“If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

—Richard Buckminster Fuller

How do tools interfere with people being their most effective selves? Let’s start with an analogy everyone can relate to: Cooking dinner.

It’s Tuesday night, and you’re planning dinner for your family. You decide that you’re making pan-seared salmon with a Caprese salad. You head to the grocery store, and you carefully select all the ingredients. You get the freshest salmon you can find. You manage to find some pretty fresh-looking basil that isn’t browning around the edges.

Because, of course, the most important part of meal planning is the ingredients, right? Except you forgot one critical issue while you were menu planning: Execution.

During check-out, you start reflecting on your tools at home. You visually unpack your kitchen and the process these ingredients will have to go through to become dinner. You see your crappy, dull knives and how those are going to butcher the tomatoes. You wonder what kind of a sear you’re really going to get on that carefully selected fresh fish from your cheap—and now very scraped-up and warped—non-stick pans that you bought from Target five years ago.

Driving home, you see those bruised and smashed tomatoes and the torn-up and shredded salmon that you won’t be able to get out of those pans in one piece. Defeated, even with the ingredients in the car, you swing by McDonald’s to pick up dinner. Eventually, those tomatoes and salmon are left to rot in the fridge until you throw them away.

You can’t extract the best outcome from any raw ingredients without the proper tools.

“Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.” This is direct from the Agile Manifesto. When it was written, they weren’t referring to salmon, basil, knives or pans. Team members are our ingredients, and tools are core to the environment they need. For right now, let’s discuss how tools relate to the environment.

How Proper Tools Impact Teams

Sometimes, it’s not the tool itself: It’s how the tool is deployed. For example, if you have a really expensive cordless drill, it’s never going to run effectively if you don’t charge the battery.

How we utilize tools is at the core of most team productivity. I once observed a development team that upended and evolved their planning process exclusively to avoid interacting with Jira. I assumed that maybe training was an issue, or maybe they had some prejudice against the actual platform itself.

The kernel of the issue was even more straightforward than that. Why did they avoid it? They complained about it being too slow. When we dug into the issue further, it wasn’t a Jira problem.

It was a network problem.

The corporate network (which Jira sits on) was slowing down the performance. Fix the network, fix the platform, problem solved.

This process—honing the tools that a team is to use—can be a significant one for your Agile transformation. And yet it is too often ignored by many managers and leaders. As a leader, you should be on the lookout for these opportunities. Observe, communicate, check in, and do it all over again. That communication cycle is an ongoing one.

In Agile: Teams Are the Drivers of Adoption and Innovation

Here’s something every developer already knows: Pain points are obvious when you are ready to unearth them. They are also the best indicators of where to focus your innovation. Your teams are already prepared to do this for your products or your clients. They might not be as adept at doing it for themselves.

This is where you, as a leader, enter the picture. Start considering it your job to understand what tools your teams need and ensure that they aren’t rendered useless or constrained before you provide them. Work with your team to unearth the optimal tools and technologies for them. Focus on understanding their various communication styles in order to help them function productively and collaboratively.

That process is even more important in a remote environment. The first issue: When working remotely, not everyone has access to the same tools. What if someone’s network connection just happens to be slower than others? What if a member of the team is working at the same kitchen table as a spouse or a roommate (or, let’s face it, a child’s virtual classroom)? What are the tools they need right now to make them feel the most productive in a challenging situation?

Your team’s collaboration requires the right toolkit, and right now, that’s going to mean everyone may have to get creative. Even in the best of times, though, you still have to ask the right questions, and trust the answers they give you.

Fixing the Foundational Tool Problems: Involve the Team

How do you fix foundational problems like a slow network, or a newly disparately located and remote team?

Let’s start with the Jira network situation above and break it down as a study in communication and problem-solving. First, you have to observe that the team isn’t using the tool. Once you’ve unearthed why (the network is slow), one solution is potentially to take Jira from the corporate network, and trust Atlassian’s cloud and security capacity.

If that’s not an option for you, trust the team to tell you how they want or need to capture plan artifacts. Can those be stored in an Excel file or a simple DB that also captures stories, tasks, sizes, acceptance criteria, tasks, etc. that can then be moved to Jira?

Whatever the solution: Put the team in charge of suggesting it, implementing it, and managing it. Allow the team to choose a tool. Your role is to communicate that anyone who is a stakeholder or wants to see progress will also have to interface with this tool and this process.

Curiosity Drives Discovery

When a team collectively agrees on a need, and finds a tool that satisfies that need holistically, that tool will support your team’s collaboration. However, even with the best tools—tools that drive the right decisions and minimize work—they’re not going to be utilized if they’re not deployed properly.

To keep your team members focused on what they love, make sure they have the right tools that they love to use. Let them engage with tools that allow them to organize and work the way they need to work, and communicate to the organization how to observe processes through that tool, so you’re not compromising visibility and transparency. Otherwise, you’re going to wind up with bland salmon and mushy Caprese.

These processes and thoughts (especially as it relates to my network solution above) make sense to me. So, how’d I do? Do they make sense to you? What did I miss?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And speaking of tools, join us on Wednesday, 9/30 at 11:00 a.m. CDT for Demo Fest: The Ultimate Remote Tool Webinar where we’ll breeze through 45-minutes worth of remote work software demonstrations

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