As a team grows from a handful of people to a couple dozen, making changes with full team participation and buy-in becomes more difficult. However, if a team doesn’t overcome inertia and adapt, processes that worked well for a small team will start to break down, and the team will become less effective.
Involving an entire team of 20-30 people in a discussion is usually neither efficient nor effective at actually coming to a consensus about a change. Each person speaking for only a couple minutes would take nearly an hour.
Rather than scheduling a meeting, it’s possible to use asynchronous communication like email. Doing so has the benefits of allowing people to opt in or out of the discussion, while keeping everybody in the loop on the direction. It also may provide an opportunity for people to reflect on thoughts before responding, unlike what people are able to do in a real-time meeting. However, keeping an email thread on point can be challenging, and it’s easy for the dialogue to become unwieldy.
Team leaders often won’t want to make decisions unilaterally, so they’ll solicit feedback from a few members of the team. Getting feedback from a few people is better than implementing a change without any input, but it’s highly subject to bias. People generally have predisposition to a certain type of response. Some people are more agreeable, others are more confrontational. People will also differ in their passion for a certain topic: the most important issue to one person may be something that others don’t care much about.
Avoiding bias while soliciting feedback from specific people is difficult. Even if you try to talk to the people who may challenge you the most on a change, it may not represent the broader team opinion very well.
The first thing to do when thinking about making a change is to communicate the problem that you’re trying to solve to the team. This provides two benefits. First, it sets expectations that something might change. People respond more favorably to change when they know it’s coming than when it seemingly comes from nowhere. Secondly, it creates an opportunity for people to try to solve the problem rather than debating a particular solution. Saying “I want to make this change” causes people to discuss the change. Saying “I want to solve this problem” leads people to discuss the problem and may result in a better solution.
After communicating a problem statement, invite everybody to give input on the topic. At this point, try to avoid discussion and instead focus on gathering ideas. This process will identify who on the team is most passionate or invested in solving a certain problem. It also provides an opportunity to organize the ideas into themes before people start debating the merits of a certain solution.
After collecting feedback, set up a meeting for the people who are the most interested in discussing the problem. Ideally, this will involve no more than eight people. If more than that seem passionate about the topic, it might require a few separate meetings to give everybody an opportunity to voice their opinion. After discussing possible solutions, work on coming to a consensus. Try to end the meeting with a plan of action, or at the least a narrowed-down list of ideas.
Communicate the result of the meeting with the rest of the team. Let everybody know what the group decided, and give people another opportunity to provide feedback. At this point if the team buys-in to the approach, then execute the change. If there are concerns with the proposed solution, consider the magnitude of the concern. If only one person dissents, talk with them individually. If a bunch of people do, you may need to regroup to discuss in person. Keep iterating on the cycle of soliciting feedback, discussing potential changes, and proposing them to the team until there’s a consensus. Each round can involve different people as individuals choose to opt in or out.
Once you have a consensus, make the change. Hopefully, the team regularly meets for a retrospective, so there will be an opportunity to discuss whether the change has been effective at solving the identified problem once enough time has passed to give it a chance. If the change isn’t effective, repeat the process. You should be able to go through these phases fairly quickly; it doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out cycle.
I mentioned that it’s ideal for the team to come to a consensus, but that’s not always possible. Also, a team lead may need to make a decision that goes against the popular vote of the team. Decision making by democracy isn’t always the best model due to information asymmetry. If that happens, it’s still valuable to take the time to get input on the proposed change. It provides an opportunity to address concerns, provide missing context, and communicate the circumstances that motivate a certain course of action.