5 mins

Ahead of her talk at LeadingEng Berlin, the author of Dynamic Reteaming, Heidi Helfand, talks about building and rebuilding teams to deal with periods of change.

Change is a constant for software teams, but this year has been marked by more change than ever. Knowing how to build teams that can bend and flex, and also being ready to react when the unexpected hits, can help engineering leaders protect their teams and continue to deliver value to customers in any circumstances.

Ahead of her talk on this topic at LeadingEng Berlin, LeadDev’s Scott Carey (SC) checked in with Heidi Helfand (HH), author of the book Dynamic Reteaming. The below conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. To see Heidi’s full talk, you will need to buy a ticket for LeadingEng Berlin on December 6.

SC: What will you be speaking about at LeadingEng Berlin? 

HH: I’m going to be talking about different ways that you can strengthen your teams to prepare for the changes that are just going to happen. The fact is, team change is inevitable, so you might as well strengthen your existing organization to bend and flex with the changes, as opposed to crumbling. We’ll be talking about a variety of different signals to look for, so people can think deeply about what it’s like today and also go over some tactics for making it easier to strengthen our organizations. 

SC: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned about building teams that can flex to change?

HH: One of the biggest lessons is working together and not having single owners of systems who work alone, and then they leave the company, and then you’re left with a whole variety of problems that take months to recover from. If I were to pick one thing to do, pair programming and switching pairs within a team and across teams would be it.

That being said, some changes surprise us, and we have to deal with them. It could be at the individual level, the team level, the team of teams level, or the company level. Sometimes we have all of these going on at once. At other times, as organizational leaders, we want to deliberately and strategically morph our team structures so they are stronger later and withstand unexpected change that happens. We can do both, we can try to try to flex and, and reteam, in order to prepare for the future. People are going to come and go from our companies, so we just need to recognize that, notice that, and try to make the most of it.

SC: You’re advocating for a really strategic approach here in terms of thinking through how your team may flex over time. But I think what a lot of people in the industry may have been taken aback by this year was the speed and scale of the layoffs that have hit the industry.

HH: I have a lot of empathy for people who've experienced that. We’ve seen a lot more of that in the past few years, for sure. Some of us have seen it up close, some of us have seen it more at a distance. There’s a wide variety of tactics that we can leverage to cope with things like that. There are different signals and elements that we can use to prepare for these kinds of changes, and others. Then when you’re in it, there’s also some practical tools that you can lean into. 

There’s a book I like by William Bridges called Transitions which talks about the importance of acknowledging the ending, or noticing and discussing the ending and knowing that there’s going to be a period of uncertainty that feels uncomfortable. That’s challenging for a lot of people, so support is helpful. In the case of layoffs, for those that have departed the company, and for those who have remained at the company, it’s challenging for both of those groups in different ways, so we need to pay attention to both.

I was at a company once, and we had a reorg where a new leader came in and our leadership team was essentially split into two teams. Some of your peers became managers of other peers, and became part of this higher level leadership team. This reorg happened through 1:1 conversations. We had been a pretty collaborative, tight leadership team. We had this communication that was all separate and it wasn’t until we all got together and had a discussion to talk about what happened, and look to the future and be happy for our colleagues that got promoted into a different level in their careers that things really changed. During that period of uncertainty, if you leave people on their own, they’re going to make up stories about what happened. If you bring people together, I think it can go a long way. Some people are in the future state immediately, but you can’t really see it.

At the end of the day, we still have to deliver software while this is all going on. It’s this layer of organizational change and challenge that we have to deal with and talk about, lean into and get better at. But then, along the way, we still have to get that software done and do it well, to a high quality and we have to build things that the customers love.

SC: What do you hope that the audience takes away from your talk?

HH: I want people to have a sense of feeling inspired and feeling like they have several things to think about now and can incorporate that into my strategy for what the future of my teams and organizations look like. I have more to grasp, I can read follow up articles, I can think about this, I can do particular activities that I will share, they can do some things with their teams right when they get back to work. I like to try to be pragmatic when I'm sharing ideas and giving talks. So I hope that they’ll be really inspired.