How To Fix Broken Teams
A playbook for management in hard mode.
Having to fix a broken, critical team can be one of the most demoralizing and frustrating experiences in all of management - your back is against the wall, the team is miserable and underperforming, nothing you do seems to help, things keep getting worse, and if you push too hard you’re terrified they’ll all quit and the web of complexity they created cannot be picked up by any reasonable newcomer.
In some cases you’re worried the company could literally collapse. It’s bad.
Luckily, as ridiculously bad as situations can seem, most teams break in very similar ways. And, even more luckily, most teams can be fixed in similar ways. So, let’s talk about diagnosing and fixing the most broken of teams.
How Teams Break
Poor performing teams share common ingredients:
The team owns something critical. This is a key ingredient because teams that aren’t critical but are broken just get replaced or spun down. If a team was broken and owned some optional widget, they would have just been fired and the team started over. The most dysfunctional teams own things that are critical, which makes it difficult to take fast action.
The team made the thing they own way more complicated than it needs to be, making it hard for others to engage. Complexity is the spawn of incompetence, and incompetent teams often spin webs of complexity that make it extremely difficult for outsiders to engage.
There are lots of heroics required on an ongoing basis. These heroics were actually avoidable, but the team is telling itself that they are the Batman to your organization’s Joker, solving crazy stuff nobody else can do. Sometimes this is validated because they have made such a complicated system that nobody else can engage; really it’s their fault for creating such a system.
They’ve been undermanaged. They often have gotten little to no feedback except “you’re great.” Their skills have not grown as much as they should have, while their praise they receive and responsibility have only grown over time.
They love their current manager. This is often evidence of a manager who tells people they’re great, blames everyone else for failures, and stokes a culture of narcissism, instead of fixing root causes.
They don’t have a general retention problem (many people have been there for a long time) as much as they have a great-new-people retention problem. Really strong candidates you hoped would help change the team seem to bounce out after 6 months more less. The team often uses that as evidence that even hot shot resumes can’t do the great stuff they’re doing.
All of these issues collectively add to what feels like an organizational gaslighting. Nobody really knows what the truth is, what good looks like, whose fault anything is. People are angry and nothing ever seems to fix it.
If you get to a place where you see a team like this, take a deep breath - things are going to be tough for a while. But then take another deep breath, because it is fixable.
The two most important steps to take are:
Diagnose, without caveats or confusion, that things are in deep trouble, and that you will not stop until they are fixed and working in a way that is consistent with what good looks like. It is important not to waver in this diagnosis, as things might get temporarily better at certain moments.
Commit to removing the current manager of that team and getting someone in there who knows what good looks like. This is often one of two different profiles:
A more junior, but super high-aptitude manager can be the right fit and be willing to stick it out. Fixing this team is going to be a grind, so it can be difficult to sell a very experienced manager on this mission.
The second profile is an experienced leader, for whom fixing this team is the starting point of a rapid growth path. Having big guns fix broken teams can be the best solution as they can do it more confidently and more quickly, but they’ll only want to do it if it’s clearly a jumping off point to something more.
Whoever takes over this broken team has to know what good looks like and be willing to drive towards it persistently, every day, for as long as it takes. Their energy can’t be thrashing like a lion, but non-judgemental and focused, like a river. The new manager also needs to understand nuance, that the team has legitimate gripes and non-legitimate ones, and it is willing to arbitrate which is which.
Fix the Process
One of the first things a new manager should look to do is fix broken processes. Broken teams have lots of broken processes with lots of symptoms that would be fixed by better process, such as:
Infrequent and inefficient standups and goal setting, while also having lots of delays in communication and lots of evidence work is not being thoughtfully planned and executed on.
Very little process between this team and other teams, while also having lots of friction between teams for dropped balls. “They should have talked to us” and “we were waiting for them forever” are classic shibboleths of this dysfunction.
Meetings that are not well structured and look more like nervous cult meetings than productive work meetings.
