Managing Teams with Neil Vass

“The more you think about how things look to other people and how might they see the world, the better you're going to work together as a team.”

There’s a lot that goes into making a team work well together. Of course there are those magical instances where you get a group of talented people together and it just works. But more often than not, you have to take a measured approach to make the magic happen. In this episode, Brett interviews Neil Vass, an agile delivery manager for Co-op Digital, about the complexities of leading teams. The conversation is productive and full of tactics and resources, and covers:

  • Practices for staffing teams
  • How to identify a teams’ strengths and weaknesses
  • How to get teams aligned around organizational and project goals
  • Ways to motivate team members, even when you are not a line manager
  • Exercises to help with team building
  • Low-effort, high-impact practices to help you keep the team feeling positive and productive

Links and resources mentioned in this episode: 

About our guest


Neil Vass
Agile Delivery Manager, Co-op Digital

Neil is an agile delivery manager for Co-op Digital. Previously, he worked in a variety of roles on waterfall, agile and fragile projects, using a wide range of techniques from each. Previous experience includes automating medical image analysis, building a motion-tracking toothbrush to study brushing technique, and adding new features to the CBeebies and CBBC websites. It’s people problems that are the most interesting, though. Follow @neil_vass on Twitter to hear more of Neil’s thoughts on agile delivery.

Episode Transcript


Brett Harned:       Hey, welcome to Time Limit, the podcast that's all about managing people and projects when you're strapped for time. I'm Brett Harned, and today I'm happy to have Neil Vass from Co-op Digital join me on the show. Neil will talk about it a little bit more, but Co-op is one of the world's largest consumer cooperatives owned by millions of members. It's the UK's fifth biggest food retailer with more than 2,500 stores. Neil is based in Manchester and is an agile delivery manager, working on digital projects to compliment the in-person co-op experience. Neil and I share an interest in delivery communications, managing teams, and communities of practice. We'll touch on all three things in the interview and drop a lot of ideas and resources on you at the same time, so check it out. Hey, Neil. Thanks so much for joining me on Time Limit today. How are you doing?

Neil Vass:          Doing good. Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Brett Harned:       Awesome. We've met through friends of ours in Manchester, which is where you're located, but haven't met in person yet, which is interesting, and I'm hoping that we can make that happen at Deliver Conference in 2020, but I'm really excited to have you on today to talk a little bit about team building, staffing, and I think motivating team members. Maybe to kick it off, if you can just tell us a little bit about the work that you do, and maybe a little bit about the process that your teams are using to get through projects, that might set a little context for some of your responses.

Neil Vass:          Sure. I work at the Co-op in the UK. Cooperatives are an idea started in 1844 this one, where a bunch of workers got together and they didn't like the quality of food that the landed gentry were selling them, so they decided to sell and make things for themselves. Over the last 175 years, that's grown into a huge big organization. They've got lots of food stores in the UK as well as doing insurance and funeral care and all kinds of other stuff. It's huge. It's older than California. Until quite recently, it didn't do a lot of its own digital work. It was only about three years ago that Co-op decided it's going to miss the boat on all these digital ways of working and they formed Co-op Digital as part of the main Co-op, but it almost feels like an agency inside it, that will then partner up, work out what the problems are with the different business units and do projects for them.

Brett Harned:       That's so interesting. What types of projects are you working on then within Digital?

Neil Vass:          We do quite a lot with food. There's things there like Co-op specializes in quite small convenience stores and hasn't done home delivery very much until recently. It's not something you could really compete with one of the really big supermarkets. They've got warehouses and vans and you can't really get into that space and compete with them. Looking at different options, Digital was looking at some eCommerce that would almost compete with getting a takeaway. Rather than get a pizza delivered in 30 minutes, use an app that we make as simple and easy as possible to point you towards things that are not hard to put together from ingredients, and we'll get our e-bike to get that from your local Co-op right to your house in under 30 minutes. That's a different way of looking at the idea, and maybe that's something people are interested in. There's also ...

Brett Harned:       That's really interesting. Yeah. Go ahead.

