Pluralsight has recently published a study on the impact of project visibility on engagement, performance, and productivity in software development teams. It was found that 90% of IT leaders believe that making teams’ work visible was a key part of their job, yet only 24% of developers thought their leaders and teammates had the right level of visibility into their work.
Visibility, according to the Oxford Dictionary definition of the word, is “the state of being able to see or be seen”. It’s undoubtedly a very important, but oftentimes, overlooked aspect of leading: how can you enhance the visibility of your team's work for various stakeholders? Also, how do you let on just the right amount of visibility to your team but still shield away unnecessary stress?
How can we, as leaders, start getting it right? I hope to shed light on the subject with a few tips I learned in my experience as a Team Lead. Keep reading and learn more!
Top-down project visibility
When we think of visibility, the most common approach is to face the subject from a top-down standpoint: giving visibility of the product strategy to the software development team so that they’re empowered to make the right decisions. We’re not questioning the importance of this, but we should also pay equal attention to bottom-up visibility.
But let’s start out with our default assumption: top-down visibility. We, as leaders, are responsible for ensuring our team is aligned with the company strategy as a whole. This may seem like an easy task, but don’t be fooled, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it.
The million-dollar question is to find the right balance between filling your team in on important details — such as stakeholders’ moods, upcoming challenges, financial troubles, constructive feedback, and so on —, and shielding away unneeded stress and details. This can be a tall order. Luckily, I have some tips I can share with you.
1. Normalize face-to-face announcements
It's good practice, especially if you have a team on the bigger side, to set up a fixed and recurring time to discuss day-to-day changes in detail. It should be a staple ritual in your team’s schedule.
At Vinta, we’re 100% remote and we deeply value an async-first culture. Hence, for some time, we relied on asynchronous announcements only. After a while, we realized that, in some cases, facetime was very beneficial. Thus, we were able to convey tone, quickly address questions that came up (which were often questions shared by multiple team members), and discuss sensitive matters when needed. Our announcements cadence was every fifteen days, but depending on the size of your team, you may want to make it more or less frequent.
We also kept track of everything in an agenda to make sure no one missed the important announcements in case they weren’t able to attend synchronously.
2. Treat communication as the strategic tool it is
We sometimes tend to treat soft skills as less-than technical ones. Don’t fall into that trap. Communication is one of the most important tools in anyone’s skill set. It should also be very much about strategy.
It might be a little cliché, but it’s true, you may be a boss but it takes a good dose of respect, authenticity, and leading by example for you to become a leader. Communication plays a huge role in that, as it’s your job to make sure the people under your leadership are inspired, have a clear sense of purpose, and trust you.
According to a recent McKinsey study, uncaring and uninspiring leadership is one of the top three reasons workers choose to leave their current job. Sorry to break the news to you, but employee retention is also vastly in your hands!
Don’t use your communication lightly. Be authentic and trustworthy, shed light on important issues that come up (dosing the level of detail so the communication doesn’t become noisy), make use of non-violent communication to discuss important issues with your team, and always think through what you’re going to say, posing the question: is this the right tool for the job?
3. Set up fixed time slots to discuss strategy
When managing tactical and operational matters in our daily work, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. It’s also very easy to take our own visibility as leaders for granted when it comes to our software development team.
As good practice, set up a recurring Strategy Sync to make sure you’re relaying important updates about strategic subjects to the team. The frequency of this meeting may vary depending on the size of your team, the product’s moment, and so on. At times, we had fortnightly meetings, we’ve also shifted them to monthly at one point. There’s no right or wrong, just make sure you and your team feel comfortable with the cadence.
Good example topics for this sort of meeting:
- Go over the existing strategy and do a quick recap of what’s been discussed in the last meeting.
- OKRs check-in, if you have them;
- Updates on product vision & strategy;
- Overview of current objectives/initiatives;
- Review metrics/data on recent releases;
4. Manage anxiety
A lot of the needs around top-down visibility are, in some way, connected to change. Some deal better with that than others. In a time when anxiety dominates the collective mindset, it’s also our job to help diminish these feelings when possible.
