Building happy and healthy product teams

People looking at a laptop and a chart during a meeting

It’s about being proactive rather than reactive

The health of a large product team can be a complex thing to quantify. We often use our instincts to judge whether teams are happy, healthy, and have the autonomy to do the things we come to work for. For us that’s making better public services. However there are times when it’s useful to take a step back and assess just how teams are actually doing.

This post is an overview of how we assess the health of mature product teams at dxw. We’ll share what we’ve learned and the secret of it all – conversation is equally, if not more valuable than tangible outputs.

Make time to reflect as a team

dxw are currently partnered with Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing, working on MyTVH. MyTVH is an online service that was built for Thames Valley residents to report repairs, send enquiries, and pay their rent.

We formed a new team in April last year to iterate MyTVH. We’ve delivered some chunky pieces of work. We built a new SMS feature for agents to contact multiple residents about repairs that affect them. We also refactored the payment pathway, ensuring compliance with Strong Customer Authentication (SCA) under PSD2, the EU Payments Services Directive.

Thames Valley Housing and Metropolitan merged back in 2018, so MyTVH will soon become MTVH Online. This will be for all residents of Metropolitan Thames Valley to use. In October 2019, we shifted our direction and were tasked with launching MTVH Online to Metropolitan residents, approximately 50,000 users.

We felt the change in direction of work was a prime opportunity to carve a day out of our usual sprint cycle to reflect as a team, understand how far we’ve come, and how we’d like to improve.

It’s okay to break your rhythm

Product teams work well when they’re working to a rhythm that suits them. They should have the autonomy to define their workflow and to commit to a set of team principles that they’ve created and that they stand by. If the team you’re in has a well tuned rhythm, you’re probably delivering at a good pace and doing good things.

When a team has been together for a while, it’s easy to just keep going as you are.

We recommend making time for teams to break away from the delivery cycle. So that they can give themselves the space to improve, identify any potential issues, and act on them. It’s an example of what we mean when we say “continuous improvement”. Taking time out can also help you spot any early signs of team burn out.

In practice, this might mean taking a day away to roadmap a complex new piece of work. This will help you figure out where you’re headed and why you’re going that way. It’s also an opportunity to discuss any risks or dependencies the team are thinking about. In these sessions, it’s the conversation that’s the valuable part. If you have a shared understanding and vision as a team, it’s a good sign that you’re working well.

We also recommend taking the time to measure how well a team thinks they’re doing against the values they want to hold themselves accountable to. This will identify areas for improvement before they become tricky problems that could impact on the team’s ability to deliver. It’s about being proactive rather than reactive.

Understanding the health of your team

In October 2019, the MyTVH product team took a day away from our typical sprint cycle to look at where we were headed. It was a really valuable session and got us deeper into understanding the steps we needed to take to launch MTVH Online to Metropolitan’s resident base. It was a fast paced day but we had moments to reflect.

We also took an hour out to do dxw’s take of a team health check, where we tried to understand how we were working as a team. While I don’t advise putting too much weight on the title, the activity was to define two things: our values and whether we think we’re good at them or need to prioritise getting better.

Being accountable for improvement

Our product team spent the first part of the team health check generating ideas for the areas we want to measure ourselves against as a team. We came up with 9 different areas:

  • being user-centred
  • communication
  • focus
  • pace
  • demonstrating value
  • collaboration as a team
  • measuring and assessing things we do
  • strategic vision
  • confidence in deployment

It’s best that teams define these value areas themselves. It generates a sense of ownership and that’s an important part of being accountable.

The team then voted using dot stickers on how well we think we’re doing for each of the values:

  • we’re good at this and we’re happy with the way we do this
  • there are some problem areas but we know we can improve
  • we’re really bad at this and it needs some work

The results of our team health check

The results, overall, were that we need to improve in a lot of these areas, but nothing stood out as being particularly bad. We thought we had good focus as a team and confidence in our deployment.

Some of the scores from the MTVH team health check

Some of the scores from the MTVH team health check

We focussed the remaining part of our session on agreeing how we could improve our communication as a team, how we measure and assess the things we do, and our alignment with the strategic vision.

Some examples of the actions and principles that came out of this session were:

  • talking to each other when things aren’t clear
  • creating a meaningful measurement plan to learn from
  • finding ways to collaborate more

The team then had a shared set of areas to work on. This doesn’t need to be on a daily or even weekly basis, but over time we should be able to measure that we’ve got better at these things.

When we come back to this in the future, the aim is to understand how the areas we’ve defined as needing improvement have actually been improved. The team are accountable for this and should be aiming to improve sprint by sprint.

What did we gain from it?

Looking back, this gave us the chance to speak about how we felt and the things that affect the team from our own perspectives. It was a good opportunity for reflection. Empathy towards another person’s point of view can also improve the team’s mentality.

We had a set of actions from the session but what we really gained was a sense of how we’re doing and a chance to voice that outside of our usual rhythm. It’s not always the outputs of a session that are the main takeaway, but rather the conversation that an activity like this generates. You get a clearer picture of the health of a team through taking part in the conversation.