Neil Vass:          There's also lots of efficiencies for people in stores. Talking to them about how painful it is for store managers to work out how many shifts they've got and who wants to work on overtime or is happy to go to different stores. In other businesses, similar things to manage the logistics of funerals, which traditionally are on 400 different bits of paper. You can now have that all in one easy to use service, and you can start to look at the stats from them and see patterns and ideas for efficiency.

Brett Harned:       Interesting.

Neil Vass:          That's just a couple of the things, but there are ...

Brett Harned:       Yeah. That's a wide range too, huh?

Neil Vass:          Yes, really different.

Brett Harned:       It's really interesting. That must mean that you're innovating all the time. You're coming up with new types of projects based on the organization's goals. I'm interested to dig a little bit deeper and talk about the team. Who are the people that you're leading now and what kinds of disciplines are they in? I'd have to imagine that you've got a wide range of folks working there on projects.

Neil Vass:          That's right. Yes. I lane manage delivery managers, which are as the name that came from UK government, like project manager, scrum master, one of those kind of roles that helps shape the work, helps the team work out what's going and keep it flowing and things like that. With them on the team, they're usually paired up with a product manager who helps understand the business problems and gets stakeholders from the main business on board with the idea of what we're working on. Then, the people making the work. We've got engineers and testers, designers, and user research is a big thing we've brought to Co-op. Actually being able to go out to the users, whether that's members of the public or members of our own staff, and really see how things work in real life rather than how we imagine it from people in the head office to say even what things to build.

Brett Harned:       Interesting. As a line manager ... Actually, I want to say I love the title delivery manager. I think that was a brilliant title that they came up with. I'm glad to see that it's been carried out, because I think that the title project manager doesn't necessarily do the job justice in digital. I think it's cool that you're carrying that through, but I'm curious about ... You said you're a line manager for delivery managers. I'm curious about staffing projects. How do you determine who's going to be on what project? Do you even have a hand in that? How does that work in your organization?

Neil Vass:          In terms of choosing what individuals will work on, I think there's a good balance here between people are happy to work on whatever's needed on the business, but there's lots of input into, "I'm interested in working in this area," or, "I want skills and best candid experience." For staffing, like who do we need on a project that's started, we've done a lot of short discoveries or alphas, where you just see what this problem is or try and find some cheap way just to run for a short amount of time and learn as much as you can without building too much to decide if it's worth going further.

Neil Vass:          Traditionally, Co-op Digital's done quite a few of those where you would just get a delivery manager or a delivery and product manager on something to start with, so I might be one of those people to say, "What's the general area we want to look into and what kind of skills do we see being useful here?" That would be a small team you'd put together, and we're moving more and more over time as we get more established products onto a long running product team because I think forming teams is expensive. It takes time for people to work out how to get along with each other, what roles they fit into and what processes work for them? A long running product team once something's live, it's naturally evolved out of one of those small teams and you gradually added people over time. Then, it's a constant balance, because there's always more requests for us to do things than it's insensible for us to take on at once.

Neil Vass:          It tends to be a case of growing up and down over time should we try out in a couple of these roles, and if somebody thinks we should reform the team in some way, does that mean any other changes? I's tinkering around the edges rather than trying to plan up front for a year what kind of team we would need.

Brett Harned:       That makes sense. I guess really it comes down to the individual strengths or weaknesses when it comes to staffing projects too, and you figure that stuff out pretty quickly when you're running those tests, but I'm wondering if you've used any specific tactics or even tests to identify personality types or even skills or skills gaps with your team members? Is there anything in that realm that you found to be helpful?

Neil Vass:          Yeah. They're quite big on doing a thorough inception when a new thing's starting off and Co-op Digital too often, I know some places of work, the kickoff meeting is about half an hour to get an idea of what's going on and you head off to it. We do a lot more about how does a team want to work together and what strengths are we bringing to it, as well as looking at what's the work and who do I want to challenge it? That can go on for a few days, which is good because it lets you dig into all kinds of different sessions. I think about learning how you want to work together. I like exercises like a user manual for me, which you'll find if you search on Google, which is about work, you fill in for yourself for the session. Things like things I like, things I'd like to do more of, things I struggle with, ways to know not to interrupt me. All kinds of things about the way you like to work that doesn't come up otherwise.

