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How to Win as a Tech Team in a New Reality That Feels Like a Mad Max Movie?



Mehnaaz Abidi focuses on how they learned and adjusted to this new global reality generated by COVID, sharing tips to help leaders prepare for a hybrid workplace and 100% remote teams in the future.


Mehnaaz Abidi loves to build digital products that trigger feelings of joy, fun, trust and inclusiveness. She believes the best teams are those who work in a culture where every moment spent should feel like it was worth it. They love what they’re building so much that it becomes a calling, and they form a tribe of people whom they love, hate and most importantly don’t want to leave.

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Abidi: Who am I? I'm Mehnaaz. I work for a team called Runtastic at adidas. We build digital sport experiences. I've been roughing around in this industry for almost 18 years. I remember when I first started out as a software developer, the thing that would keep me awake at night was a document called REQS, that was built by these team of people called business analysts. They were version 1 of Wikipedia. They had to simply know everything in order to get the tech teams to be productive. In my first month, I had no idea what REQS stood for, and just knew it was filled with functional and non-functional requirements. Then started the world of digital with this new trend to shop online. I was suddenly surrounded by category managers who would build product web pages every day to optimize revenue for their ECOM categories. A few years later, enter the Titans, product managers. They made us think, who is the consumer? Why should they care for this? I just fell in love with that and became a product manager myself. Ever since, I've been trying to answer those two questions, along with my teams, and build something exciting for people.

2022 (Crisis Mode for Companies, with Rapid Changing Socio-Politico, Consumer, and Employee Situations)

Let's talk about 2022. First, let's rewind to 2020, which was a big 'what the eff' year. At first, it didn't seem real. Then we accepted the reality and kept being hopeful that this will all get over soon. Came 2021, half of the planet had adjusted to this new reality and transforming around it. In 2022, we just got tired of everything and rebelled to go back to normal, even though there were some risks. A study published in Forbes says many people have started to subconsciously block the memories from the pandemic, as if it didn't happen, as if it was a movie. Imagine these people needing to forget about it, and constantly finding references at work through the whole conversation of hybrid versus remote. These are the people who want to just put their head down and build something exciting, but now must again undergo major changes. Top this up with an ongoing tech talent war, losing people in your team, an actual war further shattering our reality. Democracies going back to the Dark Ages. Markets continuing to be disruptive. Massive budget cuts and downsizing. Consumer needs changing more rapidly than 2021. How do you win and build great tech with a team that is just simply tired? No matter what framework we bring to create more velocity, things will not move first. We must first help them to be able to block the things they want to block from their memory, and then help them refind the joy and focus of building great tech together.

Shaky Markets, Strong Headwinds

Let's talk about some of these persisting issues that continue to increase employee churn in tech teams. Let's talk about headwinds. Most companies are still on a roller coaster ride trying to figure out how to adjust to the marketplace again, how to be profitable again. This has impacted not just velocity but also predictability in fast flow. Changing markets have led to volcanic prioritization for value stream. Many tech teams can't even count the number of times they've had to adjust to a new company strategy in the last two years. There is a strong push for rapid transformation and adjustment, but they come at the heavy cost of tech debts and people burnouts. We are seeing a wave of decline of active users across all major digital platforms, even though there was a consumer shift to digital during the pandemic. Sounds contradictory? Yes, it is. Why is that so? Because beneath the iceberg, is a wave of consumers who are exhausted by digital. The moment lockdowns were removed, people started to shift to offline again.

Strategy and targets seem to be not meeting. Most companies feel like people are constantly working, but not working towards the right strategy, which isn't the case. Because when the strategy was built, it was for a consumer group, which was so different to the consumer group now. Let me take a parallel. It's the kind of consumer group we had before mobile apps and after mobile apps. The transition period was so big, that every company had the opportunity to get onto this trend, and build something great for consumers on mobile apps. Within the pandemic, this kind of consumership happened over quarters and not years. Most of the companies built the right strategy for that quarter, but by the time the next quarter happened, the consumer had shifted. It felt like nobody was able to meet their strategy or their targets. This was the result of certain companies who built strategy for execution for a longer period. That's one of the things that we've learned through these headwinds. Companies who are able to rapidly adapt are the ones who are really moving forward.

