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3 Core Elements of Unleashing Any Team's Full Potential

It has been 10 months now, since I joined X-Team. Ten months of extraordinary experiences, of new friendships, and of interesting work. Now, I am here to tell you about some of the things X-Team does, which keep its people happy, and, more importantly, sane, while so many others are battling burnout on a daily basis.

This blog has grown on the basis of a talk I recently gave at WebCamp Ljubljana. The content is similar but not identical, so if you have the time, I suggest you listen to the talk as well — or instead, if reading a wall of text is not your thing.

Before I begin, however, here is why I consider myself qualified to judge a company's approach on a thing like this. I have been working as a contractor for the vast majority of my working life. I have "done my time" in offices, and I have worked remotely. I have worked in two completely separate and different career paths — translation and software development — and I did enough other things that I feel and think I have a good sense of what constitutes good practice by a company.

The problem that keeps creeping up in most companies is that their employees, contractors etc. experience at least one, usually more, of the five major reasons for any HR-manager's headaches.

The five, in short, are:

  • lack of motivation
  • lack of growth
  • lack of loyalty
  • lack of team-spirit
  • burnout

There are different ways in which companies try to tackle these problems. Unfortunately, all to often, they pick the easy way out — simply firing someone, which does nothing but compound the problems in the long run.

Allow me to paint you the picture of a better world, one that my decade in the work market has taught me works better, and the very same we use at X-Team with outstanding results.

But, first, let us specify those five HR pain points, so we know exactly what we are talking about.

Five Major HR Pain Points

Lack of Motivation

Think back and remember the feelings you feel when you first get a new job. You are probably excited, full of energy, and very motivated to get going. But, soon, you get used to the new environment and duties, and you settle into a routine. The initial excitement and mental stimulation are gone and with them a large part of your motivation.

Lack of Growth

While you are looking for a job, you take every opportunity to learn something new. It both keeps you busy and improves your chances of landing that dream job. And, finally, you get the gig.
In a few months, you have figured everything out, you are optimally proficient with your tools, and the daily quest for more knowledge turns first into a weekly thing, then monthly, and, eventually, you notice that you have not learned anything new in six months and that the new intern knows quite a few things you have never even heard of.

Lack of Loyalty

You may have heard that millennials, and young people in general, are fickle. Capricious. Never happy with what they have. Somehow, they — we — apparently do not fancy getting a job and staying in the same position for the rest of our lives. Job hopping for the sake of better working conditions, better pay, or simply adventure, is a fact of life for us and utter sacrilege for many employers.

Lack of Team-Spirit

If you will pardon the outdated (not really, the greats are never outdated) reference — if you had to bet on the outcome of a basketball game where five Michael Jordans would play against five Scottie Pippens, but the MJ-squad would never pass the ball and every single one of the MJs would try to win the game by himself, who would you bet on? My money would be on Team Pippen.

Burnout

And, finally, the dreaded, omnipresent burnout. The days become too long, nights too short. Sleep stops being refreshing, food loses good taste, and, worst of all, the ability to focus seems to become a thing of the past. Who has not been there?

The Beautiful New World

If your employees suffer from any or all of these banes of productivity, this does not necessarily mean that a full reshuffle of the company roster is necessary. Keep reading and see how X-Team decided to battle these omnipresent boogie-concepts of the workplace.

X-Team has developed a three-pronged defense against these elements of eventual collapse.

Company Culture

Many companies pride themselves on having a company culture. They go party together every now and then, or perhaps for paintball. They have Friday lunches together. They may even have motivational stand-ups every morning. All good ideas, but believe me, when I tell you, that there is more that can be done.

In X-Team, we decided to take this to the next level. We have a Superhero Culture.

You may be familiar with the psychological experiment done by Jane Elliott, where she would tell her students, among other things, that blue-eyed kids are smarter than brown-eyed kids, and test results would adjust accordingly. Then she switched their roles, and, to little surprise, test results re-adjusted to the "new reality".

Humans are naturally social creatures and we have a strong internal drive to be consistent with expectations that are placed upon us. Thus, when people join X-Team and become "superheroes" in their own right, they also accept the expectations that come with that. They know that they are supposed to be and do good. That they are supposed to share their knowledge and help other people. Unsurprisingly, this approach has turned out to work extraordinarily well.

An example of this are our charity events where developers get to help people, and, as further reinforcement of our culture, the company often matches the donations. The biggest problem we have had so far with this approach was that people had a hard time deciding how to best allocate the money so as to be as helpful as possible.

But there is more...

