Building Relationships

Build Relationships By Asking About the Work

We all want to build relationships when working with a new team, and in my previous post, I wrote about one technique to do so. Since I revisit this theme frequently, click here to find out ways to approach these conversations, and today we’ll add another to that list. Before we dive in though, a quick refresher on some fundamentals:

  • Sit with each team member individually and use this time to find out what motivates them.
  • Ask questions to appreciate their world and world view not to persuade them of yours.
  • This time about them–not you–so put your agenda aside.
  • Use this time to build a relationship, a rapport, and to build trust.

To build these relationships, the conversation begins simply. It begins by asking a question.

What’s the right ratio for how much time we should spend building a thing versus talking to the people we’re building it for?

While my other techniques bias toward the individual, this question leans into team dynamics, the product, and the end-users. Let me explain how I’ve seen this play out.

About the Product

These questions help us understand if and how the team is siloed, how and who determines priorities, and how much visibility the team has into those priorities.

  • What are you currently building? Is there a problem it’s solving? What is it? What kind of impact do you hope it has? How will you know?
  • Why is this the right thing to be working on now? How was it chosen? By whom? Is there some other feature we’re not working on that you think we should be?
  • Were there other things we chose to work on later? What were those things? In your opinion, what’s the next big thing the team should work on?

About the Team

It can help us uncover how the team views existing relationships with each other and their users while also highlighting which team members are more tied to the status quo than others. For example, it often segues into other questions.

  • Does that ratio change over time? For example, do we often spend more time talking to our users at the start but less over time? What are those phases and how does that ratio change?
  • How do we validate midstream that we’re headed in the right direction? Who validates this? How are team members involved? If we’re not talking to those we’re building it for frequently, should we be concerned that we might solve the wrong problem?
  • How does the perfect ratio compare to today’s reality? Do you think it’s appropriate as is or should we adjust it? Why?

About the Customer

In my experience, this dimension has been the most insightful. Team members sometimes struggle or are uncertain of who their work impacts. Other times, they answer with some generic, faceless customer which inhibits our ability to empathize. Finally, I’ve also had team members say they’re building a product for themselves, which can often mean they are component–instead of feature–teams or are siloed enough to consider their own team members their end-users. Neither of these are ideal.

  • Who are you building it for? Are they internal to the company or external? (I usually stick with the phrasing above since terms like “customer” and “user” are often misunderstood.)
  • When we talk with these folks, what’s that conversation look like? Who drives it? Can I come?
  • When was the last time you sat down with them? What did you learn? How did that change what you were building? If it’s been some time, do you think we should soon? What’s stopping you?

Always be sure to ask these questions from a place of curiosity and never of judgment regardless of how our opinions may differ from our new team. After all, how can we build a relationship if someone feels judged? And take note that none of the questions here contained any agile jargon or buzzwords.

Labels are pointless when our audience lacks the same mental model as us so avoid them. Anyway, these conversations aren’t about us or about agile. They’re about getting to know each other a bit better. Still, I get it. We’re problem solvers so consider this:

Clients always know how to solve their problems, and always tell the solution in the first five minutes.

Jerry Weinberg

So listen closely.

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