Goals, Leadership, Remote, Remote Leadership, Team Building, Technology, Tools, Vision

New year, new team members, clearer direction

My goal for this post: Describe how I set up and facilitated our team outing this year when all my team members were in town for the larger bi-annual tech team gathering. I hope this helps any reader spark ideas for their teams or their projects.

If you have any feedback, thoughts or ideas from your experiences, please let me know!

My Team Outing Experience

Two major responsibilities as a team leader are to clarify the team vision so the team can make decisions that align to our bigger tech team vision and make sure the team works well together to solve tough problems.

This year, I tried starting the year setting the vision and bring the team together via a team outing. Team outings help build relationships, offer a platform to help everyone get on the same page and provide a change of pace for the team (aka having fun outside of the office). Also, as a remote leader leading mostly remote team members I wanted to take advantage of having all the remote team members in town because nothing truly replaces face-to-face in-person interactions.

Before we got to town, I blocked out everyone’s calendar more than two weeks in advance. This is important because remote team members usually get their schedules booked quickly when they are in the office. Also, I recently gained two new team members. I thought this outing would be a great opportunity for the teams to meet and get to know these two team members before we starting diving into work together. Once the time was booked, I set the agenda and structure for our outing by starting with an end goal in mind.

End goal for this outing: Build relationships, clarify team dynamics and have fun!


  • Arrive/Coffee/Intros
  • Kaizen Cards Exercise
    • Definition of Done
  • Stepping Stone Exercise
    • Team Vision, Goals and Project Overviews
  • Lunch
  • False Faces Exercise
    • Team Agreement
  • Chilling Out Exercise
  • Data Center Tour
  • Sushi Making

Exercise: Kaizen Cards (I couldn’t find a link, so explaining the exercise at end)

Why did I use this exercise?

It briefly simulates a scrum process, where you have a goal and want to improve on reaching that goal after every iteration. Also, for the first exercise of the day, it is pretty light weight and good to warm up everyone’s brain. Lastly, I think it’s most aligned to the definition of done, which helps you determine if when your work is done, like when you identify the card that is missing.

Team Decision: Definition of Done (link)

How do you know when your work is complete? This is a question that can mean lots of things to lots of people. Does your work need to be in a production environment? Does the work needed to be tested? What information should we have in our stories? These are questions that, if we don’t clarify and decide on, can create issues later.

Exercise: Stepping Stone (link)

Why did I use this exercise?

This exercise involves more physical movement, which can help increase the energy of the team right before lunch is coming and before the last presentation piece for the morning. Also, this activity is a little different than just using your brain. I think this problem is a little more complex than Kaizen Cards, so it was a little more impactful to building relationships with new team members.

Team Awareness: Team Vision, Team Goals and Team Projects

I presented our vision, the larger company vision, our goals and our projects. I wanted to make sure we everyone understood how our work aligns to the bigger vision and raise everyone’s awareness on what each team is working on.

A vision helps facilitate empowerment. It’s critical to empower your team to make decisions because your team members won’t stick around very long if they can’t make decisions and you don’t want to be the bottle neck to your team. When teams or team members look to make a decision, they can use the vision as a guide. In addition, I lead two teams where their work overlaps. For my situation, while I think team members need to talk with each other to tie threads on a daily basis, it’s also important that leaders help the team make some of those early connections. Overall, I hope this presentation helped my team think bigger to connect more dots when they are planning out their project work.

Exercise: False Faces – (link) adapted from Thinkertoys

Why did I use this exercise?

We’ve all experienced the food coma after lunch. To try and prevent this from totally taking effect during our decision making I wanted to use a multi-layer brainstorming technique that required us to change our thinking enough to break the coma. By starting with listing your assumptions, you get rid of the easy work first and begin getting the brain working. Reversing your assumptions really kicks you into another gear because we don’t seem to do it very often. When you try something new or unfamiliar, I believe, it increases your awareness and brain power because the newness of something prevents your brain from taking a break due to familiarity aka a food coma.

Team Decision: Team Agreement

This is a contract that together the team comes up with and holds each other accountable toward. I’ve used this in the past, but this year I did something different. I capped the limit to three agreement values. I did this because in the past, the team will come up with lots of values and it becomes too complex to uphold. An example of a team agreement value: Phone or video communication over email or skype.

Exercise: Chilling Out: The Jell-O Syndrome (I couldn’t find a link, so explaining the exercise at end & adapted from Thinkertoys)

Why did I use this exercise?

After 4-5 hours of brainstorming, listening and making decisions, it’s important to cool down, reset your mind and prepare for what’s next. This exercise is a great way to relax and reset.

When you work out or play an intense sport, you are supposed to stretch or roll out afterward. This can also be considered cooling down. This helps the recovery process and puts you in a position to be less sore later so you can continue your peak performance the next day.

Team Fun: Data Center & Sushi Making

After we relaxed, we moved to the fun portion of our day. We toured the Quicken Loans Data Center, which is really cool because of how complex the building needs to be designed to store and protect all the data. Afterward, we participated in a really cool sushi making class. These types of events, although small, are really great for team building because they allow the team to be themselves which helps promote relationship building so we can understand each other better when we are solving problems together.


