How to Turn Your App Development Team’s Morale Around – Musings from a Technology Leader

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So your software development team isn’t producing. Morale is low, productivity is low, and frustrations are getting higher by the day.

You know you need to do something about it. But what? Everything you’ve done so far just seems to fuel the situation and make matters worse. How do you go about improving your team’s morale?I get this question more often than you might think.

That’s because at Ascendle, we do more than build software. We also coach other teams on how to build software better.

Personally, it’s a passionate topic for me and one of my favorite parts of the business. When I see the results of one of our partners turning around because of an impact we helped make, that’s special to me. So today I wanted to pay it forward even more. Today I’m going to share some of what I’ve learned on how to turn a software development team’s morale around.

Are you ready? Let’s plunge in.

You Can’t Change Morale Directly

Sure, you can boost it with praise and recognition, company outings and events, and even fun additions to the company lounge or break room.

And all those things are good. They can and should be part of your overall plan to create a highly productive and high morale workplace.

But what I’ve found is this: software professionals love working hard and producing results.

If the team is struggling to produce results, no amount of morale boosting is going to hide or mask that fact. The only way you’re ever going to really solve the morale problem is to help them produce the results they most desire.

And that’s what the next three sections will show you how to do.

Listen To Your Team

You don’t need a consultant to tell you what’s wrong. Chances are your team members already know exactly where the problems lie. But most companies – and most executives – have an easier time accepting that kind of feedback from a third party than from within.

So what exactly does Ascendle do when we’re hired for a coaching engagement? The very first thing we set up is interviews with all the members of the team. We listen, and they tell us what’s wrong.

Now some folks might be more candid with their criticism when speaking to a third party than with their boss. In my experience, it’s all in how you approach it. You need to show that you:

  • Want their genuine, honest feedback
  • Value their opinions
  • Are thick-skinned enough to accept and appreciate any criticisms they offer
  • Will not recriminate or penalize them in any way for any negative comments

This is extremely important. It’s definitely not easy. That’s why many companies prefer to let consultants do this for them. Which is fine, but consider this: learning how to elicit honest feedback, process it objectively, and build trust with your people is one of the best executive-level skills you can develop.

In fact, if this is an area of difficulty, you might even want to hire someone to train you and your management team on how to conduct these feedback interviews effectively.

Establish the Right Software Leadership

Let’s face it, technology specialists are some of the brightest, most educated people out there. Many of them have been high achievers their entire lives to get where they are now.

If your team is failing, remember this: your people are not the failures.

If your team is failing, it comes down to one of two things: poor processes or misaligned leadership.

Poor processes are fixable, but first you need to recognize them. And you need to implement new processes (or fix broken ones) that will work. In today’s market, I recommend an Agile development method, and Scrum in particular as the framework of choice. You can learn more about why I recommend Scrum in this free presentation.

But sometimes it isn’t the process … sometimes it’s the leadership that’s miscast. The old days of authoritarian hierarchies and dictatorial project management styles are all but gone. At least they should be. Today’s development world needs to be more flexible, more collaborative, and more tuned in to the creative genius of your people.

That’s exactly the sort of management structure a framework like Scrum encourages. Sometimes, however, a leader is just too set in his or her ways to change. That doesn’t make the leader a bad person, but you’re not going to get the benefits of Scrum unless you fully embrace it.

Think of it in sports terms. Consider a baseball team with a ton of talent but can’t seem to win the big games. What does the owner do? Hires a new manager, usually, to see if he can get the job done. It doesn’t mean the previous manager was bad – often they’ve already proven their value – but sometimes a team just needs a change or different point of view.

That’s what happened with one recent client of ours.

Interviews with the project team all pointed to the same conclusion: the project manager’s “my way or the highway” attitude was killing their productivity – and their morale. The team knew what was wrong, they knew what needed to be done, but didn’t feel they had the power or voice to change it.

When we shared this feedback with upper management, their response was swift. A new manager was assigned to that role, with the ability and temperament to learn from his team, rather than trying to direct their every action.

The team saw this as much needed support from upper management. Their attitudes began to shift immediately.

In the words of Diana Getman, one of two Scrum coaches during the engagement, “they began to trust they would be given opportunities to come out of the shadows and shine on their own.”

But still they had to produce results. And that’s where Scrum came in.

Delivering Results and Feeling Good

Remember how I said that the only way to really improve morale is to start producing results? Well, that’s exactly what happened in this example.

This particular team had not produced a shippable feature or result in two years. Imagine that! Two years without anything concrete to show for it. Obviously upper management was frustrated with the lack of results. Worse yet was how the project team themselves felt about it.

That all changed when they hired Ascendle to come in and work with them. A 13-week coaching engagement was designed to improve the team’s results and, more specifically, implement Scrum.

It didn’t take long for this partnership to make an impact.

Just four weeks into the coaching, the project team completed their first user story. It was a huge win for the team, and a huge morale boost. As Scrum coach Diana Getman recalls, “The team began collaborating really well together, individuals’ strengths began to emerge, and each team member displayed a newfound excitement and confidence in their work. They felt smart again.”

In fact, the process worked so well that a new manager was never hired. Instead, the team transitioned smoothly into a “non-hierarchical” Scrum team, where everyone was accountable and equal.

That’s the power of a good process and good leadership. This client showed the courage to use what they’d learned to make bold, swift changes. They could hardly believe the results.

What Caused Such a Fast Turnaround?

Once the team was no longer being told HOW to do their work, they started working together and using their unique blends of expertise and creativity to solve each of the problems they faced.

The business team told them WHAT needed to be done, and these very smart, very capable people figured out the best ways to get it done.

That’s what Scrum does best.

And it’s cases like these that make me love my job so much. I love seeing a downtrodden team uplifted by supportive leadership and implementing a great development process.

If your team is struggling to produce results – if morale is at an all-time low – then hopefully these tips will help steer you back on track. If you want to get there quickly, with coaching from an experienced, industry-leading team, then Ascendle is here to help as well.

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