Have The First Win to Build Team Spirit

When I became a manager, I asked my managers for advice about how to build the team spirit in a new team to have a great start. There were many answers, but one piece of advice was common: give the team a goal and deliver something as soon as possible. Deliver something.

While it sounds like a vague idea that doesn't specify what to deliver, we found a goal and committed to it, and it worked. With small nudges to keep the team focused on the goal, five people had three achievements in the first six weeks.

And this article is about why the first wins are essential.

Before we dive into it, it's better to grasp the context of the team. The team was a spin-off from an existing team. Three of us were working together already, and one person came from a team that we were closely collaborating. The last person joined us from another team that we had no prior collaboration. We don't have a scrum master or a dedicated product manager; however, we have two great product managers and a staff engineer who help us whenever needed.

Many teams just work on a project without having a clear vision and goals. Sometimes motivation comes from creating a new product or using new technology. However, if the work doesn't provide any meaning, all the team-building activities fall short. If we were in a boat with the team, it doesn't matter if we have the best boat or not. When we have no destination to go to, it's not fun to stay in the middle of the sea and consume all the supplies at parties while floating. Especially, new teams quickly finish their low motivation supply in this floating state.

New teams have different dynamics from existing teams because there are no processes yet, and people don't know each other; they are forming, as Tuckmann says. When we partially spun off a new team, we inherited some processes, such as daily stand-ups, planning cycles, and more. It was tempting to focus on creating processes around the new team. However, I realized that giving the new team a goal helps form these processes on the way. When the goal is clear, the processes evolve in alignment with the goal.

Every team has unique sets of problems. Not everyone has a chance to form a new team. Sometimes we take over a team that is struggling to deliver. Most struggling teams usually forget their goals. Everyone follows their own track when they focus on something other than the goal and have many discussions without a common objective. When I was working in such a team as a software engineer, the first thing our new manager did (after listening to everyone) was gather everyone around a goal and constantly reminding it to everyone. One common goal helped to solve other related issues as well. When people learn that they share a goal, they become more collaborative.

Team spirit forms around a common goal

Be it a new team or an existing one, when people have a common understanding of the aim, they have a "reason to move the ship." Instead of being in a floating ship, they focus on doing their part to move the ship in the right direction. They also figure out better ways to collaborate while doing it. Collaboration creates team spirit; team spirit creates success. Once everyone believes that they can work together and succeed, nothing can stand in front of them.

Building a team spirit passes from having a common and achievable goal. I'm not too fond of S.M.A.R.T. goals for teams. When I talk about goals for new teams, I mean releasing a thing in a certain time; I don't mean increasing the conversion rate by 3% in a month. Let the team accomplish something together, anything. Give them a meaningful and achievable goal that is so small that they cannot not achieve it.

When we set a big goal for the team right in the beginning, it becomes difficult to achieve, and people fall on to sidetracks and create their own smaller goals. In the beginning, pick smaller goals. They will bring more moments of success and celebration. However, only giving a sole goal doesn't work alone.

Setting the goal and leaving the team alone is apt to fail. The manager must constantly repeat the goal and coach and nudge people in the correct direction. If the captain doesn't remind the course in the boat, neither the helmsperson nor the navigator can fix the course by themselves.

Don't start with processes

While setting goals, many managers fall into the trap of defining processes, a.k.a. how we will work. When managers start defining methods, they take responsibility from the team. The new groups who discuss how they will work tend to forget the goals. Even though the methods aim to achieve the goal, the team focuses on the processes and procedures. When the whole team, including the manager, focuses on the goals, they usually find superior processes and approaches on the side.


When everyone focuses on the same small goals, the achievement easily follows. There is one thing I briefly mentioned that is as important as the goal itself: celebration. Without celebrating accomplishments, we cannot expect them to be repeated. We want repeated success, and celebration is a type of reward we can give the team because we want to reinforce the desired behavior and recognize the work that has been done.

When managers immediately focus on the next goal and skip or forget the celebration, they fail to build team spirit. Without taking a moment to recognize the achievement, we cannot develop a sense of ownership.

Pushing for shorter iterations, starting with small goals, and celebrating, in the end, helps to create an autonomous, self-healing, and strong team. Then as a manager, you can start having better one-to-one relations among team members and move your focus to stakeholder alignments, organizational problems, and cross-team projects.

If you're a manager of a new team and don't know where to start, gather people around a small goal and deliver it, deliver something to create team ego. What you deliver is not as important as you think in the beginning. Of course, it has to be related to your team's focus but deliver quickly and celebrate. I've tried this, and it works great. Don't skip celebrations, and never stop listening to your team members. If you're a new team, you have to prove your value to the organization and stakeholders. The best way to do that is to deliver work consistently.

When you deliver, your team becomes happy, you become happy, your stakeholders become happy: WIN-WIN-WIN.

Complement with Bias for Action, Personal Ego vs. Team Ego, Why Can't This Be Done Sooner, and Why should you deploy your code in smaller chunks and release software often?

Medium Length Last Updated: Dec 8, 2021