The power of positive

Who doesn’t want to be part of a winning team? A team who communicates well consistently delivers high-quality work and is able to solve problems proactively.  Unconventional productivity makes work fun.  It also, according to science, results in higher profitability.

I have been lucky to work with such productive teams a few times in the past.  One particular team, however, didn’t start off that way.  They did, however, lead me to discover an unconventional way to increase unconventional productivity at work.

Lead as if you have no power

It all started when I decided to spread my wings and move abroad years ago.  I joined a reputable international player in healthcare and were introduced to some of the best developers I’ve had the pleasure to work with. Each person in the team was exceptionally qualified to do their job.  On top of that, they all loved technology as much as I do and were nice people.  People you wanted to spend time with because we had a lot in common and stimulated each other intellectually.

The only issue was that shortly after I arrived I became aware of the corridor talk. I discovered or rather found validation for, the fact that I have just joined the worst performing team in the organization.   The team everyone dreads to deal with.

If, and that’s a big if, they did deliver something at the end of a sprint, it was either not what the customer wanted or so incomplete and full of bugs that it could not be released and had to be rolled over to the next sprint.  The growing list of outstanding bugs was far longer than any other team’s list and they held the entire organization back as the biggest bottleneck.   Other teams had to take over the load fixing some of the bugs just to keep the software manageable and the few customers we had happy enough not to leave in search of greener pastures.

Consistently, they didn’t deliver and when they did it was bad quality.  Their reputation was terrible and no-one wanted to work with them.

I didn’t, however, come all this way to be part of a losing team. So I had no choice.  I had to find a way to change it.  The stumbling block, however, was that I was outnumbered 1 to 8 and not in a leadership position.  I had to influence change without having any power.

Everyone wants to be part of a winning team

To decide on a strategy for change, I first had to figure out what was causing the team to be such a bad performing team when they had such talented people.

I spent the first few sprints observing quietly, looking for patterns and the biggest probable cause of low productivity.  Every two weeks the team would get together to review the past two week’s performance.  I noticed that on average they presented only about 20 – 30% of the work they committed to.  This 30% that was done was however filled with so many errors that it couldn’t possibly be released to the customers.

So every two weeks, when evaluating what worked and what didn’t in an attempt to improve, each team member presented at least 3 or 5 (valid) reasons why they didn’t deliver working software (because no-one wants to be seen as lazy or bad).  Times this by 8 and every two weeks about 35 – 40 reasons of what was wrong was added to the backlog of issues keeping the team from delivering.

This might not be very unusual.  However, what I noticed was that no-one pointed out anything that actually did work.  100% of the focus was on negative outcomes.

Unconventional productivity hack #2 – The power of positive focus

When I asked the then team lead about this, he proudly answered that they were serious about continuous improvement.  In other words, there’s no point in focusing on what works as this is not going to make you better.  You need to identify the problems in order to improve.

Obviously, however, this didn’t seem to work that well looking at the trends over the past few years and the growing bug list.

I decided to try an experiment.  I developed a hypothesis.  What would happen if you focused on the things that were working well rather than looking for more problems to solve?  What if you could focus on each person’s strengths rather than point out their weaknesses?   What would happen if you cheered your team on rather than criticize from the side?

Hypothesis #2: A motivated team is a productive team

I spent the next 6 months only pointing out what went well.  Even though at times it was really hard to find even one thing that went well, I refrained from pointing out anything negative, knowing there were 8 people doing that already.  Instead, I searched for anything that worked, regardless of how difficult this sometimes was.

I ignored the 10 outstanding bugs on a feature and thanked the developers for fixing one.  I publicly praised an individual when they did something contributing to the success of the team.  This recognition of effort had an unexpected and magical effect.  One fixed bug became two fixed bugs.  Two quickly became four and soon the backlog of bugs disappeared at the end of the sprint and only working software was showcased.

The better it gets the better it gets

The better it got, the better it got.  As the quality of the software improved, the morale of the team increased and culture of producing high-quality software was created.

Where previously there were outstanding bugs for years, now bugs were resolved before they could be logged.  We started having fun.  We started looking forward to the bi-weekly showcase, knowing we did good work. We walked around pride.  We even helped the other teams who now became the bottleneck. Our team had more capacity than ever before and the more we did, the more our capacity increased.  Our work relationships improved to such an extent that we started to spend more and more time together after hours.  We invited each other to housewarmings, weddings,  and other special events.  The better our relationships got, the better our performance got.

The worst performing team transformed into the best performing team in under 2 years.  My experiment worked.  It turns out that focusing on positive aspects and strengths to motivate a team results in higher than average productivity.  Of course, there were a number of other changes that contributed to the successful turnaround, including the addition of a superstar developer, the change of a team lead and some team building effort by a new HR intern, yet undeniably, there was a before and after as a direct result of the positive focus.

The science of positive organizational change

Subsequently, I discovered an article scientifically proving this hypothesis of mine.  In an article by Kim Cameron and Jon McNaughtan in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, they provided evidence that organizations exposed to positive change such as compassion and avoiding blame increased performance in productivity and subsequently profitability, customer satisfaction, and employee retention.  Their research indicates a number of studies in organizations from different industries, including retail, financial services, health care, manufacturing, education, and government link virtuousness to performance.

One of these studies looked at the consequences of organizational downsizing on performance and the relationship to virtuousness, a topic mostly ignored in analyzing organizational change prior to this groundbreaking work.  The 10 major airline carriers in the U.S. were confronted with what seemed to be an inevitable downsize after the 9/11 tragedy resulting in a decline of 80% of passengers for 5 years continuously after the tragedy.  Each airline was rated on virtuousness of their downsizing strategy.  The most virtuous organization chose to suffer financial losses to protect job security, not laying off anyone.  The least virtuous laid off people without severance or other benefits, taking only their self-interest and short term benefits into account.  The financial return of these companies was measured by stock price and it was found that the financial return very closely related to virtuousness in downsizing.  The article discussed a few more cases, each consistently showing the same result:

The more virtuous an organization, the higher productivity, and profitability.

Reaching tipping point

So what does it take to turn around a team? I was one person, without any power, positively focused on a team with 8 other members.  Within about 6 months the shift in focus started to visibly result in productivity improvements.  After a year and a half, the team was comfortably handling all the work and optimally productive.  I walked away wondering what would have happened if the ratio of positive: negative was higher than 8:1?  What if the leadership team was focused positively rather than the change being influenced from the bottom up?

How fast could a ‘problem’ team be turned around?

Research in the field of psychology claims that a ratio of 5:1 positive to negative communication is optimal for changing a negative mindset into a positive one, with a ratio of 3:1 required to maintain this balance.  To support this, in one of the studies reported on in the journal article, the highest performing teams had a 5:1 positive to negative ratio in communication.

So I invite you to try this unconventional productivity hack and help find the magic recipe to reach a tipping point.  Because change is an inside job and it starts with one person.



With 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.