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The Secret to Increasing Team Morale: Think Like an Agile Engineer

Debbie Madden
Jul 10, 2016

High morale is one of the most valuable assets a team can have. Teams with high morale collaborate better, take more pride in their work, and consistently improve performance over time.

But what can team leaders do to increase team morale?

Increased communication leads to improved team morale. To some, this may seem obvious. But, for others, the path to high team morale may not be clear. In order to learn the secrets of increasing team morale through high team communication, take a lesson from agile engineering teams. The secret is to think like an agile engineer.

Follow these five agile engineering practices to increase team morale and start driving productivity to your team today.

Secret 1: Clearly define and explicitly state everyone’s role on the team

Defining roles has proven invaluable, not only for software teams, but also for all types of business teams. In fact, when roles are not clearly defined, confusion sets in, communication breaks down, and morale suffers.

Last year, I led a sprint retrospective for a team that had been working together for six months. In the retrospective, the stakeholder said, “I thought the engineers were responsible for the product owner role.” Given that the entire team was present at the meeting, including all four engineers, I replied “Please tell me specifically which engineer you think owns the product owner role.” At this point, the stakeholder’s face turned red and he apologized. It was immediately clear that the team had not explicitly defined who would own the product owner role, and the team suffered significantly.

One effective way to explicitly set roles is to do a project Liftoff. A Liftoff is basically a project kickoff, but focuses on:

  • Defining the team charter
  • Explicitly defining team roles
  • Crafting working agreements (see Secret 2 for details)

Liftoffs are ideal at the start of a team project, yet they can be effective when held at any point in a team’s journey.

Secret 2: Communicate clear expectations to team members

It’s easy to assume that team members know what to do based on their participation in past projects. Unfortunately, the riskiest assumptions are the ones that were once true. Meaning, each person comes to the team with their own set of assumptions. These assumptions are based on things that have worked for an individual in the past. Yet that doesn’t mean these things will work for them on their current team.

Nip this in the bud by setting clear expectations. Craft working agreements for your team. Working agreements detail how the team agrees to get work done. Bring the team together for two hours. Brainstorm and agree on working agreements as a team. Examples of working agreements include:

  • The product owner defines “done” and keeps track of this in Trello.
  • We have core working hours and respect them.
  • Meetings start and end on time.
  • In-person communication is preferred.

Secret 3: Prioritize team productivity over individual productivity

Individual productivity and team productivity often go hand in hand. However, sometimes they clash. For example, an employee is facing a one-hour commute each way in order to make a one-hour in-person team meeting. The team has eight people on it. The individual can easily justify her reasons for staying home: She can get two more hours of work done if she doesn’t have to drive to the office.

However, by staying home, she’ll have to do the eight-person team meeting by Google Hangout, and the meeting involves a lot of whiteboarding and writing on stickies. Therefore the entire team’s productivity will be negatively impacted if she stays home. So the best thing for team productivity is for her to drive to the office.

Secret 4: Make honesty a requirement of your culture

Hold regular retrospectives to discuss problems and work toward continuous improvement. At the start of each retrospective, read the retrospective prime directive:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

Retrospectives should be held regularly. They can vary in length and frequency, so long as they are part of your culture. When facilitated properly, retrospectives help improve communication between team members, resulting in increased team morale over time.


Download our eBook “How to Facilitate an Agile Retrospective” for tips on running effective retrospectives that will drive results to your team.


Secret 5: Set measurable goals and check on progress

The Stride leadership team has quarterly priorities. At the start of each quarter, we pick a handful of top quarterly goals. For each goal, we:

  • Define “done”
  • Assign one person to be accountable
  • Assign one product owner
  • Create a 90-day roadmap.

We track our progress in Google Docs. Also, every two weeks, the accountable person meets with the product owner to showcase progress and remove obstacles.

Key takeaways

Agile engineering teams have been iterating on quick feedback loops and embracing change for more than 15 years now. As a result, agile teams feel empowered and trusted, and this often leads to some of the highest-morale teams I’ve seen. Embrace these five secrets and you’ll be on your way to improving team morale at your company:

  • Clearly define roles to so all team members are aware of what each person is responsible for.
  • Set proper expectations for each project to ensure that all team members work is on the same level.
  • Holding retrospectives on a consistent basis is a great opportunity for the team to communicate where they can improve and offer constructive feedback.
  • Team productivity always comes first.
  • Set clear, measurable goals that the team can work collaboratively toward to achieve.

Want to learn more strategies to boost your teams performance? Improving team communication is a great place to start. Our free guide highlights five easy steps you can use today to restore effective communication in your team.

Improve-Team-Communication-With-5-Easy-Steps

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2016 and has been revised and updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

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