Evolving Team Config

Another trend that was forced upon us was work from home. It was beautiful to see how most tech teams could find a way to be among family, and in the comfort and safety of their homes to continue to deliver great value. So much respect for those tech teams who had to hold the fort for infrastructure and other critical services from their office locations. Many teams discovered how to prioritize for better work-life balance, and move away from the days of compromising personal life for work. I have colleagues who prioritize spending extra time with their kids while picking them up from daycare, unlike the past, where they would speed back to the office to continue their work day. I know some people miss the social connected work, but how amazing it is that you can finally find time without guilt for those who you love, along with doing great work. Only a few people had this luxury before the pandemic. We also saw the rise of the most flexible work from home or work from anywhere formats. Some work out of their homes. Some move to work remotely from new and exciting places. Some seemed like they were working from different planets. Some started working from their company offices again. It was all sorts of different approaches. Even though it sounds so good, we all have this gut feeling that this is temporary and we want to save some of these amazing new life experiences and continue to get that work-life balance.

Remote Is Here to Stay

This brings us to a finding from Forbes, where they mentioned that remote is here to stay. A key driver for tech mobility between employers is the drive to find a workplace where remote is still a possibility. Many Fortune 500 companies are on the path to adopt a hybrid setup, while very few can offer remote in 2023 because of the legal and tax complexity around such setups. The reality is there's going to be a wave of tech people wanting fully remote, but not too many companies being able to immediately offer it. The question then becomes, how do we support them in keeping some of the best from their work from home experiences and bring that to the hybrid setup? Can we save them from making massive life adjustments to shift from remote to hybrid? Companies who crack this will win retention and tech hiring.

Decline in Confidence

Another trend that is pushing tech people to jump the gun on resignations is productivity paranoia. Microsoft recently discovered that there is a disconnect in the perception of team productivity across various levels in an organization. Teams are reporting burnout, but leaders are worried that not enough is being done to keep up value stream and stay competitive in the market. There is an unrealistic expectation for them to operate at the same velocity and efficiency as pre-2020, and a passive aggressive push that the pandemic has ended, so let's immediately revert back to the old speed. As critical as it is to keep the business afloat and competitive, it's equally important for tech leaders to recognize that the old won't work anymore. We are not back to pre-2020. We are in a new reality with a new type of employee, the ones who are returning from work from home. The ones who know the meaning of prioritizing their personal lives.

Knee-Jerk Reactions from Leaders

With so much pressure to save businesses, there was an urgency across multiple levels of leadership to react and course correct. In 2021, and even in 2022, we continue to see some knee-jerk reactions like reorg, and tighter control to maintain velocity with more top-down management. I call this the period of great reorg and un-org. We reorged for faster consumer focused transformation, and undid it with more micromanagement and top-down OKR pushing. I'm guilty of some of it. I've made some bad choices, and some really stupid choices. All in all, I learned a lot. I grew more as a leader in these last two years than the entire span of my career. I've had the great opportunity to connect and exchange with many incredible tech veterans who share similar experiences of overnight leadership growth, and finding a strong voice to advise why business strategy, tech strategy, and employee strategy are all synonymous.

