Team Values

I held a retrospective with my new team last week. The team includes 2 senior developers, 2 junior developers, a product owner, and a product analyst. I’ve joined the team as an engineering manager, which I think of more as a team lead with an elevated title. Being new to this group, I wanted a way to understand their values. What motivates them? What common values do we share that we can leverage to move forward in the same direction?

I started out with a pretty simple question: “What do you value (in regards to what we’re building); what are you willing to fight for?” I asked them each to write down several values and then put them on the board before looking at everyone else’s answers. I also asked each person to rank their values in order of importance.

It turned out that my question was a little vague. Some people thought about the question in terms of the end result, and some in terms of the process of creating the software. In some ways that was a bit of a problem, because the different interpretations led people in different directions. But in other ways, not pushing them in any particular direction got more varied answers, exposing how they think about the project and the product.

My list (in order) was Effectiveness (doing the right thing), Quality (doing things right the first time), Happiness, Purpose, and Teamwork. In retrospect, I should have put Happiness first. If I’m not happy at work, I don’t really want to be there, and need to move on. (Sometimes I can trade some happiness at work for more happiness at home, but I’m definitely a person that needs to be happy at work.) The other values serve to improve my happiness, but the happiness is more important.

My own issue ranking my values turned out to be a problem with the ranking in general. Should they be ranked in importance of the necessity of the value as an outcome, or in importance of the necessity to focus on the value? I think the former is what I was looking for, but even I wasn’t clear on that when I began the exercise.

After everyone put their values up on the board, we read them off. Then I asked the team to choose several values that we share as a team. We pulled them off the individual members’ lists, and put them in the team list. Then I asked each person to come up and rank those values, then explain why they had ordered them that way, especially when they ordered them significantly different than the last person. I was hoping to come to some convergence of the rank over time, so we could document our values in rank order. That didn’t happen. But the discussion was illuminating to me and to everyone on the team.

I think the most interesting part about the lack of convergence was the difference between the developers and the product guys. The product guys definitely viewed the values more in terms of outcomes than the process. That makes sense — they’re not as intimately involved in the process of building the product.

We were able to converge on the top priority though: Will the user buy the product? This was a combination of a couple different values that we merged together. This included the end user experience as well as making sure the team would continue to have a reason for existing. The rest of the values we left unordered: Teamwork (cohesiveness), Data driven decisions, Team ownership, Simplicity, Effectiveness, Maintainability / Supportability, Quality, Automation, and Performance. I think that’s a pretty decent list.

As a couple teammates pointed out, those values are probably in part a reflection of this current point in time. If I asked the same question some other time, under different conditions and team dynamics, the answers would probably change a bit. And we’d probably come up with other answers if asked again, just due to randomness of the way we think about these things.

But I don’t think I’d do this activity a second time with the team. It was really about understanding our motivations — both our own, and those of our teammates. I found it effective in that way, and also in helping the team to think about our culture and how we can work to shape it to help us all push in the same direction.

There are a few caveats. When I asked for feedback on the exercise, one teammate pointed out that it wouldn’t work if people weren’t honest about their values, and they answered with what they thought management or their teammates wanted to hear. I don’t think that was an issue with this group, but it’s something to keep in mind.

The other major thing I’d do is to make it clear up front that I’m not looking for any action items from this activity; it’s more about understanding each other and ourselves. And next time, I’ll work to clarify how to rank the values.

I would recommend this activity for a new team, or when the makeup of the team is changing in some significant way. I wish there was a way to help a team converge on the ranking of their values, but I suppose I should be happy that agreeing on the set of important values went pretty quickly. And the diversity of ideas and opinions is probably a blessing that I should be embracing — the more ideas we have, the wider the variety of solutions we can imagine.

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