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In the previous post we wrote about how a team’s working methods tend to get set implicitly at the start of a project. Connie Gersick found something else about how teams tend to work across their lifespan, though.
When the project is around its halfway point, teams are likely to re-evaluate their working methods in an effort to achieve their goals in the time remaining. This is more likely if they are receiving information from outside the team, especially around how they are performing. They learn from the first half of the project, and will talk explicitly about how to approach the work. Gersick found that teams that are performing well can just check in and keep doing what they are doing. Teams that were not performing well may have a meeting around the halfway mark, review how they are going and persist with their less than optimal approaches to work: positive changes are possible, but they are not guaranteed to just happen naturally.
This time is an excellent opportunity to learn and shift behaviour. There can be a naturally occurring reflection process that happens around the halfway point to a deadline, so use that opportunity to make some positive changes. Teams may change their work practices for the second half of their project in an attempt to meet the deadline.
How to use your team’s midlife crisis as an opportunity
First of all, be aware where the halfway point of the project is, and use the opportunity. You might call a halftime review meeting. Frame the meeting as such – you’re halfway through, it’s a time to think about what you’ve done, what has and hasn’t worked, and using that knowledge to make conscious decisions about how you will approach work in the second half.
Second, break up projects into smaller, discrete units, with shorter timescales. Having more halfway points creates more opportunities for the naturally occurring re-evaluation of performance. It also allows the team to develop the skill of reflecting on how they work, and to accumulate more shared knowledge, through having been through this process more often.
It helps if these smaller units are meaningful, discrete units, rather than arbitrary milestones. If you’re using Scrum, each sprint creates a ready made deadline for the team. Pay attention to the conversations in the team around the middle of the sprint. Is there any talk about how little time is left in the sprint and how much work there is to do? If there is, use the opportunity to help the team improve. If there is no discussion, maybe the team does not think the end of the sprint is a firm deadline to deliver something that is done, so that’s a different conversation you need to have.
Each team can have its own way of doing things. Team members may have a relaxed attitude, or a get stuff done approach, or be very congenial. This vibe (also called the “climate” of the team) can be fine and effective until someone thinks it needs to change, then it can be a significant challenge to create a new vibe.
UCLA researcher Connie Gersick was studying how task forces “actually get work done”, and found that how the teams approached their work can be established early and unknowingly. When the team first meets, the way team members work can be established in the first few minutes. Importantly, this was done without discussion, rather than being discussed openly and decided upon. Some teams Gersick studied would be relaxed about their work, and others would be focused on the getting something done quickly, for example. The teams would stick with this approach through the first phase of their time together, no matter if the approach was right or wrong for the task that the team was assigned.
Getting it right from the start
The lesson for us is to be careful about how we approach our first meetings with teams. We need to make sure the way the team is going to do their work is openly discussed when the team is first together, and make this explicit to everyone in the team. This way we intentionally create the right vibe, before it is set in the team.