How to Build Fast Part 1: Team Culture

Shannon Klett

Software Engineer

employee working happily in meeting room with coworkers

With an unprecedented global pandemic and the urgent need for racial justice, there’s a desire for rapid change in the world. The climate is ripe for innovation, but many organizations and teams are not set up to deliver at the pace required. 

Which is where a great partner can make all the difference. At Connected, we’re used to building fast. We prioritize delivering value to users quickly, so we’ve developed skills and processes that help us do that. For us, building fast means having a laser focus on your objective, and ruthlessly deprioritizing anything that is not strictly required to achieve it. This means focusing on releasing the right first iteration, rather than the perfect product. In upcoming articles in this series, we’ll share specific tactics that will help individuals in each essential role to build fast: product manager, engineer, and designer. First though, we need to lay the foundation, which begins with team culture.

A cohesive team acts as a multiplier to individuals’ contributions. Even the best practitioners cannot deliver the best results if they’re not working together effectively. Every team member influences culture, so, even as an individual, you can start pushing your team to incorporate some of these tactics. Here are the three key aspects of team culture for building fast, and how to improve them.

1. Alignment, alignment, alignment

flipping through product thinking playbook cards

Alignment is key to building fast. Time spent going in the wrong direction increases the overall time it takes to build. Alignment includes the high-level goal of the project, the current focus, and the processes that make those happen. 

How to create alignment:

  1. Maintain a vision deck.
    • Vision decks are often shared outside a team to quickly communicate what they are working on and why. They are also a great resource to share within the team for the same reason, and should be built as a team. It serves as a single source of truth for product direction and provides a shared language for the team. It should cover:
      • What are we building?
      • For whom?
      • When do we want this done?
      • How will we know if we are successful?
      • And for all of the above answers: Why?
    • Just making the deck is not enough. The key is using its language and content in everyday conversations and decision making. For example, when prioritizing features, discuss how they fit into the vision, how they impact success metrics, and if they fit into timelines.
  2. Check in regularly.
    • Daily standups, weekly planning meetings, bi-weekly retros, and regular demos all offer opportunities to check in, evaluate progress on the vision and current priorities, and adjust accordingly. Retros are an especially good opportunity to take a step back from the regular grind and reflect on the vision. Planning meetings set the current focus for the team. Demos serve as the final source of truth, showing how well the actual implementation aligns to the vision.

2. Team ownership

coworkers smiling and working together while writing notes

When every team member feels responsible for the success of the project—and has the ability to influence it—the team runs more smoothly and the results improve. It leads to team members who feel empowered to raise concerns, ask questions, and advocate for improvements, all pro-actively, meaning opportunities and challenges are addressed earlier in the process.

Increasing team ownership:

  1. Foster buy-in for the vision. 
    • Every team member should see the value in achieving the vision. Learning about users and their needs is a powerful way to do this. Caring about the end goal goes a long way to increasing the team’s engagement.
  2. Include the entire team in product decisions.
    • Ownership and influence go hand in hand. In order to take responsibility for a project, individuals need to be able to influence its direction. This means the whole team should be involved in design sprints, user research, ideation, feature prioritization, and potential pivots. Decisions don’t need to be consensus-driven, but there should be transparency, opportunity for input, and everyone’s contribution should be considered.
  3. Encourage input.
    • Set the expectation that team members share their ideas, whether they’re new features, process improvements, or timeline concerns. Ensure there are channels for this feedback, such as group ideation sessions, retros, 1:1s, and check-ins at standup. Always thank the person for their perspective and take time to consider it. Maybe the feature doesn’t make sense right now, but it can be added to an idea bank for the next iteration.
    • Especially if something isn’t going well, make team members responsible for alerting others to a problem. Again, having the proper channels and check-ins support this behavior.

3. Adaptability

coworkers using sticky notes on wall to brainstorm and collaborate

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “change is the only constant in life.” No matter how well you plan, strategize, and align, factors will change as you build. Being able to adapt quickly helps a team maintain velocity even as priorities shift.

How to incorporate adaptability into the team: 

  1. Reframe work as ‘bets’. 
    • When building a product, no one knows which ideas are going to work or not, whether it’s a feature, UI interaction, or tech implementation. Given what the team might know and believe, they make ‘bets’ on which direction to go. If that direction turns out to be wrong, that’s a super helpful learning. Using the word ‘bet’ acknowledges uncertainty and the possibility of failure. Reframing work as ‘bets’ helps the team not get attached to ideas, accept when ideas aren’t successful, and focus on the learning.
  2. Invest the right amount of time into tasks. 
    • In the beginning, when there is the most uncertainty, focus on the high level. As the team moves forward and gains more confidence in the direction, then more time can be invested in the details. This applies to design mocks, feature implementations, roadmap planning, and more. Alignment helps the team understand where they are in the process, the degree of confidence, and therefore how much time to invest.

Conclusion

Building products is hard, and building products fast is even harder. There’s no perfect formula, and there are always hurdles and mishaps. However, creating a team culture of alignment, ownership, and adaptability builds a strong foundation that allows the team to better navigate opportunities and challenges. Each factor enables the others, and they are strongest when applied together.

Stay tuned for our upcoming articles where we’ll dive into specific tactics PMs, engineers, and designers can use to build faster.

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