Teamwork.com co-founder Daniel Mackey talks to Tom Hickey about how the company is fixing the process of how they do things to create a better working environment and improve products.
People, process and products are the three things we focus on. Obviously you have to trust your people; product generally is going to be good because you’ve put your heart and soul into making it the best it can be; but the process or lack of process is where most teams fall down. If you get those three key things right you’re on the road to fixing a lot of problems.
Peter and myself recently got hooked on an NBC Reality TV show called The Profit [Marcus Lemonis] and the three core areas he focused on when entering a business was People, Process and Product – we thought this was an excellent fit for Teamwork.com.
That’s exactly how we run our teams now. The struggle that we’ve had for years is that we’ve never had our processes nailed. We had the people, we had the product, but we never had the processes, and that’s the bit that we are fixing.
What do you think Teamwork.com were failing at?
We didn’t have processes in place. For example, how do we decide on the next new feature? We had no process for that. How do we hire people? We had no process for that.
For new features, we have a rough idea of what the feature will be and how it would be implemented, but we didn’t have a formal process.
Emmet [Florish, Head of Sales] might say, “I would have got this enterprise customer if Teamwork Projects had this’. We’ve got a customer saying “I really need this”, and we have our own – because we use the product ourselves – people saying, “Oh God, I’d love if we have this”.
Sometimes people give you impractical suggestions, or feature requests that are very specific to their use case. And we’re going, yeah, that might benefit your company, and we see how it could help you, but it’s not going to benefit 90% of our customers; and it’s going to make it more complex, and add more stress to people when they see an option or a new thing they don’t understand.
We’re working on the process and we’re pretty much there. What we’re doing now is we’ve set up a project called “Feedback and Suggestions”, and no matter what somebody suggests it gets added to that project. We then triage that every month.
We’d go through it and say, that’s not practical or beneficial to the majority of our customers, that’s interesting, that’s doable in the next x weeks. We break it down into stages: This is a quick win, something that could be done in 24 hours and out there live, and make the customer happy and feel listened to; is it something that can take two weeks, a short-term item; or is it something that could take two months? That’s a big ticket item like Kanban or whatever.
Then we all meet up. Usually Conor [Teamwork Projects Team Lead], Topper [CEO Peter Coppinger], myself and Emmet, and we weigh them up in order of priority, and then divvy them out to the team. Once TKO [Our internal code name for the next iteration of Teamwork Projects] is released we’ll break the Teamwork Projects team into three groups of four, or four groups of three, and each one will get a big ticket item which they’ll work on. For example, one group will get Kanban, one will get Gantt charts, one will get Departments, but in the meantime they’re all working on small ticket items and bug fixes.
Each team will do a short specification document which gets reviewed by the whole team before a line of code is written. That’s a quick example of how we’re going to fix a challenge by introducing a process.
So what is an example of something where you don’t have a process in place?
We never had a formal process on how our product teams work, let’s say. So the team would go, “we have a rough idea that we need feature X and this is roughly how we’re going to do it”, or “there is a bug on feature Y that needs fixing”, and everybody goes away and jumps straight in and starts programming. We found people couldn’t fix something because they were waiting on something else. We found multiple people working on the same thing, and we found some items weren’t getting done because it was out of someone’s comfort zone.
To fix these issues on the Teamwork Projects team, and to make sure everybody knows what they need to do and, more importantly, what other people need to do, we started having a daily stand-up meeting every day at 12pm. We all meet in a common area and patch remote workers in via Google Hangouts. It’s quick and painless – 15 to 20 minutes.
We go around to each person and ask three questions: What did you get done; what will you be working on; and what are you blocked on? Once each person answers those three questions everyone is in the loop and briefed on the team’s current status. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing, plans to do, and if they don’t get their stuff done that they’re holding up a particular person. Teamwork Desk and Teamwork Chat already had this type of process in place – we needed to put this in place for Teamwork Projects.
Why didn’t you have processes there before?
We fell into this really after years of consultancy work. Back then the company was smaller, the team was smaller and we didn’t face the same challenges as we do now with a products based business. We’re learning all the time. We [Peter and I] have never worked anywhere else so we don’t know what other companies do, so we have to watch things like The Profit, listen to interviews and podcasts, read books and articles – to constantly learn. We have to experiment ourselves and see what works and what doesn’t.
None of us likes meetings, but we have to have meetings, so we try to cut them to 15 or 20 minutes. The only way you can cut them to 15 minutes is you can’t let people stray from the purpose or agenda of the meeting. And they need to be painless – make them fun if we can.
At what stage did you realize that the way Teamwork.com did things had to change?
I suppose when your team is small it’s grand because you can hammer something out over coffee in the morning. You’re actually having a meeting without thinking about it. You might talk about a TV program which leads onto a customer, which leads onto their feedback, which gets us discussing it, and then we go, “yeah, we can do that”. And we go away and do it.
Then when there’s 75 [people working at Teamwork.com] you can’t do that anymore. You need to define a process on how something is done so if a new team member joins they can start working right away because there is a process in place. It takes a lot of Peter and my time to define and manage these processes so we don’t get to do as much development work as we used to.
Do you miss that?
Yeah. But there’s still time to do it. Instead of watching a film on a Friday night we can open up our laptops and work on something that benefits the products. My favorite times are Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings where I get three or four hours to work on product and I try and get a couple of hours each evening. Because programming is my hobby that I get so much enjoyment from it as well as my job I don’t see it as “work”. I get immense satisfaction from positive feedback from customers due to something I was involved with creating.
Do you find that you have to delegate more work…
Yes. In the early days of Teamwork Peter and myself did everything. We designed the database, we wrote the front end code, we wrote the back end code, we looked after the infrastructure, etc Today we have a great team of people with a diverse range of skills – some skills that Peter and myself don’t have. We used to have problems delegating work because we needed to trust it would be done to the standard we would have done it to.
But isn’t trust part of what companies do? Building trust with their staff?
Exactly. Some jobs you hate doing, some jobs you like doing. It’s harder when you have a job that you know you would like to do because it’s fun or interesting, and you’d make a good job of, but you have to hand it over. That’s the hardest part, but now we can trust that it will be done well thanks to a great team and processes.
Are you the kind of guy who can go home and relax in the evening?
Not at all! You can’t because you are always thinking about what happened today, what are you going to do tomorrow, a problem that has you stumped, etc. You’re constantly thinking about how to make Teamwork.com a better company and how to make our products even better.
I also tend to take negative feedback to heart too much. You can get 10 fantastic feedback items from happy customers and one negative feedback can destroy you. Peter and myself have tried to ignore situations like this over the years and understand we can’t be all things to all people, . but it’s still hard not to think about the negative reactions to some of the decisions you made for the right reasons.
Part 2 of this interview will appear in next month’s Teamwork.com Newsletter.