Getting More from Your Team Health Checks
Watch Justin and Fiona speak about ‘Team Health Checks — One Size Does Not Fit All’ at the Spotify Engineering Conference in 2022.
Spotify has for a long time run squad health checks. Squads step back from their day-to-day activities to get a broader perspective on how they are working, with the aim of improving their self-awareness, allowing them to more clearly see improvement opportunities. The aggregated results from these health checks also provide the teams’ leadership with a way to see patterns and trends across multiple squads and over time.
‘Organizational improvement work is very much a guessing game…. A systemic approach with clear visualization can reduce some of the guessiness.’Squad Health Check Model – Visualizing What to Improve (2014)
With nearly a decade of squad health checks under our belt, you could say our teams have gotten pretty decent at running health checks. Although it’s not something we track, we estimate 5,000-plus health checks have been run at Spotify since that first post in 2014. Today at least 60% of our teams are committed to running health checks at a regular cadence, using their favourite sets of questions, often with a detailed guide to support the individuals facilitating them. And leaders of these teams routinely use the results as a source of data to support, not judge, teams.
Unlike a regular retrospective where the team reflects on a recent time period, a squad health check has the potential to uncover greater systemic improvement areas for a team over a longer period of time.
For the most part, squad health checks at Spotify look something like this:
- Ask predefined questions in the areas of tech health, team health, and product health. It’s increasingly common to see this done using a survey, which can make creating the subsequent visualisation easier.
- Run debrief workshops where members of a squad discuss their results and decide on a set of actions.
- Aggregate results into a multi-team-level visualisation, so that patterns and trends can be observed and addressed.
Despite all our experience running health checks, we’ve found that there’s always a risk that squads can have a ‘meh’ experience.
- Without care, using the survey can cause the subsequent team conversation to be focussed more on the results, rather than on team members’ experiences.
- Teams can push towards creating actions designed to ‘fix’ a problem, at the cost of uncovering longer-term and ‘deeper’ insights.
- As our organisations have got bigger, it’s often leaders much further away from the teams than originally envisioned who are looking at the results. If this is the only reason teams do the health check, then it’s missing the point.
- Facilitation can be done in a transactional or dogmatic way, focussing on going through the agenda points and preventing the team from talking enough about what is important for them.
After using the same checks over and over again, we found that they can become another to-do on a team’s list of countless to-dos, which risks missing the opportunity to maximise the value of the conversation for the team itself.
To ensure this doesn’t happen, we focus on the following three areas when we run health checks for teams.
- Customise wisely.
It’s critical to consider the needs of the team when preparing for the health check, and we’ve found that there are three fundamental ways to make sure each health check suits your team:
Choose your health check. Sure, the Spotify Health Check model works for us at Spotify, but we’re willing to accept that it may not work for everyone. Explore different kinds of health checks that might be a better fit for your team or organisation. We’ve experimented with a health check based on Google’s re:Work, in order to drive broad conversations around psychological safety, structure and clarity, dependability, meaning, and impact. Some of our teams have built out their own more tailored checks based on their teams’ own tech principles or designed for leadership.
Tailor the questions to your team’s needs. Whichever health check you choose, there will always be opportunities to incorporate elements that may be adjusted to the specific team. Team leaders can (and should) consider what is relevant to the team right now and design some questions to help reflect that. For example, for teams that…
- Recently had quality issues: How well have the remediations we’ve put in place improved our quality?
- Had many new joiners: How would you rate your knowledge of the systems that our team owns?
- Are recently working distributed: How well are our distributed ways of working supporting us as a team?
Consider the organisational view. Even though you want to customise the health check for the team, you may still need to feed your health check scores into the larger system visualisation for leadership. These reports are effective for spotting trends, and the results may be used for systemic actions on a larger scale. So make sure you know what leadership is looking for and that you’re able to input that data into the aggregation (for example, by also including those questions).
- Dig deep.
During the debrief workshop, following a facilitation guide that might be provided is helpful to steer the discussion, but it’s important to remember that the priority should be to facilitate a deeper conversation within the team.
‘A well-facilitated, deep conversation about any one topic that is important to the team will yield results.’Fiona and Justin
One of the powerful aspects of the team health check is the opportunity to help the team step outside their day-to-day habits of communication. Teams often approach the health check discussions in the same way they would other conversations or meetings — if they have the habit of rushing towards actions, or of talking in circles, that same behaviour will likely come into play during the health check. By helping them communicate differently, you can create a space for individuals to be comfortable with vulnerability and encourage empathy between team members. We believe this can be the most valuable outcome from a team health check — it will support higher levels of trust that can ultimately help the team to be more effective and high-performing day to day.
Turn up your curiosity.
Jumping to problem-solving is a human instinct, but digging a bit deeper helps ensure you’re solving the right problem. You can help the team go deeper by using lots of open questions, like:
- Where/when have you seen this working?
- This helps the person or team compare and contrast to drive more insights.
- What’s important to you about this?
