Monday, September 29, 2014

3 Questions to More Insightful Team Management

I remember when I first became a lead of a small development team. This was scary, since I really never managed time or resources for anyone but myself. Beyond that, these smart and capable developers were now looking to me for career development and people management help, in addition to technical insight. This was all new to me; so I started to look for training, books, coaching, basically anything I thought that could be helpful.

By a little planning and a lot of luck, I ended up attending this brown-bag by an experienced HR manager. One thing that I remembered and used for many years from that talk was that you had to understand the people in your team. She emphasized that the manager had a good chance of using opportunities for developing, rewarding and guiding the team in ways team members would want and like the most. And for that, the manager had to know the people. She had a method for it that she used for many years, it's called the Heart-Tree-Star method. I have seen variations of this used by folks, perhaps having attended the same talk and morphed it in their own way. I want to share the way that I used it and matured it over the years, with the hopes that it may help others as well.

The method involves you asking three questions to any and all new team members. You may be getting assigned to a new team leadership role, or a new team member may be joining; works both ways. One way of doing this is to make your first 1:1 a rather informal "getting to know each other" meeting and in the end asking the team member to complete an assignment. The assignment is for them to answer the Heart-Tree-Star questions, but to do so in the next meeting.

I find that this part of the first 1:1 meeting can take many forms, but mostly one between two significantly different extremes. One is that the person jumps into answering the questions or part of them, sometimes even before listening to descriptions, right there and then. The second is that the person may ask for more details, descriptions, expectations, format of delivery when they are ready, etc. There are many variations between these two of course. If you use this method, you will see extremes as well as the middle of the spectrum. If nothing else, it will tell you about the people in your team and how to interact with them next time, especially when giving assignments.
Let's talk about how you ask the questions and give the assignment, and what you learn from the answers.


Short way of asking the heart question is: "Where is your heart ?"

When you get that empty look from your team member, which I promise you will sometimes, you can go on to explain that this is the technology area or field that they feel most excited about. The kind of project that they think of when they are on a long drive, in the shower, or right before they go to sleep or when they wake up. This is not a conscious, planned career thought, but specifically, where your heart is. What is most exciting to you ? What gets your blood boiling ? What kind of projects ? What kind of technology ? What kind of work would you do, if you were to decide only on the type of work... not money, not location, etc. ?

Answer to the heart question can change over time, but it rarely does fluctuate too far from a theme. Depending on the person, the answer to this has been as specific as "xyz algorithms...", or as vague as "build stuff". In the end, it is a great entry to finding out what excites and motivates an individual. The conversation does not have to be one way, they can hear about where your passion lies too, especially about how it ties to the team. Given that either you or the team member is new to the team when you are having this conversation, they will want to know about you, as much as you want to know about them.

This answer helps a great deal in finding experts or go-to folks in the team over time. If you can figure out the interests of the people in the team, it makes it much easier to form focused teams or grow experts too.


Short way of asking the tree question is: "What does growth look like for you ?", "What would you like to be in 5-7-10 years ?" or "Who would you like to become in a few years ? Any role models ?"
The answer to the tree question changes over time. People grow, their priorities change for various reasons and although what they want to work on may not change, how they want to work on that may. It is important to understand this to make sure you have the right expectations from your team. In some cases, it may help you with succession planning too. In some others, you may find out that you really need to change assignments for folks in the team, to match desires, skills and positions better. Tree conversation is one that needs to be repeated at least every 2 years.

The tree question answer depends on the company and the team models a great deal. If the company values or encourages deeper organization charts with small teams with managers, etc. it is very likely that you will find a lot of folks choosing management as a path. Interestingly, in those environments, team members who would like to grow as individual contributors find this opportunity invaluable to express that they want to grow, but not as a manager. In environments where flatter organization charts and less formal managers exist, you may find team members who like being technical leaders without managers looking for opportunities to shine, or someone who is contemplating what formal management responsibilities would look like. Either way, it is a great way to explore what team members really want. Answers to this question shattered some of the stereotypes and presumptions I had over the years, making for pleasant surprises.


Star is the hardest of the questions to ask and answer. It is also the one question that will get you the most insight about what your relationship will be with a team member.

The short way to ask this question is: "Aside from financial rewards, what is the best way to reward you ? And what is the best way to give you bad news or feedback ?"
I promise you will get the boilerplate, obvious answers like "no bad feedback in public" or "recognize and encourage" etc. I have been having a lot more fun with this question since I added the "non-financial" clause into it. You may find some folks consider career guidance and coaching a privilege and more of it a reward. You may find folks considering being left alone, as autonomous as possible, to be the greatest reward. Sky is the limit in terms of what you can hear as an answer for this question and that is normal. Individual interpretation of behaviors multiplied by their expectations of recognition creates infinite possibilities.

The harder part of this conversation is of course the negative feedback part. It is hard to tell someone how they should tell you that you may not be doing well. Nobody wants to even think about that, but it matters. An open conversation on this matter will help build trust and open communication, even if you get no other benefit or never need this kind of a message to be delivered.

There is also the style component in the star question. Of course you will recognize someone, but what is the best method ? People have varying preferences. Here are a couple of examples.

One case I ran into was with a great engineer in my team. We did have this conversation, but despite that, I failed him in one occasion. As such, this case became an example I share with team members when I ask the star question. As customary, after completing a milestone we sent a mail announcing completion. I replied all to the team and thanked this person for his extraordinary contribution, only to hear back from the engineer that I should not do that again. He was shy. He considered his name being mentioned in public, even if it was for this kind of positive topic, a negative event. So I learned and adjusted. I'd like to think that having had the star conversation with him prior actually opened him to be able to tell me this.

Another case is from my own experience. I don't like public recognition for time served. I believe that recognition should be merit based, and time served in a job does not accrue to merit, unless you are in the armed forces, a survivor show, or something similar. To take pride in surviving a time period in a job, would either be accepting that what your contribution is not enough and you made an effort to hide, or the job itself by nature creates an elimination structure or threat. When one of my managers wanted to give me an award for seniority in company in an all hands meeting, I asked him not to do it. He was surprised. I had to explain myself. To this day, I think that he might have been offended. If he had asked me about the star before, I would have told him.

Parting words

As I mentioned, these are just methods and tools that we use and we benefit from them to the extent that we make them ours. You might have heard this method being used by others, you may even be using it yourself. Yours may be the same, or different in some specific way. Does not matter. It is all about making the workplace more fun, personal and productive.
To quote our marketing professor:The phrase "it is not personal, it is just business" is not valid, because business is personal.