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How We Work Together

11-19-18 Ryan Cromwell

Ryan shares how we set team expectations, support one another, and set our projects up for success.

The cultural traits, values, practices, and expectations of Sparkboxers that were once naturally absorbed from sitting in “The Big Room”---our large open office space in Dayton---no longer transfer effectively across state lines, the many projects we have ongoing, and the growing number of talented new faces at Sparkbox. We recognized that we needed a way to set up new team members for success, support new leaders emerging, be clear about what our responsibilities and expectations are of one another, and improve the value of our peer reviews.

At the start of 2018, all of Sparkbox converged in our Dayton office for a full-day kickoff to the new year. We looked back on our successes together from the previous year, reminded ourselves of the values that make Sparkbox tick, and looked forward to another ambitious year. Thinking of our strongest moments together, the Projects, Design, and Development teams divided into groups and took a few hours to discuss those things that were important to the way we work, as well as ways we can support one another in that work. From that time and plenty of further discussion, we have created a description of “How We Work Together.”

Building Leaders

“I’ve long held that a leader’s primary responsibility is to help create more leaders.”

The effort of clarifying how we work together was especially important to me as Sparkbox’s technical director. I’ve long held that a leader’s primary responsibility is to help create more leaders. It’s through this lens that I believe we’ll be able to grow Sparkbox, deliver better solutions to our clients, and help our team members grow as individuals.

It’s important to express what we need in one another in order for leaders to emerge and flourish. Ambiguity can lead to misunderstandings and hesitation. While not everyone will be interested in leadership roles such as serving as a technical lead, creating design prototypes, or participating in the proposal process, it’s important that everyone has empathy towards those who do and an awareness for what is needed.

Guiding Through Outcomes

By clearly defining the outcomes we expect as a team, we create flexibility in how folks achieve those outcomes. As an example, we have an eslint config that makes it incredibly clear how our Javascript code should look. We usually run our code through CodeClimate to provide quick feedback on quality, but we don’t mind if someone uses VSCode, Emacs, or Webstorm to write their code.

This same pattern holds true for the rest of how we work together. We’re working hard to define outcomes---setting expectations of one another---in each area of our work. For example, we’ve clearly stated that our development team is expected to “enable transparency, planning, and decision-making” through “clear, available, and consistent communication of estimates, work remaining, [and] conflicting commitments.” This is a defined outcome that our development team can follow.

It should be noted that these defined expectations do not define specific implementations. While we expect that our dev team is contributing to estimates, for example, we know that each client and project brings its own context. Therefore, our estimating norms won’t always apply, and we will need to adapt to the situation to truly meet the defined expectation. The outcome is the important thing here, not sticking to routine or existing norms.

Peer Reviews

Twice a year, Sparkboxers embark on a series of peer reviews and goal-setting. We love the idea of feedback, both giving and receiving. Doing this well is incredibly difficult, especially if it’s not clear what success looks like. As technical director, I feel obligated to help our development team navigate the day-in and day-out of our work---as well as their careers---so that they never arrive at reviews surprised.

To date, that’s been an incredible challenge for me. Everyone is at different points of their journey in the industry and at Sparkbox. I can’t---nor should I---be involved in the nuance of everyday projects to recognize opportunity for growth.

Instead, we needed a framework upon which our team can reflect, mentor, and set goals. By looking back at our successes and moments of enjoyment in our work, we were able to lay out something akin to a guidebook for what it means to be a successful Sparkboxer.

A Step...Forward

No doubt each Sparkboxer will bring their own strengths and, through those strengths, we’ll adjust how we work together over time. While we wrote “How We Work Together” for ourselves, I hope that by publishing it we’ll encourage more teams to discuss and clarify the expectations they have for themselves and one another.

Read "How We Work Together"

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