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A Developer and Ex-Naval Officer’s Guide to Team Management and Agile Deliveries. This is the second part of a two-part story.

Shared Priorities and Teamwork (Part II)

Ensuring that everyone on the team knows and understands the mission and priorities is one important key to success. However, it is not enough.

On the ship, when we establish the battle stations, we have multiple teams working together on the same 114 meters. We have the Command Operations and the Bridge teams to manage the External Battle, the Machine and Damage Control and the Weapons and Electronics rooms where the Internal Battle management operates, the fore and aft Damage Control Parties with the firefight brigades and technical teams, the Logistics Unit responsible for example for ensuring the availability of spare parts for the equipment or managing the meals for the crew. We also have the Medical Units to manage the injuries during the impacts and, finally, the Flight Operations team that supports the helicopter operations on air and at the hangar.

During this period, nearly 200 militaries worked together in teams that operate on the same ship, with the same purpose of fulfilling the mission. This multi-team operation only works efficiently if each team points towards their priorities without affecting the others. And for that to happen, you need also to know what are the priorities and pain points that the teams around you have.

Each team has its priorities, for the Damage Control party, their top priority could be to extinguish a fire, and for a Weapon Repairing team, it could be to repair an air defence weapon. Even though both priorities are completely different, both of them point to the common mission of winning the battle. For that reason, when both teams interfere with each other, if they only look at their priorities, it is very likely that they will block each other. On the other hand, if they understand the other team’s goals and empathise with their difficulties, all members will work together to deliver the results without impacting others.

One of the reasons why we lost our second-week battle was precisely because of not being able to work together between teams. There was a fire in the hangar that was blocking the repairing team from fixing one of the air defence weapons. This weapon was critical for the first command priority “Anti-air warfare”. For that reason, we deployed one of our firefighting brigades to go extinguish the fire. On the way to the hangar, on one of the sideway corridors, another weapon repairing team was blocking the way because they needed to repair the torpedo launch tubes. When the firefighting team arrived, the weapon team decided to not allow them to pass because their priority was to fix the TLT. Since the firefighting team could not pass, the fire in the hangar was not extinguished, the air defence weapon did not get repaired and we got hit by a number of air attacks that led to defeat.

If both teams, by the moment they cross and interfere with each other on the sideway corridor, share their priorities, their difficulties and decide upon what is best to achieve the command priorities, they would be able to see that allowing the fire fighting brigade to pass would point more closely towards the mission. Without that, it was necessary for the fire brigade to return to the base, and communicate with the Damage Control centre, which had to align with the Weapons and Electronics centre, for them to communicate downwards to the TLT repairing team to allow the fire brigade to pass. That communication inefficiency was enough to not achieve the goal on time. The time lost could be avoided if both teams work together and decided together.

The IT Project Delivery World

Nowadays, it is very common to deliver products that communicate with external systems. Even if not, we may have different teams working together on the same project. We can have teams from different suppliers, one responsible for the deployment APIs, the other to build an IOT architecture for example. We also have a client team such as project managers, product owners and key users. What do all teams have in common? They are all working towards the same goal: to deliver the product with quality.

Each team, according to the example, has for sure different priorities. One may need to deliver the authentication method for the APIs, another may need to install the IOT boxes in the machines to receive the data and another may need to finish the dashboard page. Those priorities are completely not related to each other, at least until they start blocking them. The team delivering the dashboard may be dependent on the API methods being ready. The team building the API may be dependent on the team that delivers the IOT data into the database.

It is common for this to happen across multiple teams working on the same project. And when this happens, it is important to remember the goal and focus on it. Our work is not the only one that matters, our priorities are not always the most important ones. The faster we acknowledge the other team’s pain points and main tasks, the better we work together unblocking the challenges towards the goal.

Empathy is the key success factor to achieve an efficient work environment between multiple teams. Only by understanding each team’s priorities and challenges and working together to achieve the common goal, will it be possible to have a decentralised leadership, where every team member can contribute and help unblock priorities, to speed up the delivery and remove communication inefficiencies.

