Agile Transformation

Practical Ways To Boost Your Development Team's Morale

Adrian Wright

An often-overlooked aspect of project leadership is cultivating a positive team morale. If the schedule slips or budget gets tight, leaders often try to cut scope, add people to the team, or even encourage extra hours. While these techniques have their time and place, I want to focus on strategic ways to support your team’s morale. Morale is an intangible that has no formula, but there are simple things you can do to encourage a healthy, positive attitude in your team.

Warning:  This ain’t rocket science, folks. It’s applying the common sense we know about human relationships to support the people doing the work. I think you’ll find these recommendations to be delightfully simple.

Invest time in your people

When I’m playing a scrum master or architect role, I make it a practice to have regular one-one-ones with members of the team. This way I can ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and their input is valued. One-on-ones are a good way to invest time in each of your team members and to get a pulse on how things are going for them. This is a safe environment for people to share concerns that they might not be comfortable sharing in a larger forum.  It’s also a good opportunity for leadership to provide coaching for that individual, both through encouragement and constructive criticism.

By holding regular one-on-ones, you show that you value each member of the team. You are listening to their thoughts and investing in them. This can go a long way to helping an individual stay happy and motivated to succeed.

Summa Agile Coach Michelle Gilboy shares more ideas on cultivating a motivated team in this blog post. Check it out!

Encourage discussion and reflection

Agile emphasizes input from all members of the team.  After all, the people doing the day-to-day work have valuable observations about what’s going well and what isn’t. They can identify pain points and brainstorm solutions. This highlights one of the key agile principlesthat the people who have skin in the game should have input to how the work is done.

Agile retrospectives are a great forum for discussion and reflection. They allow the team to highlight what went well, what didn’t go well and what they will commit to changing for the next iteration. Here are some tips on getting the most out of your retrospectives:

  1. Ensure that every voice is heard. If the loudest voice in the room keeps other from speaking, it’s not truly a team retrospective.
  2. Create a forum where people are comfortable speaking candidly. Many retrospectives include customers, executive sponsors and others who are not involved in the day-to-day work. While it’s valuable to have them there, it can be helpful to hold a separate retrospective with just the development team, to allow them to speak freely.
  3. Commit to making change. Large-scale change takes time, but you can take small steps in the right direction. Commit to reasonable changes that you can make in the next iteration.

Retrospectives won’t solve every problem, but they help people get problems off their chest. They encourage the team to take ownership of the project and to make consistent, incremental improvements. Owning your work is a key factor for a happy team.

Be clear and consistent

Teams can become disenchanted if they think that rules are unclear or applied inconsistently. For example, if you set an expectation that you’re going to hold code reviews, but it becomes clear that only “problem” people are getting their code reviewed, this can lead to resentment. Instead, ensure that everyone’s code is reviewed—even the architects on the team. Architects should be open to feedback and ideas. They should use the opportunity to demonstrate proper practices, but also to cultivate new ideas and encourage discussion in the team.

People will disagree with some expectations, but this is inevitable. Being clear and consistent with expectations makes them easier to follow. Here are some tips on setting clear expectations:

  1. Communicate expectations clearly, and protect them. The team needs to know the “definition of done.” Developers need to know expectations regarding automated testing. Team leaders need to ensure that those expectations are being followed. Don’t slack on enforcing the “definition of done.”
  2. Define lines of authority clearly. Ensure that developers know when they can go off the beaten trail with their code, and when they need to follow an established pattern.
  3. Lead by example. Team leaders should lead by following the patterns in their own work. Architects should have their own code reviewed and should fulfill all expectations regarding automated and unit tests.

Let the coders code

Workplace politics and excessive meetings are two culprits for killing developer productivity. Developers typically prefer solving technical problems to dealing with office politics. For example, if someone needs to mediate between stakeholders with differing priorities, this should be handled by a product owner rather than the developer implementing the feature. Political discussions that involve technology should be handled by an architect, allowing developers to focus their time on code. This reduces context-switching and minimizes the number of people involved in potentially stressful or discouraging conversations.

Be efficient with your meetings. Keep daily stand-up meetings short and sweet. Minimize the number of meetings people are invited to. My experience has been that developers should aim to spend 6.5 hours or more per day doing real development work to stay productive and happy.

Summa’s approach emphasizes delivering continuous value to the customer. Eliminating waste and allowing people to focus on what they are good at is a big part of that approach.

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Relax and enjoy yourselves!

I once worked on a project that had fallen behind schedule (I’m sure you have too!). Rather than requiring mandatory overtime, management focused on lifting the team’s morale. Lunch and happy hours were provided for the team regularly. Individual successes were acknowledged to the whole team. Upper management held one-on-ones with individual team members to hear their opinions and brainstorm ways to make it easier to do work. In the end, this had a profound effect on the team’s productivity and morale.

Many teams I’ve worked on found their own way to relaxtrips to a baseball game, beers in the office on Fridays, making pizzas together in the office kitchen. One team even challenged each other to eat the world’s hottest chili peppers! Whatever it is that makes your quirky, unique team happy, make sure they have an environment that rewards hard work, but also encourages them to relax and enjoy themselves.

The experience needed to do. And to lead.

At Summa, we bring a wealth of technical knowledge to the table. But we also have deep project leadership experience, in both agile coaching and architecture roles. Whether you need help with your architecture of the future or motivating your team, Summa can step in to help lead the way!

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Adrian Wright

Distinguished Technical Consultant