How do you keep a team together while delivering a project, while giving everyone the necessary autonomy and freedom to innovate? Abi Handley of Outlandish explores.

So you need to get a project done? You have all the agile certification training, the process maps and a thousand-card backlog. But most of all, you have a team. How do you get them to deliver? 

You don’t. You enable them to do it. 

Simple, right?

So how do you lead a successful digital organisation whilst actively trying not to boss people about? How do you share the responsibility, and the glory and benefits of delivering a digital project equitably? 

We’ve got some experience in getting projects done. Outlandish Co-operative is a worker-owned business delivering digital products for organisations who want to change the world. Through the 10 years we have existed we have learned an awful lot of things. And we have learned those things by trying them. We’ve taken a few measured risks along the way, we’ve been willing to admit when things haven’t been going so well, and we’ve bloomin’ well changed it up. As a result, we’ve learned a lot about working as a team to deliver good digital results.

Here is a very quick guide to the four pillars of an effective digital product:

  1. Strategy: establishing a shared goal
  2. Decision making: be clear how decisions are made
  3. Embracing learning: iteration and improvement instead of blame
  4. Communication: active listening and empathy

Through actually doing this stuff, I’ve learned these pillars are all essential in creating a delivery-focused, autonomous and successful team (digital or otherwise). And a happier, more fulfilled one too.

If you do nothing else: Establish a goal together

From a project point of view, it’s essential that each person knows what you are all trying to achieve. Agree it together so that you can develop a shared and nuanced understanding of what is and isn’t a priority. The team that discusses and agrees the goal should be made up of the key stakeholders; the project managers, the developers, the designers and the organisational stakeholders… and most importantly the people you are building something for - the users. Get together all the people from whom you need commitment, knowledge and expertise - at least, as many as you are able to get in a room (or let’s face it, for now, a Zoom call.)

We refer to this as a Theory of Change, but a simpler version than many charities use for their overall strategy.

It will take a good couple of hours at least to all be able to agree a statement. But I promise you that it will be worth it and will flush out a whole load of assumptions and confusions amongst the team. It also will give you something to refer back to when you get into sticky conversations later down the line.  

Agree on how decisions are made (AKA where the power lies) 

Power is the elephant in the room, pretty much all the time. It is always there, somewhere, somehow, and the impact of power dynamics between people is immeasurable. And within organisations especially we very rarely even mention it. (You can say the same about power’s asymmetric corollary, responsibility.)

I’d challenge you to bring the elephant into the spotlight just a little bit… and see what happens. One of the simplest ways to do this is to establish from the start how decisions will be made in the team. Is there someone who has the final say? Do you vote? Is it consensus? Or perhaps it could be by ‘consent’. 

Consent-based decision making is a key sociocratic principle and is the process by which Outlandish makes all key decisions in the organisation. The process allows all team members a voice and a structured chance to contribute to the decision with a goal to get the best possible decision at the given time to move the project forward. 

Consent-based decision making complements agile methodologies incredibly well - particularly in the sprint planning phase. It supports and promotes everyone to be heard. It acknowledges whatever they think is valuable. And it allows for differences to be integrated. 

Of course you can use any method of decision-making that suits the team and the organisation best. Being clear at the start how decisions are expected to be made will bring clarity and structure to the team. 

It’s also worth remembering the decision-making is not the only way in which power is executed - Steven Lukes has some interesting things to say about the “three dimensions of power” - decision-making power, non-decision-making power, and ideological power. Often it’s what’s not being decided (at least, not openly) that causes the biggest issues.

Establish an “always learning” mindset

Sociocratic principles and agile methodologies again go hand in hand here. Allow your team to iterate, and get some stuff wrong, and speak about it and work out how to make it better. This will mean your team will learn and develop without you having to be there to hold their hand. And you will learn a tonne of stuff too.

  • Hold regular retrospectives where the whole team reflects back how the sprint or a key phase has gone. These help to raise simple steps for improvement and ensure the team will all be heard:
  • Invest the time it needs to action what comes out of those retrospectives. It is no good just making the time to raise what could be improved. You’ll need to actually make the improvements. Otherwise you will hear the same things at every retro. Which is dull. And a complete waste of time for everyone.
  • Really live the agile prime directive and make it active in your meetings: 
"Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand." - Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

Remember that certainty and learning are awkward bedfellows: if people are 100% confident they’re going to get something done it suggests some or all of the following:

  • The person does this exact thing every day with consistent results and so can reasonably and confidently predict the outcome
  • The goal is not ambitious
  • The risks and complexity have not been considered (psst. It’s probably this one)

The one that underpins it all: Invest time in understanding and listening to each other

Soft skills schmoft skills right? Nope. Every minute I have invested in effectively communicating with people has paid itself back in so many ways. And communicating isn’t talking to people. It is mostly about listening. If you truly listen, you will start to understand each other more, which will build trust, build openness and build the ability for the team to work effectively together with autonomy and freedom. 

This isn’t tangible, task-driven or, even, measurable work. But it is immeasurably beneficial to the team, the project and the people. Investing this time before there are conflicts can and will head off conflicts in the future.

But what does that actually mean? How do you invest time in building understanding?

First, don’t just set aside special time for building understanding. You should do it every minute of every day. All the principles above will help to support people listening and understanding each other. But then also:

  • Carry out dedicated team building (but not just a treasure-hunt) sessions - such as the goal setting, but also potentially NVC (non violent communication) training or sessions around understanding person type
  • Do some pair work - if there are issues, or there are important pairs or small groups within the team, facilitate conversations with them
  • Notice when there are quieter members of the team and check in with them - do they feel heard?
  • Within meetings, try and summarise what someone has said back to them - it checks you have heard them correctly and also ensures that person knows they have been understood. Super simple, a bit awkward to start with, but it works and it’s amazing how many major disagreements come from tiny misunderstandings!

Benefits vs Cost

This all sounds like a lot of time, right? And at first, it does take more time and effort to establish these foundations. But I can also tell you it is worth it. As a human I am happier, more fulfilled and more able to do things freely and confidently within the teams I work with. As a business owner there is less recruitment and staff churn. And there are (even) happier clients and better projects.

These principles won’t wave a magic wand and fix all the issues you may have in a team, but it certainly helps you notice what they are and give you a chance to work through them and make them just that step better. Our team still has plenty of work to do - we will always be a work-in-progress - and we are learning how to adapt all of the time to changes that we can’t predict (remote project management anyone?). And I’m genuinely excited about what else we might uncover in the future. 

So if you want to take some small steps to building a team that is less reliant on you - give these a try and let me know how you get on. 

Abi is a member of Outlandish Co-operative and has been there for 10 years. She works across many projects at Outlandish from complex data products to workshop design and delivery as well as internal finance oversight and people development. She came from the BBC where she developed digital learning projects for BBC Learning and worked on the initial BBC World Service social media strategy. 

Outlandish Co-operative is worker owned and has been delivering digital projects to organisations with a social mission for 10 years. We started because we got frustrated with working in large (mostly good) organisations that were inefficient, slow to innovate and indecisive because we thought we could work faster, better and more fairly on our own. Right from the get-go we knew we also didn’t want to grow into a huge, profit-hungry agency. We wanted to get paid fairly for what we did, we wanted to build good things, and we didn’t want to become CEOs, CTOs, Chief Execs or Shareholders (no offence). And that’s what we did.

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

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