How Can Our Team Start the New Year Right?

Advice from The Sherwins for January 2018



This month, we’re going to do what we usually don’t do, and paraphrase a letter. Several, actually, because we got a slew of questions about the same thing. A majority of the letters we received were from people at mid-size startups. Each person wanted advice on planning something for their team. The words hackathon and retreat and activities and aligning and teambuilding and vision were offered to us. And so were the words New Year. It’s the New Year and…

And that’s where we pulled the ripcord.

Let’s pause for a moment about this whole New Year thing.

We make New Year’s resolutions with the best of intentions. Totally going to the gym. Possibly going to eat less bacon. Maybe pay more attention to books and read more articles from people across the political spectrum.

Then February rolls around and *crickets*. Crickets you don’t hear because we’re still eating too much bacon.

And we tell ourselves around February 19th that we tried, but secretly, we know that we pretty much used New Year’s as an excuse to make promises we weren’t sure we could keep. We used a special day on a calendar, the same day that everyone else uses, in the vain hope that it would motivate us to change. New Year’s resolutions are a Big Thing.

What the people in these letters wanted was advice on making a Big Thing: A Big Event to make Big Plans for a Big Initiative to motivate a team.

First question: Why do you need a Big Thing?

You should know that there is absolutely nothing stopping you and your team from making a change today or tomorrow or whenever. If you need an outside authority to point to for this, allow us to be it.

You do not need a Big Thing to start a project or to align your team or anything like that. You don’t need t-shirts or water bottles or an offsite in a remote mountain hideaway where everyone can Really Focus. You don’t need it.

(Side note: If your company has suddenly decided to Do Good Work, then we’re honestly curious why you’d want to call attention to it. If you’re announcing that you’re going to do good work now, it’s really highlighting the fact that you weren’t before, which is either true [and sad] or not true and the work went unacknowledged [which is doubly sad].)

Big Things can be nice, maybe. But planning, making, and attending a Big Thing distracts us from the fact that big changes require more than just a hackathon and a manifesto to make them happen. We super-charge the start and maybe the finish, and the middle ground is left to the wolves.

(Another side note: Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about how much work it takes to make up for all of the time it takes to do a Big Thing? Unless your company has developed some truly sensitive methods to plan for Big Things, a Monday through Wednesday retreat for an entire team is a Thursday full of headaches.)

This isn’t to say that we shouldn't take time out to renew and refresh and recharge and all of that. Rather, why does it always have to be such a Big Deal?

Which we guess brings us to the second question: How are you going to handle whatever comes out of this Big Thing?

Any time you disrupt the team with a Big Thing, you’re creating a space for behavior that exists outside of the workday. And maintaining the behaviors and attitudes cultivated during a Big Thing is hard work, especially if you’ve blown your actual (or psychic) yearly budget on “inspiring” your team.

The road to team happiness is littered with the broken promises of Big Things. New rules that never got enforced. New products that never launched. The thousand ways that people told each other “this year will be different”, and the thousand ways that everything stayed exactly the same. We wait around for a Big Thing in order to change things and then, when it breaks our hearts, we despair at how much faith we placed in it. With some teams, it always feels like February 19th: Still Eating Bacon Day.

What to do then?

Try Small Things instead of Big Things. Hold celebrations three weeks into a project, ask one extra insightful question during standups, add one extra minute to write down what problem you’re trying to solve, post one new sign on a wall that tells your team what you’re doing today to Do Better Work (and that isn’t a platitude), start your next sprint with something new.

Do Small Things. And if you must do a Big Thing, then make a point of showing how all those Small Things support the magic of the Big Thing. Because Big Things done well are just that: Magic. The perfect combination of technical proficiency, storytelling, purpose, and maybe a little bit of what those wacky design kids are calling “delight”.

Enjoy your New Year first. Skip the Big Thing for a month or two. Maybe don’t have one at all. Stop waiting for Big and go do some Small Things right now.

Change does not need a fancy initiative or a hackathon or a special day on the calendar. It just needs you.

With all of our best (which is passion, acceptance, and joy),
The Sherwins


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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice will only be around till the end of January 2018 or Still Eating Bacon Day—whichever comes first.