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Avoiding dysfunction in digital teams

As product designers, we have a responsibility to help teams create high-quality digital products that meet our users' needs - but how do we know when a project isn't working? How can we spot dysfunction within the team? And what steps should organisations take to improve the situation?

Every dysfunction that a digital team suffers is underpinned by poor leadership. Say a large organisation decides they’re going to do a brand refresh to position themselves as a company of the people in order to put their customers at the centre of everything they do - this important decision is taken at the top, but it takes time to filter down to the implementation level, where digital squads are working on bringing together the vision and execution. They end up with a beautiful brand strategy, which is poorly executed.

Leadership choices

Poor leadership choices can undermine the effectiveness of digital teams, even when the right people are in place and the strategy is sound. What tends to happen is that the people put in charge of the digital teams in large organisations have traditionally performed another function within the business, but are now appointed to head up the project because they understand the legacy operations of the business - and so, theoretically, what needs to change.

What they don’t understand is what each of the people they’ve been appointed to lead, brings to the table, in terms of skills and capabilities, to get the most out of them.

That means that the project faces headwinds from the start – not necessarily because the person in charge is a poor leader, but because they’re poorly equipped for the task they’ve been assigned.

To get closer to success, they need an understanding of digital processes and best practices that can be applied across multiple functions and have clear ways of work that are conducive to success within a digital team.

Communication is key

A leader who can’t communicate their vision, or keeps information to themselves to maintain power, is a bad one. A digital leader needn’t be an expert in every field in which the people under them are working, but they need an understanding of how all the pieces fit together.

A digital team leader must be able to communicate clearly and openly with their team, and in turn, the team members need to feel comfortable asking questions. Digital teams tend to be cross-functional, which necessitates a collaborative process - a lot of which is about sharing knowledge and allowing people to get involved in the process.

When vital information is not shared in a timely manner, it can lead to distrust. Integrity is vital for any successful organisation - and this will be reflected in how transparent the communication is between all parties.

If the leader understands and is clearly able to communicate where the team is heading – to make the organisation a company of the people – they need to ensure that that remains central to the work being done on the touchpoints. A good leader sets the guidelines and keeps people in check so that they meet the brief – but allows space for creativity in solving the problem.

Be vulnerable

A vulnerable leader really empowers a team – there’s no shame in admitting you don’t understand something. In the lean UX/Agile environment, nobody is certain of what the starting point should be, until the research is done. We first gain a proper understanding of who our clients or users are and what they need so that we can look at how we can solve the problem for them and how the company can make a profit while doing so.

An arrogant leader who assumes they know what the requirements are, rather than looking at the research that informs those requirements, can force the team down a wrong and costly path.

Delegation is nothing without authority

Good leaders know the difference between empowering their team and micromanaging - between offering guidance and dictating solutions.

A good leader also delegates – but delegating without transferring authority to execute is pointless. If not done correctly, it creates bottlenecks in a fast-moving environment like the digital space.

Leaders should trust that the people working with them are experts in their fields and give them the authority – as well as the guidelines - to make important decisions for the squad. That kind of backing makes for a happy, high-performing and self-motivated team that believes in their capabilities – and produces excellent work.

Accountability means excellence

In a team where there’s trust, clear communication, good vision and honest leadership, accountability thrives. That creates a space for robust conversations, which are essential for achieving excellence.

Remote work has actually fostered this – it’s harder for a stronger personality to overpower a weaker one on a virtual call than around a boardroom table. Some quieter members of a team may know better than the outspoken ones, but they stay silent or don’t fight for a chance to make themselves heard. The space and distance afforded people by the filter of a screen means they’re less overwhelmed and more likely to make their points – and add value to the team.

A lack of accountability also fosters unhealthy cycles of work. In a dysfunctional team, people have to work long hours because of a lack of clear vision and communication. Suddenly, a last-minute change has to be made because there was a communication breakdown higher up and the team just has to deliver – no matter the consequences. There are promises of work/life balance – but the team will inevitably work overtime just to get it done. When it’s done, there’s an email congratulating the team for the work – it’s validation, of a sort, but it's unhealthy when this is the norm, rather than the exception.

When each of these issues is carefully examined and addressed, the team will be in the best position to offer their best work. It’s a win-win situation for all parties involved.

About Gomolemo Segabutle

Gomolemo Segabutle is the product design lead at Strider

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