Once upon a time, there was a smart person who was stuck on a problem. And the world ended.
Or at least, that’s what some people apparently think will happen. But the reality is, smart people get stuck! We work in teams because it’s not reasonable to think that one person can do it all, know it all, or solve it all. We need each other.
So… why do team members have a hard time reaching out for help with problems?
In many companies, engineers are expected to always solve problems on their own — no matter how long it takes. The reasoning is that they’ve hired smart problem-solvers, and it’s too expensive to expect the leads and senior engineers to spend time answering questions for their team members. But if you look closely, you’ll find a counter-productive culture where the pace of development is slow and product owners are constantly frustrated.
At Modus, we take the opposite approach: collaborate and ask questions! “Share Knowledge” is the first core value in our Modus DNA, and in the words of Jay Garcia, one of our co-founders, “leave your ego at the door.” The attitude here is simply that we want to solve problems for our customers in the fastest and best way possible. Our value proposition to our clients is that we turn software development into a competitive advantage, and we can’t do that if we’re spinning our wheels and not working on the solution together.
So here’s an interesting question – how much does it cost when someone doesn’t ask a question?
Good developers aren’t cheap, and the ripple effect of having engineers spend more time on tasks can also waste other people’s time and have high opportunity costs by shipping software late or without features developed. The net effect can easily cost a company in the thousands per year, even if developers are just wasting a few hours per year searching for solutions that could be found by simply reaching out to their teammates.
Ultimately it’s on the individual to manage his time well and get help when he needs it, but as leaders we can have a strong influence on encouraging the right behavior – and conversely, triggering the wrong behavior. In the words of American businessman Arnold Glasgow, “A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.” If your team is not comfortable and aware that questions are not only ok, but actually welcomed, it’s time to look inward and see what you can do to change that. Here are four things we can do to empower our team members to ask the right questions and be more productive:
Revisit Your Expectations
If you have team members who are spinning their wheels more often than they should, ask yourself the following questions: What do you (and others in your organization) honestly expect from your people? Do you expect them to have exhausted every remote possibility on their own before reaching out to a colleague? Does your environment reward the correct behavior? Do you have proper communication and escalation channels identified? You hired smart, capable people (and if you didn’t, that’s another problem). Set them up for success, and don’t expect them to be super-human.
State Your Expectations Out Loud
At Modus Create, we have a spoken rule: if you’re stuck for 20 minutes, ask for help. Or, in the words of some of my more poetic colleagues: “Don’t wait – collaborate!” Our facilitators and project managers say this over and over and over, in almost every daily stand-up meeting. We have it set as one of our loading messages in Slack. We document it as one of our team norms. It leaves no uncertainty about what is expected of team members, and for people like me who tend to be forgetful, it serves as a daily reminder: Twenty minutes without some forward progress? Escalate the issue to my team lead! It may also help to bill it as “collaboration” – this obliterates the feelings of inferiority that can come with needing to ask for “help.”
Model Your Expectations
It doesn’t hurt to show your human side from time to time. Be sure to practice what you preach by asking questions in both public and private settings. (You can check out our article on the dangers of unmanaged expectations for helpful tips and techniques in this area.) Set expectations for yourself. How long are you ok spinning your wheels without making progress? Who knows – you might just find yourself being more productive as well!
Encourage the Askers
You’re now well on your way to driving productivity and collaboration within your team. If team members are getting shot down or turned away when they ask questions, however, it will quickly kill the safe environment you’re trying to build. This is the trickiest part of shepherding your team. A leader must learn how to gain trust and buy-in from the team, which will foster a safe, inclusive culture.
When it comes to managing people, there’s no one magic potion that will get everybody on board. Different people prefer different styles of management, motivation, and communication, so it’s important to be diligent and observant here. For team members that are comfortable asking questions, keep your eyes peeled for the kinds of responses they’re getting. Others may have a harder time speaking out, and will require periodic check-ins. Regularly ask individuals if they’re getting the help they need. If you notice a problem, address it immediately and directly – but also kindly. If you find that you have a team member who is resistant to advising, coaching, and helping others (note the difference between resistant and slow to catch on), you need to ask yourself: Is this type of person going to cost you more than they’ll contribute in the long run?
If your engineering organization is stuck in a rut and development is constantly hitting snags, it may be helpful to analyze how much time your team is spending waiting on answers or putting off asking questions. While you may be able to temporarily boost productivity by applying pressure to your team, it’s much more sustainable and effective to provide them the proper support. Repeatedly show the team that you are there for them and support them, and they will soon realize that they don’t have to carry their burdens alone.
Lightning Round – 3 Trust-Killers To Stop Saying
A few years ago, Google published the surprising results of a study on effective teams, in which they discovered that the primary indicator of a high-performing team is “psychological safety,” which is based on trust. Now that you’ve got a plan in place to help your team feel psychologically safe, keep an eye out for these subtle comments that will counteract the trust that you’re trying to build:
- “I’m sure you can figure it out.” Yes, she can. But she’s asking because that’s how your team agreed to operate. Answer the question if you can. Otherwise, politely say “Hmm, I’m not sure either” and attempt to point her in the right direction: “Maybe [a team leader / subject-matter expert] can help you here.”
- “Haven’t you ever… / Don’t you know…” Notice that the very first word out of your mouth here is a negative. And you’re unintentionally suggesting that the asker should know this. Maybe they should, but they obviously don’t (or they’ve forgotten, which is a completely human thing to do). No need to point that out – just answer the question.
- “Really? / Seriously? / Come On!” Apparently this isn’t obvious to everyone, so I’ll mention it here. Any sort of flabbergasted response will make a question-asker feel unsafe. Leave the emotion out of it and just answer the question.
Lightning Round – 3 Trust-Builders To Start Saying
On the flip side, here are some replacement phrases that will help validate the new Modus operandi (see what I did there?):
- “Interesting! / Good question!” Validating a question is the quickest way to encourage team members to ask more questions.
- “What have you tried already?” I often find myself simply repeating the things that my colleague has already tried. This causes frustration for both of us, so I’m trying to be more of a listener nowadays. This question can often give way to the rubber-duck effect, and voilà! You’ve solved your colleague’s problem with nothing more than the grace of your presence.
- “Is there anything useful in the documentation?” This one can be a little tricky, as you don’t want to suggest that you wish they’d checked the documentation before asking you. It’s a valid response, however, and as long as it’s said kindly, this is often a good place to start.
“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge” – Thomas Berger
It can be fairly straightforward to pivot from a sink-or-swim mentality to a we’re-all-in-the-same-boat mentality, but it takes extraordinary focus and persistence from you, the leader. (Yes, we’re all leaders, whether we have the title or not.) Ensure the team understands that their opinions and questions are valid, and set expectations that everyone on the team will ask questions and seek answers. Set your mind to it, take it one interaction at a time, and don’t give up!
Have you ever tried to lead a major culture shift at your organization? Were you successful? Tell your story in the comments below!