- This helps the person explain their values or needs, which provides opportunity for more empathy, and for problem-solving that supports the root of the situation.
- How will this help you?
- This helps someone explain what they are actually wanting or solving for and allows for alternate solutions.
- Which behaviours do or do not support you in this?
- This helps the team think intentionally about things they do and how those things help, or don’t.
- What would be needed for you to score this question higher?
- This solution-focussed question helps someone think of ideas to make something even better.
- Is there something else about this? (More on this later…)
- This is a way to encourage the person/team to go further than their first perspectives before moving on.
- What is the elephant in the room about this topic?
- This is a way to invite more perspectives about the topic at hand that people might be hesitant to raise otherwise.
Take your facilitation to the next level.
- Leave the space for the team to talk. This is their conversation, not yours, and the best thing you can do for them, after being curious, is to get out of the way. Leave spaces for others to fill (count slowly to 10 if you need to) rather than moving on with the facilitation or offering answers yourself. If you, as the facilitator, want to jump into the conversation, make it clear that you are taking off your facilitator hat, and be clear when you’re putting it back on.
- Default to asking ‘what’ rather than ‘why’. ‘Why’ can unintentionally put people on the defensive since it can come across as demanding or confrontational. ‘What’ and ‘how’, on the other hand, sound more curious and objective. Compare ‘Why are you late?’ with ‘What happened to make you late?’ and ‘Why did you do that?’ with ‘How did you come to do that?’. You’ll get a lot of facilitation mileage removing ‘why’ from your vocabulary.
- Try asking ‘Is there something else?’ rather than ‘Is there anything else?’ In this study, researchers found that asking ‘Is there something else?’ increased the chances of the subject raising something else that was on their mind, whereas asking ‘Is there anything else?’ was no more effective than not asking at all. The word ‘anything’ tends to cause our brains to filter and scrutinise ourselves — ‘Is my thing one of the things that’s actually worth sharing?’ In our experience, asking for ‘something’ bypasses the filter and makes people more likely to share, which gets more data for the team’s conversation.
- Keep an eye out for the energy in the room as the team is talking. When you notice a shift — perhaps a sudden quiet, or a rise in tension — being curious about that can help steer a conversation into a place the team might usually hesitate to discuss. If a team can’t discuss it, they can’t improve it. Try asking, ‘What did you all notice happening to the energy in the room when we started talking about this topic?’
Plan to end well.
We seldom get through everything we think we might, and that’s OK. In fact, a well-facilitated, deep conversation about any one topic that is important to the team may yield better results than force-fitting topics, when it comes to helping the team work better together. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to get through everything in your facilitation plan.
- Don’t cut conversations short in order to cover more topics or next steps. Instead, set expectations that you will prioritise quality over quantity and that not talking about or getting to everything is OK. Undiscussed things can be followed up on later if need be.
- Don’t worry too much if the team hasn’t got to ‘actions’. The fact they’ve heard each other’s opinions and thoughts will mean the topic is front of mind for them now. In fact, better actions often come after a break from thinking about a problem, so following up a few days later might be better.
Give closure to the conversation. This will help people leave the session with a feeling of satisfaction. A quick way to close is to ask everyone to share ‘one insight and one thing they will do differently as a result of today’s conversation’. This helps each person acknowledge their takeaway and set an intent. If you need to, cut short a conversation in order to make time to close out together. A simple acknowledgement that you are out of time for now will help to dissolve any tension that someone might have about not finishing.
- Follow through.
This part often gets overlooked because everyone goes back to their usual day-to-day routine. Don’t fall into this trap that reinforces ‘meh’ health checks. It’s not enough to capture the actions and leave them with the team. The health check isn’t done until you:
Follow up with the team’s leads.
Debrief with those closest to the team who attended the health check (usually the engineering manager and product manager) on what you learned, and plan your next steps.
- Was something not discussed that needs more attention?
- Are there things to follow up on in one-to-ones with direct reports?
- Are there meetings to book as a result of actions?
- Does the team have a reliable way to make sure they follow up on any actions they took?
Perhaps actions should be added to the team’s backlog. Perhaps the conversation didn’t result in any actions, and it would be good to have a discussion about this at stand-up in a day or so, after the team has had a chance to absorb what they learned in the conversation.
Reflect on any broader patterns.
Your department/organisation should look at the aggregated view of all the health check results to see if there are any patterns and learnings. If this isn’t something that you already do today, we suggest at least doing something lightweight. For example, ask all managers to bring their top three team health priorities to a meeting to discuss how you could work on those at an organisational level.
This approach to our health checks has supported our teams and leaders to have better conversations and outcomes. So the next time you’re planning a round of health checks, remember that one size does not fit all! Customise your health check to best fit the team, dig deep to find the underlying issues, and follow through afterwards.
Our knowledge and experience has been gained through the work of many people running team health checks at Spotify. Thanks especially to the authors of the original post, and our fellow Agile Coaches who gave valuable input to this article.
Tags: agile, engineering culture