Introducing Tribe to Flow

Two words that I have repeatedly heard in all their stories, are purpose and culture. Culture, especially tech culture, is not something new. There is a new culture emerging in the aftermath of the post-pandemic era. I believe, through this new culture, we will have the power to further optimize fast flow. Thinking about how fast flow is implemented across different tech teams in our industry, I started a leadership roundtable to exchange on what can help us improve predictability for 2022 beyond. At a macro level, predictability of fast flow model was built around the success of certain types of tasks being completed at a certain time in software development lifecycle. In 2022, there is an urgent need to add the human factor to it so that we don't think of team as a single entity, but a tribe of people who have different motivations and needs to drive purpose together. The success of these tasks is closely intertwined with purpose now more than ever. These tribes will want to work together, not just because they resonate with the purpose of the tech, but because they are able to build a strong interpersonal relationship where they feel they share an exciting future together, are safe in their tribe, and can lean on each other. The leader of their tribe is also dependable. Most importantly, believe that they belong together.

At the cost of sounding preachy, I want to remind that many studies state that purpose is the source of meaning and motivation that drives people to do their best work, which is not happening in this post-pandemic era. If we go back to my slide on productivity paranoia, most leaders are having this perception that the teams are not doing their best work, and hence the focus on new purpose. Irrespective of the changes brought by the pandemic, team members have always wanted to be part of something larger and more important than themselves. It's no rocket science that some tech teams are often busy delivering their work with very little idea of why they're doing it. Some leaders have done really well in getting their teams out of the build trap, and reflecting on the why behind their work. In this disruptive environment, it's so easy to put all focus on task completion, especially within frameworks like fast flow. Fast flow focuses on purpose through clearly defining value stream, that is strategy. When we look at value stream, sharing an exciting future together, along with the idea of having belonging and psychological safety, that's when we'll see a shift of a group of people working together from being a team to a tribe.

You might think, how do you define a tribe? How do you know if a team feels like a tribe? I have found interesting definitions among different tech leaders. For me, it's a team that feels like a community who shares ties beyond just their project. Believe me, a lot of teams who are non-tech have been able to achieve this. There is a strong community feeling. Somehow, a lot of tech teams have always had a bit of automation, mechanical feeling to it. This is where things start getting interesting is, how do you build a community in a tech team? For me, it's a team that's willing to spend additional time with each other. An example, a team willing to offer support to someone who is a caregiver, like taking care of a pet for a tribe member for a few hours a week. Going to the office on a work from home day to decorate their desk because it's their birthday. The most important currency we bring to our workplace is our time. If team members are willing to spend additional time for their tribes, that's your cue. Keeping them together becomes as important as all the other metrics in fast flow.

What She Knows?

In the next few slides, I'll focus on some granular problems related to retention in these tribes because of 2022. Also, because selfishly, I want to hear from you on how you are solving for it. These opportunities to learn from such a diverse group is rare. Where can I help you? I thought of six areas where I have expertise, and narrowed down to three. Why three? Because I have a unique perspective to offer being a female tech leader, driving some large organizational changes. I'll talk about steps to help build psychological safety to retain women in tech during the Great Resignation. What can you expect from product managers to push through the headwinds, to imagine that exciting future together? Finally, how to make a hybrid setup successful for your tribe, so they feel like they belong together. How do you build that communityship?

Guiding Principles for Leaders - How to Retain Women in Tech During the Great Resignation

Let's look at women in tech. A BCG survey said 73% of digital workers are expected to leave their current job, and 40% are actively job hunting. Let that sink in. That's a big number. If you have that many people moving, flow framework is a moot point. If you don't have people who get to work, what is the point of all those metrics? It comes back to my point around retention. Because of my unique perspective, let's talk about retention for women in tech. Given that tech talent is increasingly on the move, the mission to retain women is a confusing one for some, and a profound one for others. There is mounting evidence that diversity, including gender diversity is correlated to strong financial performance in companies. BCG says that companies with above average diversity on their management teams had 19 percentage points, higher innovation revenue than others. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine that in the last 2 years that some teams have been having innovation revenue? To attract and return a diverse workforce, companies should build on what works well for women in tech and address those things that do not.

