Ingredients of a good team

Figure 1.1: Survey Results

We did a survey across BBC iPlayer & Sounds on ‘what are the most important factors of a good team’, behaviour and emotional intelligence came out as number one!

Amanda (Project Manager — iPlayer and Sounds) and Qambar (Principal Tester — iPlayer and Sounds) from the Test Team Infrastructure (TTI) across BBC iPlayer and Sounds reflect on four key ingredients to help shape teams and increase productivity drawing on their experiences of working with teams.

So what are those ingredients?

“How we behave with each other and how we support each other makes a huge difference in how we feel and what we achieve”

-David Andrade (Head of Software Engineering at BBC)

The ability to manage uncertainty is something which does not happen by accident. If we take an example of TTI (Test Team Infrastructure), as a newly formed team that is building a product from scratch, we needed a lightweight mechanism to get us started and feel supported along the way. For example, discussing our ways of working as a work in progress and an experiment, helped us to iterate toward our goals of efficiency and focus. Using this language and mindset meant that when we needed to change our direction of travel this was met with questions such as “what can we learn?”. This relied on building a culture of psychological safety, ensuring that all team members feel heard and valued. This meant that we could have quality conversations which allowed us to continually improve.

Figure 1.2: Development Cycle Time per goal

We started by discussing what behaviour we want to see and used data to help us measure how we are doing. As you can see from the above data (Figure 1.2), we planned our goals and measured how long it took us to deliver them. Our data visualisation method changed over time as we grew together as a team and became more collaborative and efficient. The data in the Figure 1.2 indicates that we are getting better at delivering our goals.

In general, as leaders we focus on the retro, in an agile setting, as the pinnacle moment that we all arrive as a team to solve problems and improve our efficiency. When in fact, the retro should be a mirror image of the conversations that happen daily. Listening, opening up discussions and respecting different points of view are so important to developing an empowered, emotionally attuned and empathetic team that pull in the same direction. We challenged ourselves to ask each other what we think, to ask for help, supported each other and to gained feedback. When it comes to continuous improvement, we hold ourselves accountable for the actions we generate by discussing the behaviours we want to create. The process is there to facilitate rather than dictate. This helped us to adapt and change quickly and have a lot of fun together along the way.

I have been working for the BBC for more than 6 years and I have worked in the offices in the South (including White City and Broadcasting House) and in the North ( Media City). During my time of employment, I have worked with different teams (both front-end and backend) in different roles. I have been a Web Developer, Software Engineer, Software Engineer in Test and now a Principal Tester. What I have seen in my career is that every team has their own dynamics.

The roots of these dynamics are planted when people come together and form a relationship called “a team”. As humans we learn behaviours and pass on these learnings to the next generations. Similarly, when a team is formed the dynamics are created then they are passed on to the new joiners.

The relationship and bonds that we form are important as it builds trust and reduces uncertainty. We can predict things with confidence and are able to make faster decisions. This also allows us to form habits making us more productive.

Like a rainbow a team’s beauty becomes prominent when a group of people with different skillsets work together. It is about arranging the colours in such a way that when they blend with each other they are pleasing to the eyes.

The team dynamics can be either good or bad. The question is how do you find that out?

I personally look out for the following indicators:

  • How open is the communication within the team itself?
  • Is everyone on the same page?
  • What do people feel about trust and respect within the team?
  • How do people react to failures within the team?
  • How adaptable is everyone to change?
  • How are differences of opinion dealt with by the Team Lead?
  • How accountable is the team for what it produces?
  • How much autonomy is there within the team?
  • How willing is the team to share and collaborate with other teams?

The benefit of working for the BBC is that it is a big organisation and we always talk about “One BBC”. So you can ask for permission to attend someone else’s team meeting to learn more about what they are working on.

Speaking of One BBC, there are team dynamics outside the team itself. One of the BBC’s values is that, “Great Things Happen When We Work Together”. Working outside the team requires relationships with people who you normally don’t work with on day to day basis. The zoom calls and outlook invites are a formal way to ask for permission to engage with them but what if you have an urgent query ?

Figure 1.3: The kitchen area

“I think ‘informal relationships’ between team members as people who can ‘get along’ are more willing to work through difficulties than people who don’t.”

