How to Lead Your Software Team Through Change

If there’s one thing Atoms excel at, it’s adaptability. As consultants, we adapt to new processes, tools, technologies, and new clients and industries. But regularity doesn’t make change any easier. I find the constant transition to be the most challenging part of the job, as do many of my teams. As a Delivery Lead, I lead teams through changes on a regular basis (some more successful than others). Building team trust and minimizing FUDA are key to introducing and embracing change that sticks.

Why bother with empathy?

Of course, the “easiest” way to introduce change is to draft an email, hit send, and expect everyone to fall in line. This is a terrible idea for many reasons, poor leadership aside. For one, it enforces a hierarchical team structure where decisions come from the top down. This approach also suggests the change is not important enough to warrant a careful introduction. And if the change is inconsequential, what does it matter if the team buys in or not?

Add up the time you’ll spend following up and reminding the team of a change no one has internalized. I guarantee it will outweigh any of the perceived benefits of making the change in the first place. Not to mention, the constant nagging will erode the trust of the team.

So let’s try a different way. In this post, I’ll refer to an example of introducing daily standup as a team practice.

First, listen.

As the one introducing daily standup, I had plenty of time to think about the reasons and benefits behind it. I was comfortable with the idea, having already participated in standup on other projects.

Not everyone on my team felt this way. Some had never tried it before, while others had negative experiences and felt we’d be introducing just One. More. Meeting. What I viewed as a pretty simple change was, for some, asking for a pretty big shift in both attitude and behavior.

Before I introduced my “brilliant plan” to the team, I sought to understand. I started with an informal Slack poll. I checked in with each team member to learn more about their thoughts around daily standup. This allowed me to get more context around everyone’s level of familiarity with the idea. I also gained awareness of negative perceptions. This allowed me to address those specific concerns when introducing the change.

Starting with asking instead of telling ensured the change wasn’t completely out of the blue. I gave the team some time to think about the idea of daily standup ahead of time. Most importantly, I set a tone for the rollout of the change. The tone was one that valued each team member’s opinion and had the aim of a positive outcome for the team as a whole.

Then, ask.

One of my favorite managers approaches conversations about a new process or policy thoughtfully. She gathers the team in person and first acknowledges that change is hard. Then, she requests that we each try to approach the new idea with an open mind and a commitment to being flexible. Only then does she provide context about the upcoming change.

She takes the time to establish trust and mutual respect with the team. So in return, we temper our initial knee-jerk reactions in favor of a more mindful approach. And doing so feels like a team effort instead of a mandate.

Make it easy.

One of the best ways I know to ensure new habits stick is by supporting the team (and eliminating excuses.) I try to make new behaviors easy to adopt by providing both context and resources.

Counter any uncertainty with some predictability by providing a timeline for the rollout. In the case of daily standup, I started by introducing in-person standup twice a week. I did my best to pick a time that worked for everyone’s schedules and didn’t interrupt pairing sessions.

I provided context about why I thought we should participate in daily standup. I made sure to cite both project-level benefits as well as examples that would be helpful to the team. I also asked a few members in favor of the change to support me by sharing why they felt standup was important.

Finally, I made the new habit easy to remember by setting up both a calendar invitation and a Slack reminder.

Check in often.

Once implemented, it’s always tempting to “set it and forget it” and move on to other project concerns. But I had done that before on another project, and guess what happened? Daily standup would happen like clockwork as long as I was in the office. But on days when I could not attend, standup just didn’t happen. The team viewed standup as something I owned instead of embraced as a true team practice.

This time around, I made sure to set up a time to check in with the team, outside of standup, to ask for feedback. Biweekly, I check in with the team and ask a couple of questions. Are we getting value out of our daily standup? Does this time still work for everyone? Would anyone like to suggest any changes? This demonstrates a commitment to making change work for the team, instead of the other way around.

Lead teams through changes thoughtfully.

To lead teams through changes in a thoughtful way takes time. So, consider carefully which changes are truly worth the investment. Not only will you reap the benefits of your new way of working you’ll also build team trust and camaraderie. If you’ve been through a recent transition at work, I’d love to hear your experiences — both positive and negative — in the comments.

  • Sriram Viswanathan says:

    Excellent post and approach to leading a team. One thing that worked for me (around taking responsibility for days when I am not around) was to have people be owners of different tasks, not forcing it on them but trying to get someone or a pair to own a particular ritual so that everyone feels accountable as well as empowered.

    • Kaitlin Diemer Kaitlin Diemer says:

      Thanks, Sriram! I love this approach of empowering specific team members to facilitate and own particular team rituals (and not only as a means of ensuring they continue in my absence!) Doing so would also empower individuals to grow/change our rituals as necessary to best serve the present needs of the team.

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