Turning Things Around When Everything Sucks at Work

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Sometimes at work, the same issues can crop up so many times we start to think that things will never change, which makes us tired and resentful. Getting to that point is dangerous — we become negative about our work, or even demotivated. This can affect the quality of our work, and more importantly, our mental health.

I’ve spoken to many product team members over the years who come up against daily challenges. They’re tired. And they often struggle to change culture or behaviour, because that’s not an overnight thing to change. It can take years (not to mention the fact that one person won’t change things on their own!)

But there are some tactics you can employ to turn these problems into solutions, so I thought I’d share some of the ones I’ve used over the years — ones that we all should definitely try more often:

1. Use your retros

So many people go into product team retros and forget to highlight the issues and blockers that prevented them from doing their best work. Be honest, when was the last time you said “I could have added much more value in that sprint if I’d been [insert option: involved earlier/invited to that key meeting/part of the collaboration session etc…]”. Your retro is designed to help you air the issues that need to be addressed for future sprints. They are there to prompt iterative improvements — not just in your work, but for your ways of working too. In fact, it’s often the way you work that determines your team’s output. If you don’t feel you have the psychological safety to raise these issues, then that’s something you should take up with your line manager, because this should be a safe space where you can say what you need to say and have someone take your concerns seriously.

At the end of a retro, the team should come up with actions that can be taken to make the sprints run better next time.

2. Reframe your complaints

It’s easy to alienate people with observational comments or opinions that don’t provide constructive feedback. Statements such as “We didn’t do X very well” or “That’s not the way I’d do it” provide a subjective view, and don’t give the recipient of the feedback anything to work with.

Reframing feedback as a question, such as “Have we thought about trying…?” is much better received, and is also much easier to say if you don’t have the confidence to voice your direct opinion.

Another way to suggest a different way of doing things without being detrimental to your team, is to talk about how other companies have done things. For example, you might try “I saw that X did it this way, we could try that.”

3. Turn problem statements into ‘How Might We’ statements

A really effective technique for solving problems is to turn the problem into a ‘How Might We’ statement and brainstorm solutions around it. Let’s say the problem is “We have too many meetings”, you’d create a “How might we have fewer meetings?” then come up with as many solutions as you can. At the end, you’ll have some things that you can try right away as well as some things you can think about for later on.

4. Run a pre-mortem

This is a workshop that can help to air many concerns or fears, and come up with ways to mitigate them from occurring. If you suspect there are issues in your team that need to be aired to help a project run more smoothly, suggest a pre-mortem session. You all project yourselves forward into the future — to either the end of a given time period or the end of the project, and brainstorm all the things that could have gone wrong. After grouping and theming the output, you brainstorm actions you could take to stop those things happening. Chances are, the things that concern you also concern others, and with all of you voicing these worries, you’ll feel much better about facing them together as a team.

5. Assign actions

Whether you’ve run a ‘How Might We’ session, a retro, or a pre-mortem, make sure actions are assigned owners. Without owners, they’re unlikely to happen. It can be tricky to get people to take on what they see as ‘extra work’, but the point of these actions is that they’ll make day-to-day work much more effective and efficient in the future. If you can’t taken on an action alone, don’t be afraid to suggest buddying up to tackle an action with someone else — it’s often easier with two.

6. Accept that ‘best practice’ rarely exists

One of the things I’ve learnt is that even the companies that seem to have it sussed from the outside, have very similar problems and gripes on the inside. Perfection doesn’t exist, so while it can be tempting to think everyone else has it nailed, it’s just not true. Some things might seem annoying, but if they’re not stopping you from doing your job effectively, or blocking your progress, ask yourself whether they are they worth worrying about. Choose which are the real barriers to good work, and let go of the rest – it can be liberating.

It’s rewarding to find solutions to problems, and while you may not be able to deliver every solution you come up with, just turning negativity into positive action is a step in the right direction. A good starting point is to take just one or two of your actions to focus on, instead of trying to fix everything at once. It’s a first step of many, but a step in the right direction.

Turning Things Around When Everything Sucks at Work was originally published in Prototypr on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.