I'm going to share three areas where women in tech need immediate support in this post-pandemic world. The first one, provide multiple pathways to leadership. Clearly, for those who have not followed the traditional trajectory in tech, we know that many countries struggle at an early education level to support females in starting their first tech roles. It's common to see that some female tech leaders might have taken a different approach to their male peers. In my network, a HR colleague reskilled herself to become a software developer. Her leadership experience in HR was nullified by her new manager, as he insisted, she needed to gain tech leadership experience in order to become an engineering manager. Post-pandemic, we are seeing a strong shift of women wanting to work in tech and digital. This has to be sold. One program which I hear has become effective to consider this career transition into tech, is returnships. It is a program that is usually offered to former employees to support them with a gradual return to company over a transition period. Instead of force fitting women with non-traditional path into tech, into junior roles, we can create this buffer to help them transfer their skills into leadership roles in tech.

The next one is coaching to not overcompensate. I know this is going to be something not new for the women in my audience, but it might be an aha moment for their male peers. An important aspect to pay attention as tech managers is to be able to identify when a female member is overcompensating for adjusting her work to prioritize a personal need. Yes, that's something we do. Recently, I had a situation where a female product designer declined a 3 p.m. meeting to urgently take her kid to the doctor. She then informed her team that she will complete her tasks from the meeting by 5 p.m. the same day. This was a red flag, as I immediately knew that she was trying to work overtime to make up for the guilt of taking some time off for a personal need. This is inbuilt in many women due to the experiences we've had in society. The guilt has only become worse during the pandemic, because suddenly it's become ok to take leave on short notice to do something important at home. No mechanisms have been built to leave behind biases, and for us to overcome our challenges. Some help for male managers, the way you can recognize such red flags and manage this better, is if you start to notice if a female team member starts her update note on such situations with a, "I am so sorry." If her note starts with I am so sorry, that's your cue. Pay attention. Support her to take a similar approach that the rest of the team would. That's how you will help them by getting over this inbuilt guilt and not overcompensating for taking some time off to do a personal errand.

The next one is, continue to give flexibility of work from home and reduced hours. We have all learned that support for better mental health is important more than ever, irrespective of gender. Among senior women in tech, the most commonly cited priority before the pandemic was financial compensation to change a job, while the top current priority has become a good work-life balance to reduce burnout. This is because during the pandemic, there was a significantly large group of women who became caregivers along with their existing jobs. It has become important to them to work for employers who normalize temporary leaves and reduced hours. Having caregiving duties likely influenced whether women and men downshifted in their careers. When men and women caregivers expressed a similar interest in stepping back during the pandemic, 12% of women took a leave of absence, whereas only 8% of men took a leave of absence. In addition, 20% of women reduced their hours, whereas only 17% of men did this change. A generalized solution will not work to support the diverse groups in your tech teams. Gain awareness by running gender specific circles in your team and not just at a company level. Work closely with your HR teams to improve policies that can support these needs of women in tech.

Guiding Principles for Leaders - What to Expect from PMs in Headwinds

Let's talk about what to expect from product managers, and how do you build that exciting future for your tribes. As I mentioned before, everyone underwent digital transformation during the pandemic, and even those companies who were already digital natives. Many transformations failed as the market continued to evolve, and flow velocity just dropped. Some tech leaders kept pushing their teams to be faster rather than adaptive, thinking that will keep their businesses afloat. Now many companies are finding that the digital strategies they implemented in response to COVID-19, were not the best choices, or the right technologies to carry their organizations into a post-pandemic world. Many had to make decisions with limited information to keep up with that crazy market, and organizations experience seeing market corrections. Their tech leaders are starting to assess what COVID-19 prompted digital strategies have worked, which could work better, and whether they have outlived their usefulness.

