26 January 2017

How do you help a team become awesome?


I raised a question, first during a Transpection Tuesday, then in the TestSverige Slack chat and finally with all sorts of people I've met; mostly software testers. The question was:

How do you help a team become awesome?

Awesome in this case refers to the kind of team where everyone seems comfortable; they laugh, they communicate, they do silly things but don't seem embarrassed and at the same time they seem productive, motivated and ever evolving with low employee turnover rate.

This is my summary of those discussions.

Before we start: This is not specifically for managers, team leads, scrum masters etc.; it's everyone's responsibility and opportunity; anyone can improve a team's "mood".

Personal attributes/attitudes

Personal attributes and attitudes came up a lot during the discussions and they seemed to be the foundation on which you can add helpful activities. All of these work as self reinforcing systems so if you start to set a positive direction others will (eventually) follow. The same applies if you set a negative direction though, as this will start to create a deeper and deeper hole to get out of.

So why don't we just act "good"? Because we're imperfect, also known as being human: We're scared, we sense injustice, we want revenge, we get stressed, angry or sad, we're sometime egocentric and so forth.

For these reasons there are a few things you need to consider for each of the attributes listed below:
  1. It'll take courage to set a new direction and you might get hurt... sometimes a lot
  2. You'll need to consciously monitor yourself to avoid stress etc. getting the better of you
  3. You'll need to nurture these attributes in the team primarily by making positive examples visible

So, without further ado; dare to...
  • Be vulnerable
    "My uncle used to say that we like people for their qualities but we love them for their defects."
    /John Myers, Hellboy

    Share your struggles, admit you're scared, open up, allow people to come close and dare to be imperfect (aka. human) in general.
  • Be transparent
    Share what you know and do, that's relevant to others even though this might make them question your decisions, force you to (temporarily) stop something or even use the information to personally attack you.
  • Be accountable
    When you've messed up, take responsibility, apologize if appropriate and accept the consequences. Sometimes it's even beneficial to take responsibility for things you weren't responsible for just to get out of a negative loop.
  • Appreciate
    Make it a habit to register when someone makes something good and tell them this. Make sure you're sincere, empty flatter is not helping. Another nice way to appreciate people is to be a proxy for appreciation e.g. "Just so you know, Bob gave a two minute speech this morning about how great he thought your design was".
  • Trust people
    People want to do good so do trust them. Sometimes they'll let you down, sometimes you might even get stabbed in the back but keep trusting them. With that being said, of course bad behavior should be dealt with, e.g. see "be sincere" below, but as soon as you stop trusting people you're heading in a bad direction. After all, if you don't trust people they'll never be able to show you they can be trusted starting a rather destructive loop. Also people grow with responsibility. Finally: trusting people does not mean not helping them and/or helping them realize they need help.
  • Be sincere
    Integrity is sexy; if you think someone, including yourself, is being singled out, is getting unfair criticism or for other reasons aren't treated in a fair way: Speak up! Especially when people aren't given a chance to defend themselves.

    However, stick to your observations not your interpretations. You don't know for sure if "this person is actively trying to hurt you" but you do know for instance that "the person was told to give you the latest version but you never got it". Sincere != Judgmental, quite the opposite actually.
  • Care about people
    Caring about people costs very little and the main risk you face is simply to be creepy. Do notice that care does not mean micromanage, instead it's about genuinely trying to create a good situation for others. Carita Jansson Tsiantes gave a lovely example in the TestSverige Slack chat that went something like:

    When you boil water to make a cup of tea, don't just think about yourself; prepare water for your colleagues who might want tea as well.
  • Help and support
    This can shortly be summarized as:
    "If someone has a problem, we have a problem".

    When asked for help do help and if people express frustration or confusion offer to help. Few people ask questions if they don't need to so rather than telling them "you should know that" try to help them learn how they can find the answer themselves; e.g. by introducing them to the right people, help them get access to some information system, help them get invited to a certain meeting/mailing list etc. An attitude to avoid is "it's not my job to help...". Sure this is sometimes true and you need to work too but then again: help the person help herself rather than ignore the request.
  • Respect everyone
    No job, role or person is more important than any other. Of course some tasks might be more important to finish but then focus on getting them solved as a team. A key aspect in this is understanding your colleagues' tasks, challenges, frustrations and talents. Andreas Cederholm brought up a great example of how to nurture this attitude:

    We run team test sessions where the whole team test together. Add some cookies and laughs and it'll work even better.
  • Try
    If you want to challenge status quo you'll have to try new things. Trying comes with an increased risk of failing and potentially making a fool of yourself but that's necessary and typically a great way to learn. Sometimes trying something you don't really believe in might still be beneficial simply to acknowledge that ideas are appreciated and that you trust in peoples judgement even when you might not agree with them.
  • Auto forgive
    A psychiatrist once told me a very smart thing about eating disorders and how to react when people have not been able to fight the decease (generally applicable of course):

    Guess who'll feel worst when this has happens? You? No, the person who just "failed"! You don't need to remind them they "let you down", they'll know and they'll feel terrible about it.

    People mess up, people take bad decisions, people have bad days. You rarely need to remind them, it's typically much more constructive to say "don't worry, shit happens, let's fix this" and move on. This is also important to nurture previously mentioned attitudes such as "try" and "be transparent"; if people are scared about potential consequences (including reactions) the only thing they'll try is to cover stuff up.
  • Smile (and laugh)
    Being met with a calm, warm smile is great medicine when you feel down or nervous about some bad news you have to deliver. Smiling also helps at least me stay calm making it a useful tool to manage feelings of anger or frustration.
I get the feeling all the attributes/attitudes above point back to some basic principle like "get unhelpful frustration off the table fast; both yours and others" or "always trust in peoples willingness to do good"... but I can't really put it into words. Feel free to help me.


