Measuring and Improving Team Health

Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash

Why does team health matter?

Healthy teams build better products. Period. I have not met anybody who has disagreed with that statement. It’s the why behind my persistent focus on team health. This statement can be translated to just about any team or industry by replacing the word “products” with whatever it is that team is responsible for delivering.

  • Zappos or Southwest: Healthy teams deliver better service
  • Costco or Trader Joe’s: Healthy teams yield strong customer loyalty

What is team health?

We often think of ‘healthy’ as being a human characteristic. If we take care of ourselves, eat well, and exercise regularly, we consider those to be healthy behaviors. So how do we translate healthy to a team?

Like humans, teams are living organisms.

Teams carry emotions, encounter conflicts, and seek a sense of purpose. Since we spend so much effort on measuring our own human health (e.g. weight, blood pressure, body fat, etc.), it makes sense that we should also invest time measuring team health.

How to measure team health?

HR organizations have conducted employee opinion surveys for decades. They have come under many names: employee engagement, employee satisfaction, employee commitment, and employee attitudes. It’s probably safe to say nearly zero people get excited when it comes time to take the annual employee satisfaction survey. Sorry to all my People Ops friends!

While employee surveys can provide a wealth of aggregate data and insights, they have several pitfalls. 1) They can be challenging to act upon due to the lack of actionable data. Sure, they can be helpful to establish a baseline and measure engagement scores as they tick up and down by a few decimal points. But does a 7.6 vs. a 7.1 actually tell you anything specific? Is it simply a vanity metric? And 2) The data can be difficult to “make local” and relevant to a team, especially in a larger organization.

In the world of agile software development, teams are often organized cross-functionally on a given product or project. Individuals may report to a functional line manager, yet be fully assigned to a project team. I’d argue it’s more important to understand the health of the project team than the functional team. I’m not suggesting that the health of the functional team is unimportant, but instead, that the project team is where we should focus the bulk of our efforts.

Next, I will share my journey using different techniques to measure team health.

Health Check 1.0 — Spotify’s approach

Back in early 2010s, the R&D team at Spotify published their system for scaling agile teams — tribes and squads. It describes how they operate across a highly matrixed organization made up of smaller autonomous teams (squads) of cross-functional members. While there are imperfections, I continue to be a huge fan behind the ethos of the organizing principles behind tribes and squads.

Definitions for red, yellow or green

The agile coaches at Spotify (the group that popularized tribes and squads) shared an activity for measuring how teams are doing. They call it the Squad Health Check model. I’ve been using this technique in my workshops for many years with great success. I won’t go into a ton of detail here, since it’s already well described by Spotify on their Engineering blog. In a nutshell, everybody gets a red, yellow, and green traffic light card. Each person will vote based on how they feel the team is doing across a variety of areas. The team then offers their opinion on how they feel the team is trending (improving, stable, or worsening).

  • Support: do we get the support we need, when we need it?
  • Teamwork: do we work well together as a team?
  • Pawns or Players: do we own our own destiny?
  • Mission: do we understand why we exist and what we are trying to do?
  • Health of codebase: do we have a ton of tech debt?
  • Suitable process: do we have too much red tape to cut through?
  • Delivering value: do we move the needle?
  • Learning: do we learn new things?
  • Speed: do we get stuck often by dependencies?
  • Easy to release: do we have good test automation?
  • Fun: do we know how to play hard while also working hard?
  • Communication: do we have honest and open discussions?

Tip: select relevant areas based on the type of team that is running the health check. For example, a non-technical team would not need to talk about the health of codebase or easy to release.

Squad health check results

The biggest value I have seen from the Squad Health Check is the reflection and discussion that takes place within smaller teams. You just don’t get this from large aggregate survey data.

Spotify provides all the downloadable resources to run this activity yourself: PDF or PPTX.

Health Check 2.0—Adding Breakouts for Improvement Brainstorms

After running the Squad Health Check in my teams for several years, I discovered a gap. At the end of the Health Check, we didn’t really identify key actions or takeaways from the rich discussion that was had. The team had just laid it all out on the table: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And then we wrapped and went back to work (or more likely, a team building event). We didn’t have a good way to capture next steps.

So to build on the original Health Check and put an emphasis on continued improvement, I added a breakout activity. Once we completed our assessment and tallied the red, yellow, greens and trends, I would ask the group to vote on the areas they felt were most critical to focus improvement on. As Patrick Lencioni says: if everything is important, then nothing is. So I limit the team to between 2 and 3 votes. Once the voting has ended, we breakout into smaller groups to brainstorm improvement plans on the 2–3 areas that received the most votes.

Breakout groups brainstorming ways to improve as a team.

After 15–20 minutes of brainstorming, the group comes back together and presents their ideas to the rest of the team. We reserve some time at the end for Q&A and my favorite, “yes, and”. Once the teams are done presenting, they now have a written artifact (poster sheets) that they bring back to their team space (pre-WFH days).

Groups presenting their ideas back to the team for how to improve in each area.

Health Check 3.0 — Going Virtual + Structured Brainstorm for Improving

In March 2020, I planned to run a health check with one of our teams in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, the pandemic forced lockdowns and halted international travel. So we had to quickly find a way to improvise and run the workshop virtually.

With the help of Miro, a digital collaboration whiteboarding tool, we were able to transfer the in-person activity to take place virtually. Everything from voting to breakout groups (thanks Zoom).

Using Miro to run a team health check virtually.

Around the same time, the Product Enablement team at Samsung Next had discovered another workshop technique called Lightning Decision Jam (LDJ) by AJ&Smart. Designed to be a one-hour workshop, it guides a group through problem definition, idea generation and prioritization, and action planning. It is tightly structured and timeboxed with minimal discussion — perfect for running in a virtual setting.

We replaced the loosely structured flip-chart brainstorm with the LDJ method and have seen great results, specifically around the actionable solution plans that are created. The thing we are now trying to optimize is duration since both sessions can take a good chunk of time.

Running a virtual LDJ at the start of the pandemic with a team from all corners of the world.

The journey has been fun and we keep trying to improve and optimize for teams of all types, sizes, and locations. Stay tuned for Health Check 4.0! What are other ways you measure team health?

I recently gave a presentation on this topic with my colleague, Melissa Jackson, during a Virtual Miro User Group event. You can watch it here:

Virtual Miro User Group event

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