There’s no way to stop the change, and in fact, it’s the change that keeps businesses competitive. According to the book “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies”, companies that are built to last are companies that are built to change. In a way, everyone needs to normalize this by themselves, but there are some things we can do to make this easier.
Difficult conversations will inevitably arise, the way we go about them is what makes the difference. Instead of being vague about less-than-pleasant topics, schedule and lead conversations with transparency.
You don’t need to give all the details about a certain topic before diving into it, but it’s better to schedule a “Sync about our upcoming challenges on growth” and add a description to the meeting than simply scheduling a “Sync”.
In the long term, the “Sync” schedulers may generate unnecessary anxiety on their teams.
Bottom-up project visibility
Now moving on to bottom-up visibility: how can we make sure all stakeholders are aware of the hard work your team is doing? Your team may be giving their all and producing outstanding work, but if you don’t make the effort to make that visible, their efforts may be in vain.
How can we, as leaders, make sure we’re honoring our team’s efforts and making them visible to important stakeholders?
5. Make sure to always be filled in on what everyone’s doing
As a leader, you must be promptly ready to report on what everyone is doing. A lot of times, you’ll be the sole representative of your team in situations with other leaders, upper management, and clients. You must understand progress, challenges, and accomplishments very well so that you’re able to translate value to other stakeholders. This isn’t a sole job though, we expect each team member to be responsible for their own progress and reporting and for the leader to be able to consume these reports.
6. Instrumentalize reporting
It may be hard to keep track of what everyone is doing sometimes, especially if you have a team on the larger side. That’s why it’s extremely important to instrumentalize reporting and make it a part of your team’s routine. At Vinta, we prefer asynchrony to synchrony, and to be able to afford that workstyle, we rely on the autonomy and self-management of our team members.
This culture isn’t built on a whim and if you have a team that isn’t used to this sort of workflow, there’ll be bumps in the road until you get good synergy going on. It’s certainly not impossible though, it’ll just require a little bit of effort. Set clear expectations and go over them with your team, explaining the importance of this visibility and how the lack of it impacts your work. You’ll see that most of them will probably adjust well.
7. Report frequently and predictably
Reporting to a diversity of stakeholders about how your team is doing goes a long way when you are proactive about it. Set up channels and a schedule for reporting. This way, you won’t need to rely on your availability and memory to give updates. It’s also important for the team to understand when you need to report so they can all plan their personal reports around the schedule.
Each case is, of course, unique, but it may be easy for leaders to fall into the trap of deprioritizing reporting in favor of other more pressing and urgent matters. By adding this sort of predictability, you’re turning it into one more of your tasks and are less likely to forget about it.
Defining the correct channels of communication for reporting is also something we need to give some thought to. Some people are more visual than others, so presentations may be a good idea, especially if the cadence of the report is longer and the report naturally has more highlights because of it. Others deal better with written reports, so shorter, objective reports may do better in this case.
Horizontal visibility is just as important as vertical visibility
According to Team Topologies, a great book and overall resource center on team organization, “by reducing cognitive load, the team can better retain the domain context for decision-making with customer needs at the forefront. Work flows faster and more accurately, reducing rework and accelerating the flow of value to the customer”.
While we want developers to have visibility over their teammates’ work, we don’t want to overwhelm them with information they don’t need to know. We shouldn't mix visibility with responsibility.
Understanding the balance between these two forces is a challenge. At Vinta, we organize our teams in squads to increase the quality of our work. This model works well as long as you figure out the right interfaces between teams.
One method we discovered to enhance horizontal visibility was by starting an internal team newsletter. This way, relevant stakeholders would have visibility over the highlights of what everybody was doing. In this newsletter, we highlight the achievements of each squad, reflect on recent learnings, give visibility to kudos, call attention to initiatives and their progress, and so on, while not having to schedule yet another meeting.
Another way you can guarantee your development team keeps in touch with one another’s work is by making sure they have shared ceremonies, like internal tech syncs to discuss their work and call attention to important changes.
Well, that’s it! I hope to have helped you somehow with my insights. If you have any questions, please feel free to jot them down and reach out to us, we’ll be happy to answer them.