In any case, getting good, simple processes in teams is a great way to get the team doing better and at least acting like a good team. It’s a good way to show value to the team.
The more cynical members of the team will often claim no process changes are needed. Ask them to just try it out for X amount of time. Good process often works fast and can help cynical people learn they don’t know everything.
Out With The Bad
As the new manager makes incremental gains, former leaders on the team feel threatened. Their entire political capital is built from bashing managers. Negative culture carriers might need to get managed out. Occasionally they change their ways, but this does not happen frequently.
In any case, the biggest mistake is to elevate negative culture carriers further. Do not do that. Don’t think that, for example, by making a negative IC a “team lead” you’re solving any problems. You’d only be making things way worse.
When engaging with negative culture carriers, it’s important to remember a few things:
Do not assume anyone is “on your team.” You might feel the urge to get someone on your side against cynical teammates, but seemingly passive, reasonable teammates often have strong bonds to others that you don’t know about. One slip up and you’ll get legitimate (and possible fatal) complaints as people try to build factions.
Don’t ever lose your cool. Ever. If you let negative teammates break your cool, you lose, full stop. All it takes is one break in your composure to give people the fodder to show that you are not to be trusted. Remember that in almost every situation, you can just say “I’ll think about it and get back to you,” or say nothing.
Get in the weeds. Negative teammates are often a product of their environment - asked to do more than they can, the backstop for critical things they aren’t owning well. The more you can get into the weeds and start owning things, the more you can empathize with their condition, help them out, and build good will. Managers who try to fix teams without getting into the weeds always fail. Learn the nitty gritty complex stuff that is there, then fix it.
In With The Good
It’s very important that at least some new people are brought into the team. New people bring fresh perspective, at least some allegiance to the new manager that just hired them, and are often not able to be swayed to the pre-existing cynicism.
It can be stunning how quickly one good new hire with a good new manager can change a team. Many teams are broken because a few loud, negative people have taken over without any strong objection. The first time the passive teammates agree with the new manager/new hire, the cynical members of the team often lose their cynical courage.
Fix The Mission
Broken teams often have missions and responsibilities that need to be revisited, fixing foundational ownership issues that over-taxed their ability or created organizational friction. Blurred lines of ownership are often major catalysts for toxic teams.
About 3-6 months into your tenure with a new team, you should have made progress on process and progress on people, and you should know enough to see where the team mission needs tweaks. Figure out what to clarify, what to abandon, and what to give away in the team’s mission, and then do it.
At some point, with 1 or 2 new people in and 1 or 2 cynical culture carriers out, new process, and a fresh mission, there’s a day where everyone joins a meeting and things just seem to work. This is often 6-18 months after the new manager joins. You can often get initial results in 1-2 weeks, but a complete solution is often 6-18 months of work. 6-18 months is often about 1-2 performance review cycles, where high integrity decisions force in-or-out decisions for people; it’s also enough time for new teammates to get onboarded and help change the team culture; it’s also about how long it takes for people to kind of forget what the old vibe and complaints were and start living in the new reality you’ve created.
But remember - a good team can always regress. So once you fix a team, be extra vigilant to not let things get back into that state.
Sometimes the team you are fixing does quit en masse. If this happens, don’t panic - fears about everything exploding are almost always exaggerated. You need to go into a recovery mode right away:
Halt new work. Especially on software teams, new code is the source of almost all new issues. When Elon took over Twitter he put in a code freeze to stabilize the systems with a streamlined team - that was smart.
Personally learn whatever is needed to play defense and make sure things wouldn’t fall apart.
Hire and prioritize tenaciously. The worst thing you can do is get so distracted by the new work that you don’t focus on recruiting enough to hire your way out of the situation.
The steps you need to follow to fix broken teams are:
Make a clear diagnosis and get a new manager
The new manager needs to
Right away fix process and run them well
Manage out cynical culture carriers
Get in the weeds and learn the system
Hire at least some new teammates
Make sure the mission is good