- Jitesh Gosai (Principal Tester — iPlayer and Sounds — BBC)

Lets take an example of TTI again, we started working on a product called Device Asset Manager (DAM), this is used for tracking and auditing devices. Our biggest challenge was that the data was all over the place. We needed help !

The domain knowledge within the team was limited and we had questions, concerns and quests. Working on the same floor as our users allowed us to form informal relationships which allowed us to approach them easily. This allowed us to ask for help, clarify concerns and get assistance with the quest for gathering links to scattered data sources.

We discovered the data was maintained in 5 different sources and they were all unsynced with each other. We flattened all the 5 sources using migration script and imported into our tool. Now the question was, how do we engage our users for feedback ?

The answer was simple, talk to them 😄. The book “Empathy” by Harvard Business Review goes into more detail talking about that. They gave an example of how Ford asked their employees to emulate pregnant woman by wearing “empathy belts”. The research later showed that this approach was misguided as you are still assuming what people want. The simplest way is, as I mentioned earlier, ask them what they want.

This would not have been possible if we didn’t have good team dynamics outside our team.

“By creating right environment this will set the precedent by which the factors can be controlled”

- Mike Wiggins (Delivery Manager)

Just like a tree can’t grow in the desert, a team cannot be sustained without a proper environment. This means you need to give your team members space to grow and permission to flex their muscles and lift weights heavier than their natural abilities. We humans are designed for growth and development, so you should not be afraid of challenging your team with tasks beyond their natural skillset. Give them permission to fail so that they can prosper and develop an ability to take interpersonal risk.

For example, our team, TTI has been tasked multiple times with challenges such as supporting a tool which we have no working knowledge about or influence a team who we have not previously worked with. It was okay for us because we knew we had permission to fail and we will not see a thunderstorm if we failed (believe me I have seen that too where I was reprimanded for poor performance for the demo, it was big hit to my confidence).

Last but not least, get feedback early and often. This helps us move in the right direction without wasting alot of efforts.

Every member of the team can contribute if you focus on their strengths rather than weaknesses and most importantly, listen. I can’t stress this enough, by listening to each other we have evolved as a team. We have a no shutdown policy and we always try to find better alternatives. Just like the other day when one of our team member was pointing out that our user interface requires improvement. But what does that actually mean? So we created a ticket with a piece of work to explore that suggestion, by conducting “User Testing” sessions which opened the door for us to collaborate with people outside our team as well as to get their opinions about the product and incorporate their ideas and suggestions.

Structure is also very important ingredient, to do that, have some team ceremonies that are known to every member. This will help with the communication and will allow team members to stay focused and productive.

We love to appreciate our differences and strengths, this makes a healthy work environment for us to spread our roots and assures us that we are moving into the right direction.

Clarity and purpose helps drive out successful outcomes and focus our direction. When surveying colleagues across iPlayer & Sounds, some of our best experiences have been when we have had a clear mission, well defined roles and supporting structures. When TTI set out, we wanted to ensure that our mission was clear, we understood what good looks like and the steps to moving us toward the goal. In order to start breaking down our mission we created a roadmap which we then broke down into smaller releasable increments.

For further clarity, we followed Amazon’s Working Backwards approach of writing release notes first for our users before thinking about the tickets. This brought everyone in the team on the same page.

As we continued to learn, we cut waste further and reprioritise work for future iterations. This helped us to move quickly in a one direction, focusing decision making and simplifying our meetings.

Teams should be a place where we have fun. We should be able to challenge each other respectfully, creating a mindset where we share new ideas and try out new skills. We should be able to grow together as a team, take interpersonal risks and collaborate. In our experience, this is what makes a happy team.

We are all thankful to those who shared their thoughts and experiences through the survey, showing us that we are all connected in so many ways. Thank you for the opportunity given to us by our senior leadership team to share our experiences via this post. Especially to David Shannon, Engineering Manager & Test Discipline Lead at BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds, who continuously allowed us to grow and to create something which we are proud off and delivers value to our users (i.e DAM). This has been a defining experience in the struggles of 2020 and a reminder to start from where you are and look out for each other.

Hope you had a merry Christmas and we wish you an amazing New Year 2021!

Originally published at https://www.bbc.co.uk on January 7, 2021.

Senior Software Engineer in Test @ BBC