A data team's search for meaning

We have multiple data teams at Beat, working across the spectrum of data lifecycle. An interesting fallout of this topology is that sometimes boundaries between teams get blurred and teams lose clarity about where they fit in the larger scheme of things or what value they should be delivering in order to maximize their ROI. Teams that have undergone reorganization also carry over some legacy from the past which blurs their core definition even further.

Moreover, data is an emerging field and this rapid evolution creates an implicit tension around roles and responsibilities and ownership - exacerbating this confusion even further. As Jesse Anderson says in Data Teams -

To do big data right, you need three different teams. Each team does something very specific in creating value from data. From a management’s 30,000-foot view—and this is where management creates the problem—they all look like the same thing. They all transform data, they all program, and so on. But what can look from the outside like a 90 percent overlap is really only about 10 percent. This misunderstanding is what really kills teams and projects.

Over time, this can be disorienting and demotivating for a team as it gradually loses sight of why it matters and degenerates into a feature factory John Cutler has this to say in his seminal blog post about 12 signs you are working in a feature factory -

Rapid shuffling of teams and projects (aka Team Tetris). Instead of compelling missions or initiatives, teams deal in feature and project assignments. Chronic multitasking and over-utilization

My team and I felt that we needed to take a step back and reflect on our essence and value proposition in order to set better boundaries and expectations for ourselves and those we work closely with.

We did this by conducting a workshop where we brainstormed (by way of brainwriting) on the following prompts:

As a team, Where do we fit in the context of the data org as well as Beat? What does senior management at Beat expect our team to do? If we cease to exist as a team, who/what would get negatively impacted? We followed this by doing an Assets/Boundaries/Narratives analysis (a technique I picked at altMBA) to reflect on our core strengths (and the ones we need to develop further), our boundaries and constraints (both real and imaginary) and the stories/narratives we have built for ourselves.

This is similar to the concept of Team Calibration that Heidi Helfand talks about in her excellent book, Dynamic Reteaming.

It’s always a good idea to get really clear on why your team exists, and why your company is paying you to do the work of your team. When we’re motivated about the work we get to do, and our company really needs that work, it’s really the sweet spot of professional life.

These were tricky questions and ones that the team had never had the opportunity to consciously think over. A lot of facts emerged. As the new EM for the team, this also helped me understand what I should focus on next.

The purpose of the workshop was not to arrive at a definite conclusion or a set of action items but to identify cues that we could diffuse-think over in the coming weeks before translating them into a more formal charter for the team.

Over time, we hope to create a shared understanding of our purpose, assets and boundaries and to eventually bake this understanding into everything we build and the interactions we have with others around us.

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