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  • Writer's pictureIryna Manukovska

Leading complex engineering teams in 2021

A complex process is one with a large number of opportunities for failure

This describes the best reality we all are living in since 2020. Personal and business issues are totally blended, and we literally are living on the volcano every day. Team leaders should have enough energy and tools to lead others in the time of changes. As Gandalf said: "All We Have To Decide Is What To Do With The Time That Is Given To Us".

In this Article:

"The key is to acknowledge from the start that you have no idea how this will grow when you accept that you don't know everything, you begin to design the system defensively",

Nicholas Zakas, creator of the ESLint open source project

What complexity means for leading the teams in 2021

Complexity is a common word in managers' daily communication, but what does it mean for the teams we lead? A more complex environment team operates in, more sophisticated challenges we experience.

"Complexity kills. It sucks the life out of developers; it makes products difficult to plan, build and test, it introduces security challenges, and it causes end-user and administrator frustration",

Ray Ozzie, former Microsoft CTO.

And we all totally agree. Complexity influences a lot and consists of a variety of components. The key for today are conflicting priorities, lack of time to meet, changing goalposts, working across time zones and cultures, and conflicting lines of report, all supported with a lack of resources.

"Detecting challenges teams would face before they affect productivity level and mental health is the main leader responsibility. We need to work on creating an environment that is conducive to complex teamwork is crucial",

Leonid Lytvynenko, CTO, YouScan

(#1 Social media listening platform in Europe)

The Stress environment effect

Complex team leadership in a highly stressed environment - that's where different principles work. In 1996 Karl Weick illustrated in HBR how hard it could be to make common sense when people see something different, even when their own lives depend on it. "Prepare your organization to fight fires" tells us 15 smokejumpers' story, which turned to tragedy and death race. Trained firefighters were new to each other and their leader. So "ten o'clock fire" became the last job for 13 experienced professionals. The miscommunication and absence of trust between the foreman (the local fire ranger) who led the operation and the team induced a death.

The story portrays -

dangerous uncertainty with no window for deliberation causes anxiety. People do not take into account a leader who is hardly known and whose decrees make no sense to them.

Complexity levels for engineering teams in 2021

Virtual & Remote

As human beings, we communicate and perceive each with the involvement of different senses - speech, body language, visual contact, touching, smelling. Today we use two of them much more frequently than our brain is capable of proceeding. Just like we need regular muscle activity, we need to engage all our informational channels of perception to feel fulfilled and healthy. The Latest Microsoft study of the brain wave activity shows back-to-back video meetings, which we all are used to, are stressful. Researchers just confirmed what many people sense from their experience: Back-to-back virtual meetings are exhausting. One conversation ends, another begins, and too often, there's no chance to stretch, pour a glass of water, or clear your head.

Illustration by Brown Bird Design. Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab Study

We should be clear on how we'll help develop "nonvisual" communication skills (more in Toptal guide) , build trust across the team, and make all of this tolerant to the team members' mental health.

Working on complex problems & Multidisciplinary

The more complex teams' network organization has, the more they need to cover, the higher the team's operation the density level is. That affects crucially. If the network is too dense, too much initiation may lead to the dominance of conventional ideas. This means innovation won't spread fast, and everyone would use traditional ways of doing instead of trying more effective but still new ones.

If networks are not sufficiently connected, fresh ideas may emerge but remain isolated. Innovation departments are used to such a state of play, but for organizations themselves, insulation is a bottleneck for entrepreneurship's way of thinking, creativity, and best practices spreading. This leads to unequal growth and opportunities as well.

Sound pretty familiar to any medium or large enterprise.

Leading engineering teams was never without challenges, even before 2021. Depending on how teams are structured, you will balance between focus and information flow. Leonid stresses how important it is to split teams into smaller ones when growing as Youscan does. And it is always about tradeoff choice. "2021 is challenging because a lot of occasional, beyond the org-structure communication became harder to perform, but this out-of-the-grid communication, as studies show, is an important part of company life. The best part is, every company knows more about the problems in their delivery processes better. We have put our knowledge bases in order. Written communication increased; everyone needed to adopt async messaging and decision-making. So, at YouScan, we're pretty optimistic about the impact that 2020-2021 had on the engineering processes overall", - says Mr. Lytvynenko

Why leading complex engineering teams is challenging in 2021?

Geographically dispersed, Working across time zones and Multicultural

"Leading international teams" study by Sue Canney Davison and Karen Ward shows that cultural differences add one more layer of complexity to the teams scattered across the globe. Why? Variety of mother tongue languages and communication, cultural styles influence how we perceive information and proceed with it. Different expectations about each other's behavioral norms, especially involving emotional display, decision making, conflict resolution, and leadership, can lead to misunderstandings and even clash. Distinctions in access to resources and knowledge within the geographical spread generate inequality of opportunities and skills for each team member.

Working in a partnership or joint ventures outside the boundaries of the organization

Most innovation departments are standalone structures inside corporations. That's how innovative and intrapreneurship spirit is cultivated. Before the pandemic, innovative and product teams were allocated outside main buildings in some dedicated hubs for startups. Separation leads to freedom on the one hand, and on the other, teams may feel detached from the family, like forty-second cousins.

Mental issues and lack of humanity in the time of covid-19

The role of the team leader in recognizing the challenges the team faces before influencing productivity level and mental health. We need to work on creating an environment that is conducive to complex teamwork is crucial. Last year's events influenced mental health a lot, says Leonid. "People need to see and speak to other people by their nature". Lack of non-verbal communication and overdose of verbal one is very stressful. For those who have no family and are living alone, it's hard to face solitude 24 hours per day. Parents of small toddlers face a hard-to-focus situation because of the necessity to stay connected to their children. As leaders, we need to provide tools and support to manage the work-life balance situation.


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