Don’t Interrupt the Team! Two Ways to Know How Your Team is Doing without Interruption

By Rob Keefer

Two simple practices will increase your team’s productivity and help you always know how things are going.

As a manager attempting to incorporate some of the Harmonics Way principles into the workplace, wouldn't you like to know how things are going without interrupting the team? Two disciplined practices can quickly get you the information you need without distraction. These two practices are a daily 15-minute standup meeting and a Kanban board.

In a daily standup meeting, each team member quickly reports on the progress toward completing the current task. This meeting must be less than 15 minutes, and it is best that everyone on the team stand, which serves as a physical reminder to keep the conversation short (and why it is called a 'stand up' meeting).

Taking the Personal Kanban technique and applying it to a team, the entire team can set a week's goal. Many teams use paper artifacts to track tasks. These artifacts may be in the form of Post-It notes stuck to boards on a wall, or 4x6 note cards posted on a wall or laid on a table. Other teams store the task list in an online tool such as Trello or Jira. Regardless of where you keep the information, you should have easy access to the task list and insight into how things are going.

Attend the Daily Standup

Implementing a daily standup meeting helps the team coordinate tasks, and managers have insight into the team's pace and morale. By attending the daily standup meeting, managers communicate to the team that their project and status are important. Your presence can keep the team motivated, and you have the opportunity to become aware of ways to support the team.

Traditionally, managers are not allowed to talk during the daily standup. This silence is to ensure that the meeting is kept brief and focused. However, managers should ask questions after the meeting. Questions communicate to the team that the manager listened and is looking to clarify a status, or may desire to help in some way.

Managers should also make sure that the team is policing itself and that the team members are engaged. When you notice that a team member typically provides an overly-brief status, probe for more information on that person's situation. Some people may give a short status because of their personality; others may be hiding what is going on and using brevity as a strategy to cover the transparency that comes with details.

Pay attention to the team member who consistently gives an overly brief daily report. While it is not appropriate for people to go into great detail every day, there is an ebb and flow of a project. Those who rarely elaborate, or provide little real information, need to improve their communication. The team and the project manager, in particular, should work with the person to enhance communication. The person's manager may need to get involved and encourage a more transparent status.

Attentive managers will identify obstacles that the team encounters throughout the life of a project. Often obstacles come from other parts of the organization or external dependencies. Managers are often the people that can mitigate these obstacles or at least help with a solution. By being aware of the problem and the context from a daily standup, the manager can provide better solutions than mitigation in a vacuum.

Finally, the cardinal sin of a manager is to hijack a daily standup meeting. Some managers have been known to attempt to turn a 15-minute meeting into an hour-long session. When this happens, the project manager or other team members must politely speak with the manager, noting that people will stop coming if the manager repeatedly takes over the meeting. If you want to have a meeting, schedule it to fit into the day's regular routine.

The project manager should be sensitive to managers, or anything else for that matter, that negatively influences the team and take care of those issues. If a project manager talks with you regarding an issue, pay attention, and respond accordingly.

Note Task Flow

By using a Kanban Board, managers can easily keep an eye on the movement of tasks across the stages - To-Do, In Progress, and Done. Managers should understand that when the team planned the work, the tasks should have been broken down into bodies of work that they believe can be completed in five days or less. So, with this in mind, a task should take at the most five days to complete. If a task languishes in process for too long, the engaged manager should understand the nature of the delay and may be able to remove blocks that the project manager or other team members cannot.

Another good practice is to ensure that no team member is assigned to more than two tasks at a time. Some teams will limit the number of tasks in progress to one. However, there are extenuating circumstances in which a team member is waiting for something from another group and may have two tasks. However, more than two is a symptom of an issue that should be understood and cleared up if possible.

A significant advantage of using a Kanban board provides over traditional project management approaches is that the team can clearly define 'done.' This definition of 'done' must be based on the circumstances surrounding the project. For a software development team, 'done' may indicate that the functionality has been implemented and appropriate unit tests developed. For a different team that includes software testers, 'done' may mean that the developer has completed the task, and it was tested by someone other than a developer.

In any case, managers should understand what 'done' means for the project, and when a task moves into the 'done' state on the Kanban board, you can know what this means. This practice can be very informative to managers attempting to make decisions on resource planning or product release dates.

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The manager's goal is to always know how things are going. If you are comfortable with simply watching a Kanban board, you may not need to regularly attend the daily standup. If the daily standup is useful and you ignore the Kanban board, that is fine too, as long as you have peace of mind regarding the team's status.