From Success to Disbandment: Impact of Poor Management on a Talented Team

Lloyd Atkinson
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We even had our own logo and mug design!
We even had our own logo and mug design!

I recently decided to leave my current job for reasons that will become evident. While I have been a part of multiple teams during my three years at this organisation I find myself reflecting on a specific team I helped create.

It was one of the most friendly, collaborative, supportive, and productive teams I have ever participated in. The team culture and dynamic were exceptional, and I feel privileged to have been a part of it. However, I’m also still frustrated and sad that despite all of this, politics and incompetent organisational leadership (both managerial and technical) led to the team being disbanded.

The team existed from early 2020 to the end of 2021, and while the team should have existed longer than it should have, it had a lasting impact on me.

What we did

From early 2020 to the end of 2021, our team made significant contributions to the platform we were developing, despite the ever-changing requirements and features. We were regarded as a great team, and even when some members left due to promotions or changing jobs, we maintained our sense of team.

What made this team special was our shared values. We always aimed to maintain a high bar for completed work, striving for high unit test coverage and never settling for just doing what was asked of us. Instead, we continuously researched topics, collaborated with other teams, and worked towards finding high-quality solutions that made sense.

As far as I know, of the dozen or so teams to exist in the programme, we were the only one actively performance testing too. Our goal was to create stable and robust software iteratively, and we often led the way for the broader platform and business, assisting other teams regularly.

Not only did we work together effectively, but we also had a strong bond and supported each other both professionally and personally. A testament to this was the logo one of our team members created, which we used on team mugs and presentations. This gave us a sense of pride and identity.

  • Everyone had a voice. Everyone could speak up, suggest different solutions, or point out problems.
  • Team members felt psychologically safe to raise all of these points.
  • We had a culture of no blame. Any mistakes or unforeseen situations were taken as a learning point for the team.
  • New ideas and experiments were not immediately shot down. We agreed to take time to investigate them.
  • We felt empowered to accomplish great things and produce high-quality software.
  • The team was well regarded, and as a result, we often assisted other teams.
  • Collaboration was our primary way of working. This took several forms; sometimes, it meant meetings to discuss architecture, and other times it meant pairing sessions.
  • Unlike the wider organisation we embraced the idea of “cross functional teams”. This meant we had developers, testers, product managers, all on the same wavelength.

Where it went

However, despite all our progress, things were not going so well in the leadership of the wider business. As a result, everything came to an inflection point by the end of 2021. Early in the platform design, the feature we worked on was identified as not just a feature but an essential requirement. Despite this, management decided that they were going to move the goalposts - again.

All of our effort and work was for nothing. The project was essentially abandoned except for a couple of teams that had already integrated with our work. However, the work we did was incredibly valuable and solved an obvious set of problems the business had historically struggled with. I came to realise the reason for these historic problems and the cancellation of our project was due to management incompetence. We had simply become the latest victims of this ineptitude.

Although we had many successes despite the overwhelming odds facing our team, the toxic management culture, bureaucracy, and politics took a toll on the team’s motivation.

One absurd “highlight” that cemented for us that management was failing was during one of the many turbulent phases the broader programme frequently experiences. The organisation had purchased another smaller organisation and merged their developers and managers into the programme. Calling it a merge is too kind. It was another “throw everyone in” without considering the broader impact this would cause. As I write this, the vast amount of technical debt and objectively shit architecture that stemmed from this period is still plaguing development almost two years later.

One of these new managers decided to wait for an opportune moment to cause as much chaos as possible. Our scrum master, product owner, and product manager were all on leave at the same time for a week. That Monday morning, the new manager announced to the team that we would be pivoting development and working on something entirely different.

This immediately caused a chain reaction of outrage from other parts of management and absolutely no work was done in this week. The following Monday, and when the three absent members of the team returned, development was put back on track to what it was originally. To be clear, the timing was not accidental. This individual knew all three people would be on leave and saw an opportunity to try pivot development to suit their agenda.

This is just one of countless examples of the overarching mismanagement and toxic environment our team faced externally. It impacted our daily work and ability to complete tasks efficiently and was the primary reason people left. The pressure to perform, combined with unreasonable expectations and constant obstacles, made it difficult for us to stay focused and motivated. This decreased job satisfaction and negatively impacted our well-being and mental health.

Despite our best efforts to maintain a positive and supportive team culture, the outside forces proved to be too much to bear. The team values of collaboration, teamwork, and mutual respect were not reflected in the actions of management and upper leadership, causing a detrimental impact on our morale and even our ability to produce software. Then, of course, whenever we expressed our concerns or asked for better requirements, it was ignored by management.

The aftermath

In a short time, multiple people left, and the team disbanded. The remaining members of the team were spread across multiple teams. By the start of 2023, almost all of these people had left the organisation, with one leaving only a weeks days ago, as I write this. As previously mentioned, I am now leaving this organisation which leaves one other person from 2020 and another who joined in mid-2021. From ten people down to just two in a year and a half!

You can probably imagine the rest: more of the same but progressively becoming worse for every team. Almost all of the original developers that were instrumental in the foundation of the programme have left.

Before leaving I was one of approximately five remaining developers hired in 2020. That is to say, when considering the total number of people in the organisation working on this programme, there has been at least a 75% turnover rate amongst the developers! That is not even counting all of the testers, scrum masters, product managers, etc.

Everyone who has left has expressed one or more of the following reasons for their departure:

  • Feeling like their contributions were not valued, appreciated, or recognised
  • Don’t feel proud of the software being written
  • Significant technical debt causing development to take far too long
  • Product team changing requirements mid-sprint or simply giving bad requirements and refusing to improve them

I wish I could say management has learned anything from this systemic failure but it seems not. They are more interested in becoming more and more of a feature factory

In product management lingo, feature factory is typically a derogatory term. It describes a business focused on building features rather than solving problems for customers.

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