What are the four things that tech teams should expect from product managers? Number one, a collective agreement or awareness of the most important key results to drive business success and support to the tech teams to map them to their tech KPIs. This is the number one thing you should expect. Very clear understanding of the key results that will help keep your business afloat. Everything else is not important. The most important thing right now is all hands on deck for the business. Clarity on mission critical projects and why they are important to functional teams to see the connection to strengthening product market fit. It's so important to know that. What are those mission critical projects? Driving deep dives to revisit tech debts that many companies collected during the pandemic. That's as important as your mission critical projects. Together, clarifying the cost to keep these tech debts and their validity for the consumer of 2022 and beyond. Last, continue to figure out a lot of things on the fly and make faster decisions. We should all set the expectation with our teams, that strategy will not be fixed as we must be agile to take on the continuing headwinds. We will not have the luxury to run large user research cycles. It's uncomfortable, but that's the reality. We will continue to move across company silos and make decisions with imperfect information. We will have to figure out how not to just work together in hybrid, but work well, because we are all in the same company boat, which might either speed up or sink.

Guiding Principles for Leaders - How Will Hybrid Help Form More Tribes?

Finally, let's talk about a few steps to improve belonging in the new hybrid setup for your teams. First, is to not undermine the adjustment period needed for them to adopt to a new hybrid routine. Many team members are well set in remote and working from home. Forbes says it's going to be a change as big as changing jobs to adjust to hybrid. Teams have found their hacks to make their planning and execution work well while working from home. They now know how to keep up their fast flow metrics. Now expecting them to move to hybrid is going to be a massive change. Tech leaders who assume that this switch to back to office will be like activating a muscle memory, will struggle the most and continue to see churn. The key will be to focus on re-onboarding your teams to your post-pandemic company with the context of hybrid. Giving them the flexibility to decide how and when they should connect. Giving them the time to get used to hybrid will be crucial. Some companies are giving as much as a year to help their teams adjust to this. During this adjustment period, give them the opportunity to try different formats at a micro-team level. They have figured out their pandemic dynamics at a micro-team level, so their transition from one state to another should see experimentation at this level. For example, fixing the days to work from office for all the tech squads who work on the same platform, is a no-no. Go even more micro, let those working within a tech squad to figure out what days work for them. Let them figure out who joins them in the office and who connects from where. Some companies are doing really well in thinking this through. I've heard from friends in Meta that they were already thinking about micro-teams before the pandemic and have been building flexibility at all levels, which is very interesting. I think the bar is getting higher on how companies are rolling this out, and your retention is going to depend on who does this really well, and especially build support at a micro-team level.

Key Takeaways

To sum it up, I ask you to take away three reflections. Culture will accelerate velocity. Think about what will be your strategy for the next 6 months. Does your team feel like a tribe? Do they feel like they're driving purpose together? Hybrid is here to stay, so make it work for everyone in your team. The tribe will have a sense of belonging if you let them figure out how to come together and collaborate. There is a lot of power in enabling frameworks at a micro-team level. The last one is just common sense, but the most difficult one to practice. Get your teams to think about their sphere of influence. What can they control? What they can't? Keep them focused on the things they can influence to improve. Otherwise, they will take on the pressure to improve the whole world and the frustration of not being able to solve much.

Adidas Running App (Run For The Oceans, 2022)

Finally, I leave you with a video of the amazing value that can be delivered at speed when a tribe connects over a purpose. We saw a peak of more than 7 million runners, active around the clock on our running app for 2 weeks, resulting in close to a billion active minutes this year alone. Ten minutes of their time was equal to one plastic bottle cleaned up from our oceans. Presenting to you, Run For The Oceans, 2022, on the adidas Running app.

"Some say it's impossible, ending plastic waste. To us, that talk is just part of the problem. 'Yes, I said it. What's up?' This one is for the oceans. Let's not run away from this challenge. Let's run towards it, because we all have our reasons. We run for our homes, for our families, for the next generation. To help put our foot down on plastic waste, and stand up for what's right. It's time to Run For The Oceans, and show the ones who have given up why we never will. 'Deep breaths brother, in and out. Now let's go.' We'll do it step by step, minute by minute, bottle by bottle. Maybe they're right, it might be impossible to do on our own, but together, impossible is nothing."


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Recorded at:

Nov 02, 2023

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