Neil Vass:          From that, you can come up with their team principles or a charter about how you'd like to work together. In terms of skills and the gaps we have, the best tool we've found for that is communities of practice, which is where each discipline comes and meets up, say once a week with other people doing the same job in different areas. It's just the chance to share what you're working on, what you've learned, what new things you'd like to try. It's a good idea to get that sense for my role on other parts of the business, what do people know, what are they finding useful, and what things do we think would be useful in our team? It's a good place to either learn those things from people or just identify that's something on your team that you've not got the expertise in.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. Absolutely. I love that. It sounds like you do ... The intake process is basically a few days that helps you to sort out things about the project, but also about yourselves or yourselves as a team. How much time do you usually dedicate to that?

Neil Vass:          I think it's an ongoing thing and it's easy to assume things are fine and carry on. Depending on how much the people know each other already and how new the bed of workers, it can be anything up to a week long in session.

Brett Harned:       Okay.

Neil Vass:          I think overtime, you learn more about ... You get more comfortable with each other and you can be vulnerable and a bit more honest about what skills we might feel we don't have or what things people in the team are doing that aren't working with you. I don't think you can make that come out on the first day. It's something that's useful to revisit frequently, so that's in team retrospectives or other measures or ways to bring up what behaviors we think are important? What did we agree when we started off as team and do we see that getting reflected as we go on? Are we all talking with each other honestly when issues come up, do we all feel safe to bring up things we're worried about and stuff like that.

Brett Harned:       I like it. It sounds like there's a real commitment to open an ongoing communication within the teams.

Neil Vass:          Yeah. It's not always there, it's definitely something we work towards more, and I think it's something that it's easy to take for granted. There's lots of books and interesting studies about the highest performing teams, and it's a story I've seen again and again, that you don't take anything for granted, things like what's this team important for? What we're working towards? How can we all help contribute to that? You'd think some people would just know it, but it's things like studies of top surgeons, of Navy Seals, of all kinds of people you'd think, "Don't they just know these basics?" The best performing teams are the ones that just relentlessly bring that up and question it and keep reminding each other and it's like signals to keep it open.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. I agree with you. It's one of those things that we know as humans, like we know we have to communicate in order for things to go well, but sometimes we just forget. People get busy. Something feels stressful or painful and that breaks down. It's good to have somebody on the team to foster that communication, and make sure that people are feeling good about the work that they're producing, but also the process by which they're producing that work. Would you say that that's part of a delivery manager's job at the Co-op?

Neil Vass:          Yeah. I think you've summed it up really nicely. That's a really, really important thing. That is 100% considered essential to how do you get things delivered. It's nice when that lines up with your jobs to get things delivered, and we believe that an important part of that is making people happy and comfortable and able to work well together because that makes you feel good about getting things delivered.

Brett Harned:       Exactly.

Neil Vass:          Rather than stellar approaches where you hold people's feet to the fire or scream at them until it's done, anything that's been tried over the years in other places.

Brett Harned:       I have to assume that you're running more of an Agile process. Am I right in thinking that?

Neil Vass:          That's right. Yeah. The Co-op as a whole tended to run things in the traditional waterfall planned upfront way. Another part of Digital's mission as well as getting interesting, useful stuff for the businesses to use is to help spread Agile ways of working, Agile approaches to work in general through the main Co-op business.

Brett Harned:       Got it. I have to ask, how has that transition been? Because you talk to any kind of Agile coach, and they'll tell you that the organization needs to be bought into Agile for it to actually work. It feels like with the work that you're doing, that is absolutely true. What's that experience been like for you?

Neil Vass:          Really interesting. It's a difficult thing to approach, especially somewhere that absolutely has been working well. You can come in and shout that everything you've been doing is wrong and you should all do it this new way, but when it's a company that [inaudible] for 175 years and has plenty of [inaudible] taken seriously and I don't think you should be too dismissive of what's gone before, but I can see the balance because you do want to state that this is something different, otherwise you'll be swallowed up and co-opted and people will say, "Oh, I see what you're saying. Yeah. We'll call it sprints now and we're Agile, job done." It's that balance of try to show the value of working differently, try to show that if you think differently about these things, it might solve some of the issues we have in a way that people will listen to, but also in a way that persuades them that change is the right direction.