Train to Excel

We have a saying in the Portuguese Navy, “Train hard, fight easy”.

In our first battle, we lost it just by a bit. After the exercise finished, we performed a debriefing and a lesson learnt, to analyze what went wrong. We have determined the causes and gathered with the teams to improve what needed to work better. We felt very engaged with this improvement, like “Ok! Next week we will win the battle!”

The next week came and we lost again. We did in fact improve compared to last week, but the exercise scenario also got more complex. For that reason, our improvements weren’t enough for the fighting standards necessary. Again, after the exercise, we performed the lesson learnt and gathered the list of improvements to work for the next week. We were all once again engaged in winning the next battle. “For sure next week we will win this! We got this now!”

We hadn’t! Next battle arrived and we lost it again. Similar to the week before, we improved our standards, but it wasn’t yet enough. The evaluation staff that organizes the exercises had a perfect know-how in how to increase the difficulty of the exercises to a level that we could not win, but not hard enough so that we would demotivate and lose interest. And that was a crucial factor to increase our learning curve and maximize the outcome.

Finally, in our last battle, we were able to achieve the necessary fighting standards and win the battle. We were only able to achieve it due to the effective learning curve that we had during the previous weeks and exercises.

The IT Project Delivery World

Our knowledge map and our learning curve are present in all moments, regardless of the profession we have, the place we live or the person we are. The world is continuously changing and that momentum leads us to a continuous learning process. The only way for us to improve is to bring that momentum into our daily tasks.

Like in any game, it is common to start at a more easy level and then progresses to harder challenges. I personally don’t know of any game that starts with a highly complex level and progresses to an easier level. However, more complex levels don’t mean more difficult tasks for you. The first level of a game can be as difficult for you as a mid one. In the same way that your first driving lesson was to simply learn how to accelerate, brake and steer, but for most of us it wasn’t an easy task.

The momentum that leads us to improvement is measured precisely between the complexity of the task and the preparation that you have for it. If the momentum is positive (more complex than your preparation) and you accept the challenge, you will learn with the process. If the momentum is negative (less complex to you), you will not unlearn, you will perfect the process.

We can leverage our learning curve using our daily activities to maximize that momentum. If we look at the projects we deliver as a game, we may notice the same patterns in both. It is common for us to start our professional path according to the level we are at. In the beginning, we might participate as junior developers in building a ticket management system, where we should focus on learning the best development practices and quality tests. And since we are doing most of the tasks for the first time, we have for sure a positive momentum that we can leverage to improve daily.

After finishing this project, you are not the same person with the same skills as before. However, this doesn’t mean that you should break the momentum just because you grew. Like in battle scenarios, if we look at the next project beyond the tasks we feel comfortable with, we will have the possibility to continuously improve. Maybe this next project includes a mobile application with offline synchronization patterns, which adds a new level of complexity compared to the previous project. In this case, you can look at the tasks you already know (that have less momentum) to perfect them, and look at the new more challenging tasks as an opportunity to grow.

By looking at each project with the “momentum glasses”, you are investing in a continuous learning process that will lead you into a more efficient professional. If every team member works with the same mindset, the team will be pointing to better, decentralized leadership. With that, everyone will have a continuous learning focus, critical for the achievement of their priorities, critical to supporting and helping other team’s tasks, and critical for the accomplishment of the mission to deliver the best solution for our customers.

The Learning Triangle

At the end of my 4 weeks of battle exercises, I realized that those 3 mindsets were the key success factors for us to achieve the fighting standards as a crew. For sure other skills were fundamental for us to achieve success, like previous experience, legacy knowledge from other ships and organizational awareness of our battle stations. The more learning sources we have the better.

This is the Learning Triangle that I brought from those amazing battle exercises: the “Mission and Priorities” where we define our reasons and what we want to achieve, the “Shared Priorities and Teamwork” where we understand and share other team’s pains and goals, and the “Train to Excel” where we ensure a continuous momentum to increase our learning curve.

By the end, for this triangle to be effective, learn how to work with your team, learn how to work with others and learn how to work with yourself.