Team-Building

The superhero culture also plays off of certain tropes present in society — perhaps especially in "geekier" circles of IT — specifically that heroes often work in teams. It might be a curious combo like the Guardians of the Galaxy, but as long as they work as a team, everything turns out well in the end. A more common (and classic) example might be The Mighty Ducks, which only start kicking behinds once they start playing together.

So the question is, how to achieve that in your group?

First, ask yourself, how well you actually know people in your group? What is your closest work-partner's pet's name? Even easier, what is their spouse's name? What do they like to do in their free time?

Do you have any bonds that are not strictly professional?

Admittedly, some advise against that, but, in our experience, having people that work together, who are supposed to be a part of a team, bond, is a very good thing. We achieve this in several ways.

  • We have game nights, which are kind of world-wide "LAN-parties". We pull them off despite huge time differences, e.g. players from the west coast and the Philippines playing together.

  • Our CEO runs a Dungeons-and-Dragons-like RPG on slack, based on the backstory of our company's superheroes. Do people engage with it? You bet they do.

  • We also have a ton of channels on slack, where people can discuss everything from politics to favorite focal lengths for photography equipment.

Most importantly, however, despite the fact that we are an agency, even if it does not feel like it internally, once a person comes off a project, they are not simply tossed aside, even if there is no new project immediately available for them. Instead, they are placed in our Wings a.k.a. X-Academy program, where they do paid work on internal projects, so as to bridge the gap between their previous and next projects. What do you think does this do for morale, compared to the alternative?

People literally. Do. Not. Want. To. Leave. I have felt the stress of the final stages of the project, where you know that, even if you did a great job, you might be out of income for a while. I must say, I am not a fan of that feeling, and I would dare say neither are most others.

On top of all that, being a 100% remote company, we also do outposts, where a group of us gets together in a nice destination for anything between a week and two months, where we work, explore, and have fun together.

Finally, there is the holy grail of our methods, however, which is...

The Unleash

The essence of the unleash is forging bonds of friendship, or as close to that as possible. In X-Team, there are currently four Unleashers. Our job is to get to know our fellow developers, to talk to them, support them, keep them motivated, help them if there's anything we can help them with, and, generally, be there for them. If they are on the verge of burnout, they can come to us. If they are worried that they have not been achieving results they should, they can talk it over with us, and we can then intercede on their behalf with the business part of the company.

The point is, we are here so our teammates can have at least one person in the company, who they know is going to "have their back". We are there to bridge the gap between employee and company, when necessary. And this gap is the thing that kills productivity and increases stress for people.

But, for that to be possible, both sides have to trust us. It is our duty to be fair and honest with both sides, to appropriately manage expectations and to make sure everyone is on the same page as much as possible.

Once that is achieved, however, people relax. And, as they relax, they realize that it is totally worth it to make an energy investment into professional growth, just to make sure they can stay with the company long-term.

As soon as that happens, a whole host of benefits opens up to them. We can cover some of their expenses for this growth, help them find resources, put them in touch with potential mentors for areas of interest, and generally do anything we can to help them grow.

Soon, we will be launching Unleash Beyond, which will be a version of our Unleash system, modified for wider use. It will not be as personal as our internal system, but we are designing it in a way, which we feel will provide the best trade-off between our limited personal involvement — it will be largely automatized — and still producing results. Unleash Beyond will also be open for anyone to apply, though we will have a selection process for it, since our resources for it are limited.

In Conclusion

We put high emphasis on not just making people feel like they are important to us, but actually treating them accordingly. Because we do care about our team-mates. And they repay us for it. Some of them live in places which would not be my first choice to move to, and they are all experienced coders, so they could move just about anywhere on the planet if they wanted to — there are plenty of visas available for programmers. Yet, they choose not to do so, as that would mean having to leave us.

It is simple. Everything I described gives people a sense of belonging, which is best described by a quote from one of our developers...

When you start working for Foo Inc., you become an employee of Foo Inc.
When you start working for X-Team, you become an X-Teamer.

This is also the goal and ideal I would like to leave you with. People must feel like they are an integral part of the company, of the team — not just a cog with a high "bus value" but rather as a part of the foundation. And once you have achieved that level of team-spirit, I promise you, loyalty, motivation, and growth will have already skyrocketed, and you will see potential burnout coming much sooner and will thus be able to prevent or at least mitigate it substantially.

In the end, it all comes down to treating people like people and not just "human resources".
It may be more expensive, but it is not a cost of doing business; it is an investment with an extraordinary ROI.

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