Brett Harned:       Right. Okay. I guess along those lines of knowing the process in the organization, how are you keeping teams aligned in terms of project goals and priorities? Are you relying on process or are there other tactics that you're employing to make sure that everyone is actually on target?

Neil Vass:          We've got very, very different approaches given the projects. Project teams work with different areas of the business, so they get used to different ways of describing success or the outcomes that they want. But one thing we use in a lot of places is OKRs, the Objectives and Key Results that made famous by Google and then by loads of other people who wanted to try that too. I think that can be really, really useful if you keep that to a small number. What would outrageous success look like, and if we do these things, we're happy. Often, there's a thousand things that people are hoping to get out of it. You say, "Well for this period of time, let's just focus on best and what would good look like for that," to keep things as simple as you can.

Neil Vass:          It's really important to get everyone on the team aware of those and talking about how we're doing towards those. People call them New Year's resolutions, don't just make it at the start and then tuck it away in a drawer. Take it out and [inaudible 00:15:58]. Yeah. Let's keep it alive in the teams. The other thing is they're only useful if all the stakeholders as well see that as the way you describe success. If you're hoping to get something definite out of this, you should be talking about changing those rather than saying, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. That should okay ours, but here's what I really hope will happen."

Brett Harned:       I love it. Yeah. We actually use OKRs at TeamGantt and I personally, as someone who produces work and content, I find it really helpful just to have something to strive toward. Right? It's a goal. It's a bottom line goal that you're trying to meet, and just having a team rally around that can be really helpful too. But I want to dig in a little bit deeper on team dynamics, and a little bit about team building. I think when you hear ... At least in the States when people hear team building, they think of something like a trust fall or these cheesy exercises that are just seen as terrible, and people seem to turn their noses up at things like that.

Brett Harned:       I wonder how you feel about those kinds of exercises, especially knowing that you do a little bit of an extended intake process and you do that extra work to try to make sure that everyone's accommodated for or accounted for in the process, everyone on the team. Are there any kind of exercises or practices that you think can help teams to bond?

Neil Vass:          Yeah. I think it's a really good point. I think lots of places have heard team building's important and here are some examples of what you can do. Then, without much thought about how does this fit to your situation or explanation of what you're trying to achieve there, it just gets rolled out and people do them. I think they can always tell when the people are setting up, think, "I hear you people need teams built. I'm all right. [inaudible] this, but you go for that." Also that, "You've done that thing now, you've fallen over and caught each other, so you should be growing and don't complain to me again."

Neil Vass:          I think being honest with people about what you hope to achieve, why it's important for a team to work together and you're looking for ways to build that, and being honest with yourself that this is how humans work well together and you need some of that too. Don't hold yourself a lift from it, and also seeing it as any exercise is the start of a process and the important thing is to keep it alive. It can stop, work and then there's more to do later. One of my absolute favorite exercises I've been using recently, more and more on teams in different situations, is called the empathy survey, which is game show retrospective. I'll send you the link after this.

Brett Harned:       Okay. Great.

Neil Vass:          Somebody called Steven [Moundsy] did a talk about it once and I've just been riffing on that theme for quite a while. The idea is you ask a lot of questions for the team. There's some, depending on what you want to know more about, what actually you're digging into, there's some quite serious ones like what's one issue you feel is really holding us back as a team, or if you could change one thing about the way we're working together, what would it be or things like that. Especially with other, it's important to see people as people. Things like what's one TV show you absolutely refuse to watch or what job would you have done if you weren't doing this one? A mix of serious, maybe quite painful to talk about ones and silly, but still useful to know about. I don't [inaudible] it like that. There are good reasons to know somebody as a whole person. It helps with every conversation you have with them later.

Neil Vass:          Everyone puts their answers to the questions up on a game show format and your facilitator, your friendly delivery manager usually would go around in different ways, getting people to answer other people's questions for points. The important thing there is you're trying to put yourself in somebody else's shoes. Even if you don't get the answers right, if you just thought, "Given what I know about this person, what would they say that's holding us back?" Just for a minute, if you think about what have they been saying they're frustrated on, what kind of thing do I expect them to want to change, it's just a good exercise. It starts developing empathy. That combined with other things later on. The more you think about how things look to other people and how might they see the world, the better you're going to work together as a team.

