much focus on collaboration of ideas rather than aiming that collaboration at goals.

Idea collaboration requires meetings and emails and chats. It requires spec docs that are passed around to 10 different people to get tweaking and approval before any action is taken. Idea collaboration is the ultimate display of “planning to plan” and it’s wasting your productivity. So stop, already.

3 – Over-Communicate

Time and again, as I’ve been talking to successful product owners and team leaders, their core message has been the same: communicate. From the newest employee all the way to the CEO, communication is positively vital to the productivity of your team.

People often think that communication just means “having a conversation.” They think that they’re pretty good at having conversations, so they believe that communication is being handled well. What they’re missing is that communication is present in every aspect of every project. Let me give you an example:

When I opened my Asana home screen today, I saw that I had a task that had been assigned to me from Sean Porter, our VP of Product. As I clicked on that task it showed me the parent task that I was working toward and in the description of that parent task was every piece of information that I might need to complete the part that was assigned to me. Sean handled this communication elegantly, saved himself a few emails from me and created a point of reference for himself all with one simple step by just adding a task description.

That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be an open line of ongoing communication, but the conversation that happens in your team’s HipChat or Slack is likely going to be very different than the barrage of questions that come from a lack of understanding of the task at hand.

So save your team the hassle by communicating as much as you can up front.

4 – Kill Your Deadlines

This is a big one, and it takes more guts than a lot of companies are willing to muster. But the fact of the matter is that working against a hard deadline can often be the very reason why your team never seems to meet a deadline.

Your team is pressured by that hard date. They don’t take time to explore alternatives that may produce a better end result. They’re constantly feeling like they’re up against a wall without an escape so their motivation and determination gets crushed.

If it’s possible, consider doing away with hard dates in exchange for “great products that are shipped when they’re ready”. That’s a value statement that anyone in your company can get behind. Nobody’s going to stand up during a meeting and say that they’d prefer to ship a shoddy product faster, and if they do then chances are that you’ve hired the wrong person.

If you absolutely can’t kill your deadlines, then product manager Daniel Zacek  has some sage advice:

…sometimes the world demands something is ready on a certain date. My approach would still be to break the “thing” down into pieces that can be gracefully degraded, so that as much as possible is of top quality.

5 – Use the Right Tools to Stay On-Track

It’s amazing how often I hear from people who can’t seem to get organized, yet they have never considered a task management system or even a to-do list app. There are loads of amazing tools on the market, so you need to do your homework to figure out which ones best fit your needs.

As I mentioned previously, we use Asana at FullContact, but we only use it for task management. Actual work that’s been done and comments on that work is all handled inside of Pivotal Tracker. We also have a flurry of Google Drive documents and spreadsheets, though this flurry can cause problems of its own, especially with duplication.

New tools are hitting the market every day, so it’s worthwhile to keep track of them. One favorite: the folks from Harvest have just released Forecast. It’s an application that’s specifically designed to plan and do time tracking for teams. Many tools that work well for individuals are worthless in a team setting, so Forecast was a ground-up build of an application that is focused on working in a team environment.

No matter what tools you choose, it’s going to be up to your team leaders and product owners to pull their employees into using them properly. Team members will need motivation, so it’s often best if the leaders use tools themselves first in order to show conclusive evidence of how it helps keep the team moving forward.

There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that we’ve not covered every way to make a team more effective. But starting with the management, making sure that the message is clear and then giving your team the tools to work efficiently are all key areas where every organization can improve. Have some of your own (or just think that we’ve missed the mark entirely)? Drop down to the comments and chime in.

Image: Bart Hiddink via Flickr

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