This post is part of a mini-series about building a centre of excellence.

So far I’ve written about why that is important, and the need to hire and retain good talented individuals, and how you can do that better.  Next I want dive into bringing out the secret weapons: the staff you already have.

Its easy to assume its the fault of your current team if they don’t appear to be amazing right now.  This is short-sighted, and you are at dangerous risk of squandering your best resources.

First, ask yourself why.

If your current people haven’t stepped up to the plate and done amazing things already, there must be a reason. It might be because they aren’t able to do so, true.  It also might be that they have been discouraged from doing so by the culture in the team, the department or the company as a whole.

Perhaps they lack of confidence their ideas will be well received (or even listened to). Or maybe they had a bad experience in the past that has left them fearful.  Or any 1 of 100 other reasons.

The good news is that you have probably got a team of good people already, but they need permission or a reason to do more.  Assume positive intent and slowly begin to build an environment that nurtures their skills and encourages them to try to do more.

Next, You Need to Lead.

Culture is what you do.  In this case, it is actually what you do.

Your actions will be the regular signals to your team that things are changing, and how that change will look.  Everything you do needs to support your utter certainty that your team can learn to be amazing.

I would suggest you start small.  At first there will be a lot of work for you to do.  Your team won’t be ready to accept delegation of this yet (not with any success at least).

You will need to lead this single-handed for a while.  If someone else could have done it, they would have done so already.  Once people get in the swing of it however, the team will pretty much run it themselves, and love doing so!

Where to begin

Right now, even people who have worked together for years may not know each other well, nor behave as if they are team mates.

To change this, you will need to help them build a set of experiences that they do together.  This gives them a kind of bond from having shared experiences.  This can be done quickly, and strong bonds can be formed.  This happens best under very difficult circumstances – crises are excellent for enabling rapid change.  For your purposes, perhaps we should take a little longer here!

So, think about where you want to get to over the next year or 2.  Does a team that learns proactively, shares ideas and wants to improve effectiveness sound good?  I’ll use that goal for my examples from here on.

Bring the team together.

Regular ‘togetherness’ could be monthly, or weekly.  Each get-together is an iterative step that allows you to refine your route to your target.  Weekly meetings will get you to your target much faster than monthly ones. Monthly may be better if you aren’t committed to putting in consistent effort, or your people are likely to resist a weekly frequency.  Success is more important than speed here.

So lets say you start by bringing the nascent team together for a learning session every week.  This sends the signal that the topics that they will learn about are important enough that you are setting up a regular meeting.

You will also need to attend.  I can’t stress this enough.  Your presence there sends a strong signal that this is important to you and to the company.  If you don’t attend, guess what message that sends?  You have more important things to do.  This implies there are more important things to do, and pretty soon, you have devolved back to the team attitude & culture you started with.

A good source of material here is TED talks.  Pick a general topic which will suit everyone in the team.  Something on collaborative working, or team dynamics might be a goods start.  Avoid anything too technical if anyone in your team is not technically minded, as this will alienate those attendees.

Addressing Resistance

These sessions are likely to have some attendees who always show up from the start.  You will also probably have some who never do, or whose attendance is intermittent.

Now is the time for you to….NOT mandate attendance!   Yes, I know its tempting, but try to understand that this battle alone will not win you the war!  Instead, over the next day or 2 after each session, seek out each non-attendee quietly at their desk.  This is as non-threatening as you can get, their desk is their ‘home turf’.  By way of contrast; don’t summon them to your office to explain their non-attendance 😉 .

If you want to change the culture, you can’t force it.  Well, not very often.  You need to spend those chips very wisely indeed, and this is not the time for that sort of approach.

  1. Ask them why they didn’t attend yesterday.  (Be polite and very careful with your tone of voice).
  2. Actually listen to their answer.  (It’s often a ‘one-off’ reason – emergency bug fix at the last minute or something similar.  People almost never say ‘I had things I thought were more important to do’.)
  3. Don’t comment on their reason for non-attendance.  Instead, smile and tell them the topic / TED talk / whatever you have planned for next time.  Show some mild enthusiasm for the topic, and imply you are expecting that it should be a good session.
  4. Leave.

You may need to repeat this several times before they start to attend.  Most people do attend, once they see you being consistent.

Congratulations, you’ve built your first piece of new culture for your team!

Now What?

Well, the bones of the above approach can be re-used for many other events.  (Don’t try to introduce them all at once.)  Some of the events I have found useful for building (Scrum Master) teams in the past include:

  • Learning sessions.  There are many types of these, depending on maturity of team( 1link 2, link 3).  Or you could reach out and ask a conference speaker in a relevant field to come and give a talk.
  • Scrum Master Community gathering (This is like a free-form planning and retro for the team.  I will write more on the format of these later).
  • Scrum Buddies
  • Scrum Master Dayz (an internal conference for the Scrum Masters – for more mature teams)

Mix and match these (or other ideas) depending on your team and your end target condition.

Are you saying to just increase the number of meetings we attend?

No.  Well a bit.  All out relationships need a maintenance level of attention.  If you want to build a great team, and encourage your team members to develop, there will be a cost.  At first, that cost is for you to spend time building the team.  Eventually that cost will be the hit to your ego as you realise they no longer need you!

(Its a lot like Nanny McPhee in that way:  “When you need me but don’t want me, I must stay.  When you want me, but don’t need me I must go.”)

In a nutshell (and to over-simplify): To form a team, your team members need to spend some time doing something together.  Culture is built by what & how you do those things. 

So is there an ‘end’?

Eventually you need to start the process of devolving your responsibility for these initiatives.

After a while, you’ll have good regular attendance and you should see a level of enthusiasm for the sessions.  It’s time to start letting go.

Don’t worry if you misjudge this, and it goes wrong.  Resume leadership (without showing disappointment) and get everything back on an even keel and try again in another few months.

How to let go

The team choose the topics

Let the team try choosing the topics.  For example, have everyone submit a topic for the next session and then the whole team votes.  Run the winning idea at the next session.

Volunteers for temporary curatorship

A while after that, ask for someone to set up a wiki page or similar, to add topics on for each week – let them sort it out.  It is important you don’t give this task to someone, it needs to be offered to all, and accepted voluntarily.

If you see they struggle to get organised each time, you can get them to nominate a curator / facilitator.

Tenure for this curator role needs to lasts for a short while only, e.g. the next 6 sessions.  It needs to be a fixed period, and to be rotated. If you don’t do it this way, one person ends up with all the work (or all the influence, depending on how you view it). Either way, its not great for a team.

You need to continue to attend these sessions, even though the team are now organising them.  You still need to signal to everyone that it is an ‘Important Meeting’.  It’s not yet a habit for them, and if you stop going now, the whole thing will gradually break apart.  It will get harder and harder to kick it off again after each time this happens.

Congratulations, your team is evolving self-direction.

The whole purpose of developing your team is to introduce and maintain a particular culture.  There are infinite variations on the theme for this culture.  In essence though, you are introducing and nurturing the opportunity for learning and innovation to your team.

As soon as they believe you are really meaning to do that, and its not just a short fad, most will embrace the new autonomy with gusto.