Brett Harned:       I love that. I will definitely share that link with listeners too, because I think that sounds like not only a fun exercise but one that can be so helpful to quickly get to know people on your team and understand what their motivations are, right? Along the lines of motivation, I think one of the biggest questions that I get from project managers is how do I motivate my team? I think that's because it's always a challenge for project leads or delivery leads, because they don't actually manage those people, right? They're not line managers. Someone in their own community practice is a line manager, so when things get tough, it can be difficult to step in and steer someone in the right direction, because you really don't have much authority. Have you ever encountered that type of situation?

Neil Vass:          Yeah. I think it's true to some extent everywhere on every team. It's really confusing nowadays in a bigger organization, you've got, what does your line manager say is important, which probably comes from what your role is trying to achieve. Front end developers might want to achieve something very different than user researchers are working on.

Brett Harned:       Right.

Neil Vass:          What are you personally trying to develop? What is it this project is trying to achieve, which probably is at odds with 10 other things that might motivate you in different directions. It can be hard to get aligned around one thing.

Brett Harned:       Yeah.

Neil Vass:          One quote I like that I think is from [inaudible] was about people start off motivated, and it's often that organizations have crushed that out them. [inaudible] where it could have existed already. I think a really important motivation is being clear on which of the many, many things that we say are important are really important this time and getting everyone on board with the idea. Quite often, that can be around delivery of this thing is important, while keeping everything else in mind, how can we get everyone else to care about that, see it's important and hear what do we get if this meets its goals, if this does the right thing, how does that advance us as a team, as organization all together? And to talk about that plenty, I think that really helps.

Brett Harned:       Definitely. Yeah. I think there are two layers or maybe even three layers of goals, right? Like it's organizational goals, and making sure that everyone's aligned to those and understands why those goals are important to the organization as well as a layer down to your kind of community of practice. What are the goals that you have as a team and the goals that a development team versus a design team have, might be different. Then, on the individual level, it's also, "Why am I motivated to do this job? Where am I going in my career and what are my overall goals? Or what are my goals to advance even within the organization?" It's a lot to deal with and it's a lot to untangle as a person who's really on the ground level of a project just trying to get that thing done.

Brett Harned:       I think that what you've explained makes sense. You have to connect with the person doing the exercises you're talking about help you to connect on that kind of individual level, and then, to me, it's about really good communication, right? If someone feels or seems not motivated to do work or they're resistant to doing work, it's a matter of sitting down and having an open and honest conversation with them about it, and figuring out what is going to motivate them? What is it that's not working for them, and how can we rectify it together?

Brett Harned:       I don't know. I feel like people ask me this question fairly often and I don't ever feel like I have a great response, because it is very dependent on the person and the situation, but yeah. I don't know. I'm kind of rambling now, but in terms of motivation and team building, I'm just curious are there any books or articles or resources? I know that you've mentioned a few, but do you have any recommendations for our listeners and things that they might want to dig deeper on in those topics?

Neil Vass:          Yeah. One book I've just finished is The Culture Code by ... I'm not going to guess who wrote it. We can share that in a link later.

Brett Harned:       Absolutely.

Neil Vass:          The Culture Code looks at high performing teams across a range of different industries and it's got lots of really interesting stories about the similarities between them. My current thesis is around if people could just talk together better about what's working for them or not. That's often the first stumbling block. If you can just get past that to where people are open with each other and speak up when there's an issue, or even just speak up when something's working well for them, a lot of the other stuff is just going to work itself out. An interesting book on that topic would be Fearless by Amy Edmondson.

Brett Harned:       Okay.

Neil Vass:          That's the researcher who first discovered psychological safety. She was looking in hospitals and found the highest performing surgical teams had much less to do with having the right range of skills in the team or people of the similar abilities or any of the things you might look at, it was where the people feel most welcome to speak up. There's all kinds of factors you can do to try and improve that, and really clear examples of the bad things that happen when the default is silence. I think you miss out on people just don't say what's not working for them or why they're not motivated or what they think would work better, but also you miss out on all kinds of good ideas. If you're in an environment where you're not quite sure what's going to happen if you say something that isn't right, if people are going to shout at you and blame you for it, i you've got an idea to get only maybe 50% sure might be a good one, but it may be fantastic, it's just safer to stay quiet.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. It sounds like it's very much about creating an environment where everyone feels safe to speak up or speak out.

