Running a startup is challenging, you’re constantly pursuing and evaluating new opportunities, all sorts of unplanned work keep coming up and your needs change day to day. When this is the norm, your development team loses focus and productivity drops. Ironically, the team becomes less able to respond to your changing demands.
If you’re like most growing tech companies, you have a product, a small development team and a few customers. You’re still building, experimenting and learning about your customers and the market. Those activities are essential for your business to succeed but they often lead to new insights that change your product plans. For your engineering team, this is exhausting and can feel like you’re frequently changing direction with no vision or focus.
If your developers have a growing list of half-finished projects and features, this may be a sign that your team is now spinning wheels and members are frustrated. When you came up with your new ‘high priority’ idea, developers were already working on a project and context switching simply kills productivity.
You may be aware of all of this but reality is you do have too many unknowns for long-term planning and changing direction quickly is absolutely necessary. If this is the case, what can you do to keep your team productive and engaged?
1. Set the expectation
Let your team know that this is how you plan to operate the business for the next little while. You’re in a phase of experimentation and during this phase of the company’s growth you need to build processes, whatever those may be, that allow for quick experimentation and changes.
2. Adjust your process
Design and adopt processes that allow for quick experimentation. Here are some ideas to try, depending on where interruptions are coming from.
Ditch the long-term roadmap
When your roadmap is irrelevant, don’t waste time on coming up with one. Having a roadmap sends a message that you have clear goals and that the success of the team is measured based on their ability to execute and deliver against the roadmap.
Define your experiment
When taking on a project as an experiment, communicate what your hypothesis is, how you plan on testing it and what is your success & failure criteria. When you’ve learned something from your experiment, share it with the team. This creates a sense of progress, even if your experiment failed, and helps your team understand why you need to move on to the next experiment.
Assign someone to deal with production issues on rotating basis
If most of your interruptions come from production/customer support issues, maybe you can assign an individual team member to handle those on rotating basis. This has the benefit of keeping rest of the team focused and when you do it on rotating basis all members share the burden.
Assign a gatekeeper
Make sure all communication with the development team funnels through one person, it could be the product manager or the team lead. Your designated team member should be aware of what the team is working on, what the competing priorities are and help you estimate the level of effort involved in implementing your new idea.
Plan for the unplanned
If you know that interruptions/new work will undoubtedly come up, then leave time in your schedule for that work. This will avoid overwhelming developers and can improve your ability to estimate when planned work will actually get done.
3. Work on yourself first
Take a hard look at yourself. Are you the biggest interrupter? Is your lack of organization and clarity confusing your team? Are you the one who’s always breaking the process? As a leader, a small idea that you mention casually to your team carries a lot of weight. You may have intended it as a suggestion, but your team just heard “New priority, please drop everything you’re working on”.
None of these are easy, and the truth is that no matter what you do, your team will pay a price for every interruption or change in direction. So remember, communicate the context and explain how you need to operate your company, adopt processes that increase your team’s responsiveness and watch your own interactions and their impact on your team and culture.