Teams are the building blocks of successful organizations. The success of modern technology companies is driven to a large extent by their engineering and product teams. It is crucial for new engineering and product team leaders to maximize the productivity of their respective teams while ensuring a strong sense of team spirit, motivation, and alignment to the larger mission of the company, as well as fostering an inclusive and open culture that is collaborative, meritocratic, and respectful of each team member. Effective team development and management is therefore critical for engineering and product leaders, and ensuring robust team development at scale remains a big challenge in the face of changing work conditions.
Despite the importance of team building and development, not many leaders are trained to succeed and hone their leadership skills. In many cases, individual contributors who progress or transition to the managerial track may not have the aptitude for developing teams nor have the necessary experience or training in this vital aspect of their new role. Although team development is more an art than a science, this topic has received significant interest from the industry as well as academia, leading to structured team development theories and strategies.
In this article, you’ll explore a list of curated tips for engineering and product leaders to better manage the development of your teams and accelerate your learning journey on the leadership track. This particular set of tips focuses on building team cohesion, facilitating the five stages of team development, and providing structures for effective teamwork and communication that foster an open and collaborative team culture.
Without further ado, let’s jump right into some of the best tips for managing team development.
One of the fundamental responsibilities of a team leader is to have periodic check-ins with team members, both individually and as a group. These meetings serve as an opportunity to assess each team member’s work performance, their attitude and motivation toward their respective projects, and even their sense of belonging and identity within the team and the organization at large. These regular one-on-one meetings with direct reports also help to bring to light any professional or personal concerns that the manager can then try to address, whether on their own or with the support of colleagues from the human resources department.
Group meetings are also essential to allow team members to gather and discuss work issues as a group and voice any concerns that may affect the entire team’s output, productivity, efficiency, or morale. Such group meetings also provide a window for colleagues to learn more about the work and progress made by other members in the team, as well as provide a collaborative atmosphere in which they are encouraged to share their opinions or suggestions. Holding regular retrospectives is a great way to foster discussion and collaboration.
As you can see, both individual and group meetings serve as a vital opportunity for team leaders to check the pulse of each member and the team as a whole to assess whether any interventions are necessary to uplift productivity and motivation. Sometimes, these kinds of meetings can be conducted as a retreat or simply at an off-site location to enable team members to bond in a fun environment and encourage more open communication about the team’s development and progress.
Team members benefit immensely from a high-level structure to guide their work and appropriately allocate their time and resources to the various projects they are involved in. Ideally, all employees should be assigned projects that suit their particular skill set and interests and should be empowered to take ownership for the success of their projects. With individual owners for each team project, the role of the manager is to simply serve each colleague in terms of offering strategic guidance, providing additional resources or bandwidth, and removing any technical or organizational blocks that may otherwise impede their progress.
In addition to a clear and structured assignment of work projects, teams also benefit from having a structured work cycle. For instance, engineering teams usually employ an Agile methodology and a regular Scrum cycle to plan their work in sprints and evaluate their progress.
Using these proven methodologies helps team members plan their work effectively and encourages feedback from colleagues and the managers to weigh into project planning and management. Over time, if these processes are followed diligently, teams become vastly more organized and productive, leading to more successful projects and deliverables.
Five Stages of Team Development
This is the first stage in a team’s development, in which team leaders introduce individual team members, highlight their respective experience and skills, and facilitate interactions among the team. Knowing each other’s core strengths helps team members better understand who to reach out to for help or collaborate with to execute their projects successfully. Ideally, this stage should be revisited each time a new colleague joins the team to ensure that they feel welcome and to stimulate effective onboarding.
Storming is the next stage in a team’s development, which involves team members openly sharing their ideas for current work or new projects in front of the entire team. Team leaders can facilitate this by organizing meetings or events such as hackathons. During this brainstorming stage, it is important that each individual is allowed to freely express their opinions even if they are in conflict with others’. This provides leaders an opportunity to provide high-level clarity and showcase their leadership by effectively resolving any conflicts and motivating team members to disagree and commit for the greater good of the team.
During this stage, the team has crossed the initial hurdles and resolved differing opinions, allowing them to begin to hit their stride and work more productively as a unit. With a clear roadmap and a better sense of team success, individual employees begin to celebrate each other’s strengths and weaknesses and collaborate more effectively. Team leaders should congratulate themselves for attaining the norming stage but also be aware of the need to maintain the team’s motivation and momentum toward achieving their goals.
By this stage, a team benefits from high levels of cohesion and trust in each other. Teams are more efficient and can self-sustain their progress and velocity with little oversight or push from the team leaders. This enables them to take on more challenging and audacious projects and push the team’s limits in a positive manner. During this stage, team leaders can step in to hone individual team members’ strengths and help them develop and strive for the next step in their careers. Sincere team leaders leverage their coaching and mentorship skills to empower individuals to progress toward their peak efficiency and realize their full potential at work.
By this stage, teams have completed their projects. This is an excellent opportunity to discuss what went well, what did not go so well, and how to improve and implement new strategies for future team projects. This is a good time to celebrate individual and team successes and to congratulate employees in a public forum, motivating them to strive for even greater success in the future. Team leaders should also take the feedback from the team and leverage it to improve their team building and development methods.
Developing teams of engineers and product managers is a critical responsibility for the leaders and managers of modern technology companies. When teams operate at their best, the organization as a whole benefits from their productivity and positive momentum.
In this article, you’ve learned several tips and strategies on how engineering and product team leaders absorb and implement in their respective teams. These include conducting regular check-ins with individual employees as well as the entire team, providing a structured framework for carrying out their work and executing projects successfully, and following the principles from the five stages of team development.
Essentially, leaders should strive to build a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This not only requires substantial care, attention, and efforts from the leaders but also a high level of empathy and understanding of each individual in the team. Teams with strong, empathetic, servant leaders rise above other teams in an organization, attracting better and more strategic projects and opportunities for collaboration, ultimately resulting in a win for every team member as well as the team leader.
Dr. Sundeep Teki is a leader in AI and neuroscience with professional experience in the US, UK, India, and France. He has published 40+ papers; built and deployed AI for consumer tech products like Amazon Alexa; advises and consults tech startups on AI/ML, product, and strategy; and coaches data and AI professionals and executives.