Neil Vass:          Absolutely.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. Okay.

Neil Vass:          Yeah. That was ... Amy Edmondson discovered that and did really interesting work. Then, it got super famous when Google did a wide-ranging investigation in which of their teams provided best, couldn't quite understand what they were seeing until they found her work and then it tied up exactly, and as soon as Google does something right, every business wants to know what's this thing that's given it a new lease of life recently.

Brett Harned:       Cool. There are so many different directions we should take this conversation. I feel like this is that at the highest level, but it's been so interesting and we try to keep our episodes to around 30 minutes, but that's going to lead me to my last question. I can't believe it. As you know, the show is called Time Limit, right? We're giving a nod to the fact that everyone in business is working under constraints on time. Whether you're a project manager, a manager or producer, we're under constraints on time, on resources, budgets and lots of other things. Let's say that I'm a project manager or delivery lead, and I feel really strapped for time. I can't seem to get my team to be efficient and productive together. Are there any kind of like low effort, high impact practices that you might suggest for someone who's strapped for time and really wants to make the team gel a little bit better?

Neil Vass:          Yeah. I think there's often far more you can work on than there is time to do it. I think that's just natural, and accepting that helps a lot. I like to make lists of here's all the areas I think we could work on with the team, and the kind of impacts I hope that we'd have, so we could get better at this, we can get better at that. Here's a list of them and put them in order. For me, I think this is the one that's holding us back most of all. I'm going to focus my efforts on that because it's easy to scatter your attention and think, "I had so many good intentions and it's three months in and I've never worked on this aspect." If you've written it down and you've consciously made the decision that it is important, but I think it's less of a priority, at least that helps me.

Neil Vass:          It's also useful to talk through with other people, with your line manager or people on the right side of the team say, "These are the choices I'm making and why, what do you think?" It just calms everyone down to know that some things that are on fire, that your team is just not good at, you're not getting to them not because you don't realize it's important, just because you think something else is more important now. Once you've made that decision to say no or not now to all those other things and you've only got one thing to focus on now, I think that really, really helps. Just take a look at that. Remember you're focusing on it and work at how you can make a dent in it.

Brett Harned:       I like that.

Neil Vass:          [crosstalk] choosing that it's time to move on to the next thing. Yeah.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. Would you share that list with your team or work with your team to prioritize it?

Neil Vass:          I have done in the past. Yeah. It's really useful, especially when you feel like you've taken on a big team with so much work coming in and so many new processes, you'd have to introduce the [inaudible] and team dynamics going on. I have made that list visible and it's useful as well, because as a delivery manager, you're there to serve the team. I think they should have a say in what service would they like first.

Brett Harned:       I like it. Yeah. I think the idea of just having a list and making everyone aware of what's on that list can probably help you to solve some of those challenges without actively working on it, right? Sometimes just knowing that something's wrong will plant a seed in someone's brain and then they'll figure out a way of working around it or a way of addressing it, and that it becomes a non-issue eventually. I really love that idea. Again, I think it comes back to just open communication and honesty.

Neil Vass:          That's the root of most things.

Brett Harned:       Absolutely. Well, this has been awesome, Neil. Do you have anything else that you want to share with our listeners before we sign off?

Neil Vass:          No, I think we've covered plenty of things. Thanks for having me on, Brett.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. Thanks so much for joining. I hope we get to talk again soon. I really appreciate you being here. Thank you.

Neil Vass:          Cheers. Bye.

Brett Harned:       Bye. All right. That's all for this episode. I hope to have Neil back some time soon to explore some more themes around managing and motivating teams. Until then, check out the show notes for a comprehensive list of awesome resources Neil recommends, and to check out TeamGantt as well. If you're liking the show, please rate and review us on your favorite podcasting network. That'll help us to spread the word and reach more folks and find even more great people to interview. See you next time.

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