What’s true potential?
My definition of true potential is a state of being where performance is maximized even when the situation is hard, or even too hard. When someone or something reaches its true potential it reaches the state of hyper-performance without fear, not hyper-performance with stress.
Why is it hard to achieve?
I have often seen fear cast a shadow over our existing potential, making it hard to see. Fear can manifest itself anywhere at anytime. At other times, it may be quite evident. At times, it may be invisible but it is there. When we can’t see our existing potential due to fear, it is even harder to see what true potential might look like.
This is true not only for individuals but also for teams. It is easy to see that a team is made up of individuals, who have their own fears. In the worst case, the team’s fear could be compounded by multiplying the fears of rest of the teams. Yes, we definitely don’t want that!
Addressing the Ecosystem
The ecosystem in which teams operate have a huge impact on their performance and can deter or improve their chance of unlocking their true potential. Here are some ways of addressing the ecosystem.
Team members’ fears can act as noise cancellation mechanisms for other team members’ fears. How?
Let us take an example. Say that a QA on the team is afraid of receiving bad delivery from developers. Now assume that a developer on the team is afraid of poorly groomed stories. These fears when looked upon by themselves can cause a lot of pain and strife. Now put their fears together. Poorly groomed stories often mean that it is not clear what the expectation downstream is, so it makes harder for the developer to code which results in poor delivery to the QA. OTOH, if the whole team was aware of these fears, they could all get together to discuss how the story needs to be tested (the T in INVEST) before starting to work on it.
In other words, certain fears can help guide positive collaboration between the team members and give them the courage to deal with problems. I find retrospectives are an essential noise cancellation tool in any team’s arsenal. So if you find your team skipping retrospectives or having them only for namesake, then hopefully you know what to do.
The role of Leadership
Some researchers at Google through their project Aristotle found that high performing teams have a psychological safety. Modern Agile also lays it down as one of the four cornerstones. I believe psychological safety is everyone’s responsibility but the lion’s share of the responsibility falls on the leaders of the organization. Why?
Leaders of the organization heavily influence how it operates. They influence the structure; their decisions and behaviors either create or destroy walls between people based on their departments or functional groups. Even at the team level, leaders influence relationships between people. Negative influence can create mistrust, and positive influence can help the team soar even in most difficult situations.
Unfortunately, there are always some things that cannot be discussed openly even in the most open of all organizations and teams. Sometimes that creates fear. It is the leaders’ job to sense what those things are and how they impact the safety of their people. Leadership’s role cannot be downplayed.
Understanding True limits
When you have canceled the noise and you have leadership support, look into what you can do to learn about your current limitations. A useful conversation to have is around – To what extent can you go today without getting into trouble?
Take an example, a team perceives that it is delivering slowly. However, it does not know how fast it goes today. Now, the team may try different approaches to go faster, like slicing user stories or reducing work in progress. It may even work but if it is afraid of measuring its progress objectively and often, it may easily fall back to old ways. This would create more fear for change and would be counter productive.
The SIX STEPS: What to do?
Here are six steps to unlock your team’s true potential and become the best team ever:
- Find out what your limits are. Only if you know your limits, you can challenge them.
- Identify what to do to get as close as possible to the limits.
- Get permission to fail, and give yourself the permission to fail.
- Do what you need to in order to get close to the limits.
- Fail or not – Retrospect, learn from the experience, what can you do to push the limits? Push the limits.
- Repeat from step 1
Unlocking your team’s potential can be easier than you think. The one hard thing about it is that it requires an open culture based on trust and respect. Even then, these six steps should help take things from where they are, towards where they should be.