If the personal attributes/attitudes are the foundation the various activities below represent important tools to speed up the process. Notice though that the activities by themselves are not silver bullets and overusing them or using them at the wrong time can actually have a negative impact. Focus on the list above first!
  • Social activities outside of work
    E.g. cook together, sports or boardgames. Activities where everyone is active which is not necessarily true for e.g. your typical after work.
  • Quirky things
    E.g. quote book, silly competitions, fun/silly "rules" or internal titles.
  • Retrospectives taken seriously
    Not specifically the meeting, can be e.g. a continuous, everyday team reflection activity. All problems brought up are dealt with. Problems are taken seriously even by members not personally impacted.
  • One on ones
    Allows people to raise concerns in a safe environment (assuming the person meeting members one on one has earned the members' respect).
  • Do each others work
    An example of this is Team Test Sessions where the team test together (suggested by Andreas Cederholm, TestSverige) or move the other direction and try mob programming with testers included. Everyone (product owner, developers, testers, designers...) together attending e.g. courses in security or usability could also help support as this kind of activities creates some common ground. Yet another suggestion is team members meeting customers, accompanying sales/support people etc.
  • Discussions about values
    E.g. take the "personal attributes/attitudes" list above and talk about each one described. Is this something you want to strive for in the team; can you change something to help nurture this behavior etc. Make it a team goal to improve and nurture the "mood" in the team in general.
  • Personal values
    Most of the personal attributes and attitudes require consistency. An activity where you sit down an state you personal "manifest", goals or values can be important. For instance it might be hard to treat yourself in a fair way without some guidelines; either turning you into an asshole demanding more from other than yourself or a "victim" never treating yourself well enough.
  • Clarify your attentions to your boss
    If you want to invest quite a bit of time in this, go to your boss, explain your intention and ask for her/his support. Making your boss, or if necessary, your boss' boss, an ally can provide access to several powerful tools (e.g. see "Supporting context" further down).


The list below represent "symptoms" that your team (or even company) is moving in the right direction:
  • People laugh.
  • You're met with a smile, even in bad times.
  • You know what your colleagues like, both at work and outside. E.g. their hobbies,interests, spare time activities, important life milestones, work and private goals, "hidden talents" and previous experience.
  • People talk about hobbies, spare time activities and the other things listed above.
  • Conflicts are taken seriously and navigated swiftly.
  • People blame themselves, if anyone, not others.
  • High level of motivation.
  • You rarely feel stupid (in a bad way).
  • Stuff that "should be done", gets done.
  • Ideas are taken seriously, people try new things and experiments are run frequently.
  • People admit mistakes and challenges early as they're not afraid of the consequences.
  • People meet outside work because they want to, not because they feel obligated to.
  • Few taboos.
  • Very limited "bullshit" or backtalk in the team.
  • You know what's happening in the team and rarely get "unpleasant surprises".

Supporting context

These things might be hard for you to actively influence but be aware as they do seem to have an important impact:
  • Reasonable pace
    People need time to do supporting, long term activities and when under immense pressure/unreasonably high pace this is quickly forgotten or down prioritized. These lost activities help you become faster tomorrow than today meaning they're long term, multiplicative investments.
  • Stable organization
    Adding or losing team members can in worse case force the team to start over in their attempts to be awesome. If you're the manager; try not to change teams that work great together even though it might be tempting!
  • Ethics
    A product you believe in and feel ethically good working with, helps. The same goes for the company's actions: If it feels like the company acts in an ethical way that seems to help people "invest" in the company in a way that's helpful.
  • Good social (especially empathic) skills
    Having team members who like the social aspect and are good at nurturing positive social behavior (not to be mixed up with people "talking a lot") helps.
  • Previous friends
    Not always true as the previous friends may create a "sub team" within the team but seems to sometimes help as the friends most likely have a healthy relationship towards each others which can spread.
  • Management accepting problems
    Having a manager/management asking for "solutions, not problems" can suppress people's willingness to bring attention to important problems or make the company accept suboptimal solutions. The intention to focus on what's constructive is not bad but the message delivered can be. It's of course okey to ask the person if they have any ideas themselves on how to solve the problems they bring up but don't make the solutions a "requirement".
  • Culture awareness
    Manager/management that genuinely cares about the company culture and how to improve it helps.


Some "quotes", all loosely translated from Swedish:
  • "I ask myself: How can I make this person feel like I want her to feel?"
    Carita Jansson Tsiantes
  • "It's professional to be personal"
    David Högberg
  • "It's not unprofessional to have fun but to do something in a boring way when it can be achieved just as well in a fun way, that's unprofessional"
    Klas Hallberg, from his book: YCDBRALAI (Swedish).
Finally a comment I didn't know where to place:
  • "If I say I can't talk about it, you know and accept this". Transparency is important but some information you mustn't share for various reasons. However, sometimes the mere knowledge you know some secret information can be enough to help people prepare for a big change, avoid unpleasant surprises etc. One example could be: "We will get a new boss, I know who it's most likely gonna be but I can't tell you until papers are signed; however, I can tell you I think this person will do a terrific job, so don't worry too much about it".


It makes perfect sense but didn't really occur to me when I first asked the question:

Making a team awesome is basically the same thing as making any relationship awesome and it starts with you and all the small decisions you make every day.

Good luck!