We all crave appreciation, feedback and want to feel noticed. These things make us human, but they could also be the difference between average project delivery and exceptional success.
So how do you increase your team performance? How do you make engineers deliver once in a lifetime results and become a more cohesive unit?
In this article I will show you how I went about it with a customer of mines, by improving their team's ambition, making them feel important and giving them the feedback they needed to be inspired and exceed their own exceptions in what they were able to deliver.
HOW WE BUILT CONFIDENCE IN A TEAM WHERE THE CHALLENGE FELT UNACHIEVABLE
In 2013, I supervised a project team at Prime Vision, a global leader in computer vision integration and robotic for logistics and e-commerce. One of their strength is teaching computers to read handwriting, which is used by postal services around the world.
One of their clients is AN Post, the Irish state-owned postal company, and at the time, the computer could read only 35% of the mail they were processing, which means that a whooping 65% of all the Irish letters and parcel had to go threw human eyes and were sorted manually!!
Their demand was to correctly read 98% of the letters and parcels being processed. A huge challenge when you know that previously only 35% of the addresses could be processed correctly without human intervention.
To do this, a database was set up consisting of 200,000 photos of letters and parcels. So out of this 200,000 photos, 196,000 had to be able to be processed by the software without failure.
Traditionally, addresses in Ireland are quite unstructured. The use of postcodes introduced in 2015 is quite low. In addition, it is possible to write addresses in different ways and put them in different places on the envelope, which makes automated processing of addresses extremely difficult.
What made a team of engineers to accept and carry out a mission that seemed impossible?
In their case study, Prime Vision described how their innovative approach has ensured that the vast majority of addresses are processed correctly. In the case study, Prime Vision focuses mainly on the technical innovation that enabled it to achieve the high coverage rate. In my view, however, the success of the project has another element that is not mentioned in the study.
When we set up the project, I asked the technical team if they believed that 98% was achievable. Their initial reaction was very negative.
"How could the company have said 'yes' to such a coverage rate?"
Accepting resistance as a valid concern.
My first step was to accept the resistance as a valid concern. When I asked them what they did see as a reasonable target, they replied that 91% was more in line with expectations. We then took that as a guideline for the first sprint of the project.
One of the things I have learned in my work with technical experts is that if they show resistance, it needs attention. It may sound very soft, but if you want to get the project team into gear you sometimes have to slow down by listening and exploring where their objections lie.
initially set the bar lower
If you set the bar for a high jumper all at once at a height they don't believe in or have very big doubts about, there is a very good chance they are not going to get over that height. However, setting the bar a little lower initially so that the athlete jumps over this will provide the energy they need to make the next jump. It works the same way in professional organisations. People use the energy a success brings to take the next step. Celebrating that success plays an important psychological role.
Achieving the first step energised the team. After that first step, the team made further progress by constantly improving and optimising the software algorithms. One of the experts told me:
"Every morning when I come in, I first look at the test results of the measurements we made last night. And every time we can read just a little bit more."
The first hurdle had been taken: the initial resistance of some experts had been converted into energy that was now being used to increase coverage.
WHEN a TEAM OF engineerS build confidence and increase their ambitions
To make the project a complete success, one more step was needed. Again, this step was not a technical one, but an interpersonal one.
After the technical team had become convinced that it was possible to process more than 90% of the data correctly, we were faced with the challenge of moving towards 98%. And that really did seem a bridge too far.
Technically, it was probably really a bridge too far. Especially because - unlike other countries - in Ireland addresses can be written in different ways. I don't know if this is still the case now, but at the time of the project, in 2013, it was still possible.
The team was very passionate about improving the software and the project leader kept the customer in Ireland regularly updated on the state of play. But after a few weeks, it seemed that we were nevertheless hitting the limit of what was possible. We needed a breakthrough to take the next step. And that came, just not in the area we expected....
Celebrating progress boosts the team energy
Once, when I went to lunch with the project leader, I asked him what he discussed with the client during the weekly Skype meeting. He said they were particularly addressing the examples from the database that they could not yet process correctly. I felt that the energy level between the project leader and the client was getting lower and lower.
An athlete who wants to keep getting better needs positive impulses. There must be enough focus on the things that do go well. In a football team that loses a game, the coach, provided he handles it well, will always mention positive elements because the team can build on them. It works the same way with technical teams.
So I suggested to the project leader to show his client what was possible, what addresses they could already read.
After the next meeting, he told me that his client almost fell off his chair when they showed some examples of addresses they could process. "We can't even manage that with our naked eye!" the client then told me. He was visibly positively surprised by the results. The ice was broken. The customer's confidence also grew. After all, if those hard-to-process addresses could be read properly, what else was possible?
Later during the same meeting, they looked at examples that could not be processed digitally. At that, the customer even suggested removing some of those examples from the database, simply because those addresses could not be read properly even by the human eye.
Considering the goal of each stakeholder is as important than the common goal f the team
After that meeting, I asked the project manager if he knew what his interlocutor's personal goals were. He didn't know that yet, but was keen to find out. Upon enquiry, it turned out that the project was very important to his counterpart at the client. After all, if the goals were achieved, a promotion would be in it for him. Now both parties knew what each other's goals were, not only business-wise, but also personally. That meant that the success of the project was important for both sides, and that from now on it was clear how important that was for both sides.
From then on, the project manager and his client were on the same side of the table, so to speak. They both believed that this project could be a success, and they knew they could make it happen by working together towards this success. From a critical evaluator, the client had become an advocate for the interests of both himself and the project team.
The project was completed to the satisfaction of both parties
After these two interventions - naming the positive elements and finding each other's personal goals - the trust between both parties grew to such an extent that the project was completed successfully.
The importance of human aspects for project success
First the goal was just to achieve a number, without emotion, now you get the amazement for the things that were achieved. Focus changed from the things that didn't succeed to the things that did. The 98% coverage was achieved and the client project manager was able to make a move. Focus on what has already been achieved rather than on what is still not working helped build team confidence and made each team member achieve one of the best work of their life.
Additionally, sharing and taking into account the personal goals of each stakeholders, on top of the project goal, allows understanding, empathy and mutual trust to be built, which will always lead to greater success.
If you're struggling to get your teams to collaborate and deliver high performance, send me an
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