Resources Articles

How to Help Your Product Team Focus

Kristen Craft | June 11, 2019

This is the final post in a three-part series by guest writer and Tettra customer, Jason Herndon. The first post in the series lives here, and the second post lives here. This series explores how a lack of process and poor knowledge management can prevent engineering teams from shipping good code and products. Jason writes about the role that process plays, how to build robust processes, and, specifically, what tooling and methods can help your team stay on track.

“Starve your distractions. Feed your focus.”

A few years ago, I became a minimalist. Partly because I had grown tired of suburban consumerism, but to a large degree, it was because I felt inundated with decisions. As a leader, a developer, a father, a husband, a friend, and an individual, I found it difficult to manage all of the people and things in my life that demanded my attention. If I had hundreds of decisions to make in a day, I found that not only could I not keep up the quality with each decision but that at the end of the day I just didn’t have enough mental energy left to make decisions, so I procrastinated. My cognitive load was too high.

Thus I set about to limit the number of decisions I make.

Today, I have a limited wardrobe. My clothing options include a few pairs of jeans or khakis, a few blue shirts and a couple of pairs of shoes.

I only use a 13” computer without a second screen. I do not use an iPad for work (only as a screen when traveling). As much as possible, I only use Apple products. I only drink water and try to limit my workday food consumption to a handful of choices. I reduced the amount of furniture in my house and at work. I could go on, but within the past few years, I’ve had the greatest success in my working career, and with four kids, I’ve finally achieved a level of family balance that suits everyone. I even lost about 50 pounds and am healthier than I’ve ever been.

I didn’t achieve those results because I got better at my job, at being a dad, or in my personal life. I’d like to think I’ve grown as a person (as anyone would,) but I really believe that the only noteworthy thing I did was limit distractions in order to give myself a fighting chance at doing what I can do well.

Building a successful digital product is exactly the same.

The problem of focus

Your team members are thinking about too much. Their cognitive load is way too high. Hopefully, you’ve defined and continue to reinforce company values such as who you are, what your culture is, what you value, and what success or failure look like for you.

If not, your team members are probably wondering about those areas.

In addition, a member of your engineering/product team could be carrying around any of the following concerns throughout the day:

  • What are we building?
  • How do I build it?
  • What tools should I use to build it?
  • Who do I work with to build it?
  • What tools should I use to collaborate?
  • What are the rules for how I collaborate?
  • How and when do I collaborate with which people?
  • How do I know I’ve built it well?

On top of any of those concerns are any HR-related questions or concerns. Things like their own career path, how to request vacation, what someone in accounting said about things being “tight”, or whether or not they feel welcome and valued enough to speak their mind in a company meeting.

The fix

The whole point of agile is to think less about the things that don’t matter in order to allow yourself to focus on the things that do. Agile is the product delivery equivalent of minimalism and asks “What can I get rid of in order to shed weight and move faster?”

As much as possible, your product development process and your company culture should address these concerns in order to reduce the mental clutter.

If you have a policy, have solved a problem, or have outlined a process (for how a thing gets built or goes to market, for example,) you must record and share that information. Failure to do so not only means that you have longer cycle times in problem-solving because you’re not sharing knowledge, but it means that every day comes with a high mental load on your team members. Their ability to focus on other unrelated tasks is somewhat decreased. This is where Tettra shines brightest as a knowledge and process management system.

Practical tips

Build templates and playbooks for each area of your business. These could include any and all of the following:

Templates for:

  • Customer emails
  • Meeting agendas
  • Sprint rituals
  • Documentation
  • OKR templates

Operational Playbooks for:

  • Company policies around vacations, travel, expenses, etc.
  • Company contacts and resources
  • “How-to”s for tasks
  • Information about and access to all HR systems or documentation
  • Communication norms (ie, How we use Slack)
  • OKRs and company KPIs

Engineering Playbooks for:

  • Technical documentation
  • Internal wiki and knowledge sharing guidelines for internal processes
  • Sprint documentation
  • Development strategies
  • Release strategies
  • Shared beliefs around best practices
  • Bugfix and support playbooks

Product Development Playbooks for:

  • Product rituals
  • Agile rituals
  • Project management rules and processes
  • Go to market strategies and documentation
  • Release stories and other product roadmap artifacts
  • Program governance

In this way, I use Tettra as the outsourced brain for me and my team members in order to allow them to think less and focus more. If you want to read more about Tettra as the “outsourced brain” you can read the case study from RAIN that outlines how we do that.

In total, consider the complexity of the problems outlined in this series: getting a product delivery team focused and moving in the right direction, making smart decisions about what to build, and helping clear the playing field for your team. Think deeply about how you can offload work for them. Think about how you can enable greater focus. I’ve become passionately convinced that one of the biggest barriers to product delivery is a lack of process management. If that’s the bad news, the good news is that the problem is known and solvable.

Tettra serves as an amazing solution in combating the above problems, and as such, it has quickly become a critical part of my team’s life. For sure, there are many other good uses of Tettra, but it’s as a process management tool that I find myself advocating for it at meetups, when talking with friends at other companies, or online.  It brings much-needed focus to a product or engineering team’s work.