Turning around a group of teams
At the beginning of this year as Intercom was going through a reorg, I took on leadership of a group of teams standing on shaky ground. We had experienced layoffs, endured challenging quarters, and accumulated multifaceted debt—product, personnel, and technology.
Addressing such complex issues without being hands-on or without deep comprehension of the problems can feel overwhelming.
Here is the strategy my leadership team and I adopted to improve our situation. This approach incorporated cross-functional collaboration among product, design, and engineering teams.
Commit and understand constraints
First, it’s crucial to commit to the turnaround alongside your leadership team. This is especially significant for those who have been part of the setup for an extended period, who may feel inertia or hopelessness. Set a time-bound, feasible goal to instigate a positive shift—something like, “We will establish a positive trajectory for the organization with a long-term improvement plan within the next quarter.”
Second, align with your leadership team on what are your constraints. What cannot be changed? There are three main categories that come to mind:
- Headcount: Is it possible to bring in new team members to alleviate pressure or inject a positive spirit, or is your headcount fixed?
- Priorities: What commitments must your group deliver? Ensure that you stay focused here—nothing demoralizes a team more than missing an important commitment.
- Performance: How are the members of your leadership team performing? Know who you can depend on and who needs closer management, or potentially, who needs to transition out.
Understand your problems
Listening to diverse voices within your teams and assessing problems before committing to priorities is vital. Don’t get swayed by the most vocal issues; they might not necessarily be the most crucial to solve. To understand and triangulate problems, we used multiple sources:
- Work with your management team - they will most probably have great understanding of problems, but it’s important to validate and triangulate further.
- Engagement Survey - for the purpose of moving fast, we used ChatGPT to quickly come up with a good first pass of questions.
- Skip-levels - as director of engineering, I met with all 20 engineers in the group.
Conduct your first round of prioritization with your management team. It’s impractical to involve literally every engineer in such a working sessions.
Share back to the teams
Share everything you’ve learned with your teams. Create space for them to offer additional context or challenge your framing of the problems. For us, this involved one and a half hour sessions of unstructured conversation with each team. We also shared a prioritized list of problems, inviting further feedback in a less intimidating setup.
Get alignment with your senior leadership.
Ensure that you have the support of senior leadership and their understanding of the situation’s gravity.
This is especially important if one of your problems is working under too much pressure. To alleviate it and create slack you need to be ruthless with priorities and only focus on what’s the most important, which is very tough without senior leadership alignment.
Move fast on what’s obvious
After problem discovery exercise, you might see some high-priority ones that are obvious to solve, just no-one before pulled the trigger on the solution. I suggest to fix such problems immediately and communicate that you will learn and adapt, but right now optimising for building momentum.
For us, some things that we did immediately were better balancing the time spent on net new product vs. issues, planning for a bit of slack for escalations from our customers that were consistently happening and kicking off work on product and technical strategy, as we knew it will take time to develop those.
Recharge everyone’s batteries
To drive change, everyone’s energy and optimism are essential. I used my tried-and-tested strategy to manage team burnout following an incident.
We sent everyone on a brief break, not counted against their holiday allocation. This forced recharge helped maintain a positive outlook.
Create a vision of an org that everyone wants to be part of
Creating a visual description of your goals is important. A vision that balances your teams’ challenges and the broader organization’s needs can inspire optimism and aspiration, as long as it’s grounded in reality.
Our vision was rooted in the problems identified earlier. We focused on five pillars—product, customers, people, structure, technology—as we had experienced issues in each. For example, one of the pillars was framed as:
Product - Building what is aligned to broader Intercom strategy, carrying our own confidence in it and delivering impact
- We follow our product strategy to ensure that we contribute to long-term success of Intercom. We are adaptive and embrace change coming from outside but we always think through and are transparent about trade-offs.
- We build a support channel first and foremost, and thus we keep end user experience top of mind.
- We work aligned to our R&D principles. We move fast, we start from the problem, we ship often to learn and we deliver outcomes.
As you see, I described each pillar using three bullet points to set the direction, leaving room for ambiguity where we had to do deeper and more detailed work to align on.
We then collaborated with EMs, PMs, and designers to build alignment through a short workshop where we walked through each pillar and together brainstormed examples of behaviours that support these pillars and those that are anti-patterns.
Lastly, we shared the vision with teams for feedback and alignment.
Assess your teams against the vision to start tracking progress and trajectory of qualitative change.
We conducted a survey for an assessment of how teams felt about aligning with the aspirational vision. This gave us a benchmark and reality check of the gap between our current state and aspirations.
We re-prioritized problems based on effort and impact. We then shared this back to the teams and engaged volunteers to initiate low-effort, high-impact changes, creating immediate momentum.
This is a long journey, and your vision serves as a beacon for everyone on how to operate. While I plan to repeat the assessment and problem prioritization every quarter, smaller organizations may need to do this monthly. Remember, nothing is set in stone; stay open to refining the vision over time.
Managing turnarounds is strenuous. It’s essential to have a clear plan to avoid burning out. I hope this framework equips you with a practical strategy to navigate towards stability and sustainability.
I believe though that speed here is extremely important. There will be a lot of inertia to fight and a lot of engagement to build. Both of these things take a lot of time. The faster you move, the better chance that your team will give you a chance and believe in the change in the trajectory before they start scouting for new jobs. Speed is life here.