Thinker Toys – Great book with lots of different exercise to spur creative ideas

Kaizen Cards Explained – adapted from Quicken Loans Leader Resources

Supplies: deck of cards and a stopwatch

Goal: Have the group shuffle the deck and the facilitator pulls out one card. The team has to find which card is missing as fast as possible. You can give the group a minute or two to discuss their plan before they begin. After you finish the first round, give the team a minute or two to “retro” how they can do it better. Then you repeat it a few times to see how much the team can improve their time.

Chilling Out: The Jell-O Syndrome Explained – adapted from Thinkertoys

Supplies: Quiet space, comfortable position, relaxing music and a facilitator

Goal: Spend 5 minutes listening to the music and repeating this script until time is up: “Close your eyes. Think of deeply relaxing all of your muscles…now clench your fists…relax them… flex your hands toward your shoulders…relax them…place your hands on your shoulders…flex your biceps…now relax your arms by your sides…shrug your shoulders…frown…relax your face…close your eyes tightly…relax them…push your tongue against the roof of your mouth…relax…press your lips together…relax…push your head back…push your head forward…relax your neck…arch your back…relax…suck your stomach in, tensing the muscles….relax…tense your thighs…relax them…flex your calves…relax them…flex your feet…relax them…curl your toes…relax them…”

Leadership, Learning Lessons, Tools

Are We Professionals?

Recently, I attended a two day Scrum workshop. Someone in the workshop asked our facilitator if there was a better way to estimate the amount of work we could accomplish in a two week sprint to avoid dropping work. After some back and forth, our facilitator said, “We are professionals. The team does not hold each other accountable, we hold each other up.”

This comment made me think, “Do we think of ourselves as ‘Professionals’? And if so, what does professional mean to us?”

For most of my life, I only thought of athletes as professionals because there are tiers below the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, etc., where people are considered semi-pro or amateur and working towards “professional” status.

So do we, as engineers (quality and software), team leaders, business analysts and others in the technology world, consider and treat ourselves as professionals?

Overall, I think we do because I think professionalism comes down to meeting, and hopefully exceeding, clear expectations.

For example, a professional athlete is expected to be healthy, on time for practice and games, attend team meetings, practice their craft, mentor younger professionals (ie: rookies) and be a role model for non-professionals.

Similarly, as a technology professional, I expect all of my team members to be on-time, attend their meetings, work on their craft, mentor newer team members and more.

I found three tools that helped clarify what it means to be a professional in our technology world.

  1. Team Agreements – Everyone on the team brainstorms ideas about what expectations they would like everyone on the team to meet. Eventually the team filters the list down to 5-10 clear items to live by. Some examples that my team came up with: Everyone be able to read and diagnosis application errors, have a team discussion for all walk-ins, and take care of yourself first – healthy mind and body = successful team members, to name a few.
  2. Team Values – Values are your DNA; it’s what drives you and your team. One value my team lives by is “Give a damn.” Giving a damn is a fun way to say you care and when you care about your work, you will give it your all.
  3. Definition of Done – When you finish a feature, what does it mean to be done? Is the software working? Is the feature in your production environment? How much testing should you do before you consider a feature done? Answering these questions is important because it helps set a professional standard of what it means to be done with your work.

These are some tools I’ve found to be useful. What are some concepts you use to set a level of professionalism?

Goals, Leadership

Shredding Down Goal Mountain


Last week, I traveled with some of my best childhood friends to go skiing in Colorado. We spent three amazing days skiing Keystone, Vail and A-Basin. After each day of skiing I felt mentally refreshed and ready to take on the next monumental mountain.

When we finished our last day of skiing, I mentioned to my friends that when I was skiing down down the mountain I only thought about skiing. My mind was clear of all other thoughts. My friend responded, ‘you can free your mind because you are so focused on that one goal ahead of you. Making it down the mountain, alive.’

We laughed but there is a lot of truth behind his comment.  A clear and measurable focus is critical to achieving your goals.

Skiing illustrated three major aspects of having a clear and measurable focus that can translate into the office.  

  1. Have a clear and measurable end in mind, like making it down the mountain alive and uninjured.
    • In technology, one of my team’s goal is to eliminate manual testing for our PDF documents by the end of 2017
  2. When you’re going down the mountain and you come to a cliff, you may need to pivot and try a different route to arrive at your goal.
    • As we work to eliminate manual testing, we will try a number of different methods to automate the testing of documents. We’ve tried using GUI automation to trigger a CompareDocs tool we use in our system. We are also working on finding ways to compare XMLs that are created versus what is expected. The key here is to constantly tinker and try different routes.
  3. After you pivot away from the cliff, be mentally and physically prepared for any situation that may come up, like sharp turns and other steep slopes.
    • It can be physically and mentally taxing to work hard on something and find out that route you just tried isn’t going to work out. When you pivot and it doesn’t go well, be prepared to try again, work a few extra hours, invest more time to learn what you don’t know and sometimes put on a good face when you are disappointed.

Keeping these aspects in mind while planning and working through your goals will only increase your ability to shred down bigger mountains!


(all photos in this post are mine)