A conversation with Heidi Helfand, author of Dynamic Reteaming: The Art and Wisdom of Changing Teams
Heidi will be speaking at our upcoming event—Control the Room: The 1st Annual Austin Facilitator Summit! Taking place at Austin’s Capital Factory on May 23, 2019, learn more and get your tickets here.
Heidi Helfand believes that coaching is a core aspect of effective organizations where people are excited to come to work every day and create innovative solutions. After working as a writer, interaction designer, and project manager, she came to coaching when she was hired as AppFolio’s first Scrum Master. Now as the Director of Engineering Excellence at Procore, she works as an embedded coach to help staff realize the Procore promises: the pursuit of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
As someone who was regularly involved in team-based work, Heidi wanted to understand how to improve her teamwork skills. “I’d read different books within and outside of software and one of the constant things I would always hear was the dogma that, if you want high performing, highly productive, successful teams, they have to maintain the same composition. They have to be stable.”
These team recommendations were often based on research like Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development: forming, storming, norming, and performing. “He forgot a phase that I call stagnating, when you keep teams together for too long, the energy is low, and the people feel like they’re trapped. They need a change. Things aren’t moving.”
While these models are often referenced in the software world, Heidi learned that they are largely based on research done on therapy and training groups outside of technology. Heidi’s experience with product development teams didn’t match up with the accepted wisdom that successful, productive teams were ones that didn’t change. Realizing and embracing that changing teams were inevitable, Heidi was driven to uncover why her teams were able to achieve success despite the constant change.
“I conducted over 30 hours of interviews with colleagues at software companies all over the world. I coded the stories for themes, and then I wrote the book Dynamic Reteaming, which talks about five team change patterns for successful reteaming. It’s almost a study of proving the point that these teams change and there are patterns to how it happens in the wild. You can do various things to coach teams when they change and that’s my specialty.”
For years, the effectiveness of software development has been focused on the work and workflow. Everything from counting lines of code written to the number of hours remaining on a task was seen as indicators of success or productivity. Based on her research, Heidi has put the “accounting of the work” aside and chosen to focus more on helping individuals and teams pull themselves out of stagnation and get excited to come to work every day.
“When we give people the ability to choose how often they change and the topics that they work on, it can help them find that spot that is renewable.”
While the appetite for change varies from person to person, Heidi has observed that change can often serve to refresh an organization and inject a renewed sense of motivation or creativity. “Some people want more change than others. Some people prefer more of a stable situation. We have these different preferences. When we give people the ability to choose how often they change and the topics that they work on, it can help them find that spot that is renewable.”
For organizations seeking to ignite a drive toward innovation, reteaming is an approach that can foster greater creativity. But reteaming is not the solution for every situation. “I’m not saying bust your teams up and start your reorg now. I get misinterpreted for that. If you have a team and the chemistry is awesome, they’re delivering value continuously to the customers, it’s an enjoyable experience, and they feel like they’re continuously improving and motivated toward excellence, keep them together. Anytime that you embark on a deliberate reteaming, especially a large scale one, even if it’s through self-selection, it can cause a lot of fear and discomfort, so this is not to be taken lightly.”
Heidi views coaching as one of the key components for determining opportunities for change with metrics that are geared toward the whole human rather than productivity-based data.
“I’m a big believer in engagement surveys on the individual level as well as a team level. Since the context is always changing, you can have benchmarks and check-ins with people to see how they’re doing. It’s focused on the learning and desire to be in that place that brings out the best in you.”
One tool that Heidi uses to ascertain the level of fulfillment for individuals and teams is the Employee Net Promoter Score (ENPS). She recommends asking questions like “How likely are you to recommend working at this company?” with an accompanying field to explain why the rating was chosen.
Culture Amp is a product that Heidi uses to get feedback from a large number of people, but free products like Google Survey for groups of 250 people or less are available for those willing to spend time manually processing the responses.
In the process of writing her book, Heidi interviewed Kristian Lindwall who works at Spotify. He and a colleague shared their internal process for visualizing areas of improvement through their Spotify Squad Health Check (SHC).
In an SHC, “good” and “bad” are contextualized with an “Example of Awesome” and “Example of Crappy”, and team members use a scale of red, yellow, and green to indicate where practices in each area fall in the spectrum of awesome to crappy.
Heidi has adopted the SHC approach with the addition of movement to engage different areas of the brain. “I get a group in the room. We’d have red, yellow, and green objects on the floor. People would walk to the different red, yellow, and green, and then you debrief. You foster a dialog and take notes so you can use it as a team improvement activity.”
