What is “Team Energy” and Why Should Management Care?
In my personal experience working on various software development projects, the concept of team energy often appears to be either undervalued or benignly ignored by management teams. The reasons are many. First of all, the term may be confused with “team velocity” which is a relative measurement of a team’s average output or productivity. If the velocity appears to be at either predictable or positive levels, the management team may choose to believe that team energy is also at satisfactory levels. Organizations may attempt to boost employee morale by putting together team-building exercises and outing events. This macro approach may result in generating a perceived positive effect on team energy, thus obscuring the need for focus on individual teams. So, what is team energy and why should managers consider devoting some attention to it?
When thinking in terms of team energy, one can look at it as building credit with each individual team. One can also look at it from an analogy of having a rainy day fund. From a management’s standpoint it is important to keep team energy in the positive territory. This helps ensure that the team will likely empower themselves to exceed expectations, as well as step up during times of crisis or high pressure situations. I have worked in high energy teams, in which members voluntarily pushed themselves past regular working hours to produce deliverables. These cases did not involve any direct increase in compensation or promotion. People naturally wanted to succeed because they possessed enough energy to do so. I have also witnessed the opposite, where a team’s energy was low, deliverables were in a perpetual state of tardiness and the backlog was steadily accruing bugs. Developers and testers did not feel empowered to succeed and entered a cycle of doing the absolute bare minimum to “get the management off their back”.
Science behind building teams
Agile methodologies, whether Scrum or Kanban, prescribe various techniques that are focused on continuous improvement that may positively affect team energy. Regardless of whether an organization has truly embraced Agile, it is difficult to find managers that would oppose efforts in improving a team’s processes of delivering faster and at a higher value. After all, who is against a boost in productivity? There is a hidden psychological component to continuous improvement that has a causal effect on team energy. This component is more associated with the experience of individual team members.
Studies of team dynamics such as ones conducted by MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, and documented in Harvard Business Review suggest that there is a science to building high performing and high energy teams. One of the keys is to focus on the human brain and social dynamics of a group. Your teams may be composed of introverts as well as extroverts and a wide range of personalities, but there is a common factor that seems to persist. The studies show that humans feel good when they achieve their goals and overcome obstacles. A human brain actually rewards its owner with extra levels of dopamine when a goal is achieved. When the team feels good more often than not, the team energy goes up. When the opposite occurs, team energy goes down. Therefore, focusing on small achievable goals not only helps the organization to shift focus of deliverables, but it also fosters this psychological benefit of achievement for each individual team member.
An organization may choose to periodically measure team energy. One way to achieve such measurement is through anonymous surveys. Usually this is done at a more enterprise level to gauge the overall organization energy. There is certainly value in doing that, but the effort is not focused and may not necessarily apply to teams. Small teams may not produce very accurate results. There may be disincentives to be frank when answering a survey because team members may feel singled out and fear reprisals from management. In addition, more introverted team members may choose not to “rock the boat”. A more effective and team-focused approach is to have an Agile coach periodically take team energy measurements. An opportune time may be during team retrospectives, when a team is usually more receptive to be candid. Most importantly, these measurements do not need to be secretly stored in a manager’s vault but should be shared with the team. Adding transparency to the team building and management process will not only increase team energy, but also foster leadership skills among the more proactive and extraverted team members.