Getting through the wall

I'm taking a break from technology and clothes to talk about people, specifically teams of people, because one of the things I'm often asked about is how to deal with a team that's perceived to have issues either with motivation and/or performance, albeit I'm asked in context of IT service delivery or projects.

Don't worry - it's just the wall

One of the things that often trips up new leaders or managers is the perception that things have turned sour with their team; that everything had appeared okay for a while but now everyone's apparently demotivated, there are lots of issues and the outlook is gloomy. And whilst that really may be a sign of trouble, my first response is usually "don't worry, you've merely hit your wall". And by wall, I'm using the exercise analogy - that patch on your run, reps, or class where you no longer feel that this is doable and you feel like quitting; the bit before you break through and feel the euphoric rush of endorphin, adrenaline and success.

I look at a team as a biological entity with each team member taking on a role in the body: the person who is the heart and motivator of the team, someone who is the brain and conscience, the hands that do and the legs that support. Each has a function and a place and the whole body needs to be kept in careful balance. And like any living entity with a circulatory system, there are chemical shifts and cyclical changes. Inevitably, every team I have ever managed goes through cycles of anything from four to eight weeks where everything's chummy and then we get a bit tetchy with each other and the client.

The tetchy, gloomy wall usually only lasts a few days but does bring interpersonal conflict, maybe a little drama, and a definite decline in productivity. And why wouldn't it? On a project lasting twelve to eighteen months it is difficult to maintain high levels of performance. The body get tired and needs to walk instead of sprint for a bit.

Remember to rest

Don't fight the wall. If you do you risk fatigue and once that happens it's much harder to recover from without actually changing out team members. Instead, acknowledge that it's that time and carry out activities to mitigate the damage of interpersonal conflict.

This is the time for someone to bring in some baking, to go for a team lunch, turn the office lights off at a strict 5pm and send everyone home or - if it's particularly bad - give everyone the day off. Once you understand the rhythm it becomes easier: avoid scheduling high pressure activities or major deliveries for that period. And find a trigger event.

Demonstrate success

A trigger event is the equivalent of looking ahead while you're running and negotiating with yourself that you can make the call to keep going or to stop when you get to that corner or that bus stop: just get past that next little slope; just one more routine in dance class; one more set of burpees and you can still hold your head up high.

Choose a small, non-critical delivery to serve as a reminder that even though the team is tired, it's still functional and able to get stuff done.

"Team I know we're all a little bit over this project at the moment but let's just get through this sprint with a couple of really killer user stories done; we won't worry about our velocity we'll just do a great job on a couple of key features."

Walls are part of performing

Walls are definitely more noticeable when your team is no longer storming. They're noticeable in norming teams because it feels like a step back into the storming phase.

Walls are an essential part of performing teams. Why? Performing teams are working to levels of excellence, they're engaged and pushing hard. Pushing hard means pushing past your level of fit and it is tiring. Pushing too hard causes injury so knowing when to rest and taking rest is an essential part of maintaining a healthy, performing team.

Walls that last a week or more are no longer walls: they're a sign of distress. Please, please know the difference.

Before I sign off, some homework for you. Lift your head up from your computer screen and look around at your colleagues. Are you still performing or have you hit the wall?
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