Heidi recommends the SHC be conducted quarterly and emphasizes that the results are not for management to analyze team dynamics. Rather, the activity serves as a tool for team reflection and self-improvement.
In addition to team reflection, Heidi is an advocate for individualized coaching. “I do unscripted coaching on a one-on-one basis with people and help them by listening, asking powerful questions, and forwarding and deepening the conversation. I help people set goals for how they either want to be different in the future or what they want to do differently in the future.”
“Through listening and powerful questions…managers get better at helping the person solve their own problem as opposed to…telling them what to do.”
As a coach, Heidi works with individuals that she doesn’t manage so there can be openness without the complication of her having control over salaries and promotions. While there are advantages to dedicated coaches, coaching can also be another component of a manager’s toolkit. This approach to coaching is one that Heidi teaches in her workshops at technical conferences.
“Through listening, powerful questions, and other things I teach, these managers get better at helping the person solve their own problem as opposed to the manager telling them what to do.”
Autonomy, master, & purpose
Heidi’s definition of innovation was inspired by Daniel Pink’s book, Drive. “I equate the ability to innovate with the ability to be creative — to come up with ideas and to act on them. It’s the pursuit of new ideas through the pursuit of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.”
A key takeaway from Pink’s book was that knowledge and creative workers are not incentivized by money but instead by the pursuit of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Inspired by Drive and a coach she knew at Atlassian, Heidi started a 24-hour hack day while working at AppFolio to inspire creative solutions for customer and company problems by giving staff “wild autonomy” to work on any project they desired.
“I’ve seen firsthand the shift in energy possible at a company when you give the people more agency.”
The hack days were set up to emulate Pink’s ideals of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Two weeks before, everyone participates in a facilitated brainstorming session to come up with topics and prioritize them through votes. The week before the event, a marketplace reteaming event is setup during which people autonomously form teams based on what each person wants to help build.
“There was one project that was legendary called 24 fixes in 24 hours, which involved fixing bugs and UI issues that were really nagging but that never really got the time of day because they weren’t the top priority.”
In addition to the satisfaction of fixing a nagging problem, hack day participants found purpose in improving the experience of their coworkers and would sometimes get the added satisfaction of hearing from customers directly about the success of a tool.
“If you go to appfolio.com, they have a marketing website and within there you can see a webpage which is the real-time indicators of whether the system is up or down real-time monitoring. That came out of a hack day. It was an incredible experience.”
At Procore customer conferences, engineering and product teams partner with people from the construction industry through innovation labs to learn about needs and get direct feedback. “Things like this give us a connection to customers, connection with each other, and can shift the energy and motivation.”
Activities like workshops and hack days provide an opportunity for organizations to try out the idea of reteaming and self-selected teams before making a longer-term change. “When you do things where you give people the choice of topic and who they work with, you can see a different kind of energy that you might not see in the day-to-day. It leads one to believe maybe we should do something different in our day-to-day work.”
Heidi embraces the idea that giving people the freedom and choice to do what they want leads to better solutions. The value of events like hack days and innovation labs are often evident in the solutions that are created and the feedback those solutions garner. Even so, summaries are created after each event to capture what was produced and share across the company so that people at all levels of the organization can understand the value of the exercise.
“We’ve got to be responsible business people. We’re funded to do very specific things, so we have an obligation to talk about what happened and to make the time to close the loops. What happened and what did we learn?”
Agency & Open Spaces
Agency is another marker for gauging the success of a given program and is a focus for Heidi when she reflects on her own contributions. She asks herself: “How can I help others have agency? How can I help others feel like they’re pursuing whatever it is that brings out the best them every single day? Those are the people we’re gonna retain. Those are the people that are gonna want to come to work each day to work on our mission. Those are the people that you’re gonna want to work with because you see that spark in them. We’ve got to just try to ignite the spark.”
Heidi is excited by practices like open space events as a means to show individuals their own agency. She writes about an open space event at Procore and how she and her team planned the event.
“Having an event where people come together and find the shared causes that are of interest to them, can be really, really powerful.”
In an open space setting, the people who attend the event are empowered to construct the event schedule based on a common goal like improving collaboration across the organization.
“In organizations that are growing and changing and hiring really fast, you have the problem that sometimes people just don’t know each other. You’re walking around, even if you’re in the same co-located space, you don’t have the history together, you don’t really know each other. Having an event where people come together and find the shared causes that are of interest to them, can be really, really powerful.”
Experiences like open space events can help people embrace the idea that team change is inevitable and provide an opportunity to get good at it. By giving people choice and agency, organizations can provide an environment that fosters the purpose and drive that results in creative solutions for happy customers.
If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.