How to Make Changes Easy For Your Team

Interview with Jade Rubick, Advisor for building and scaling engineering organizations
April 5, 2022
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Jade Rubick is a former VP of Engineering at New Relic and Gremlin. Jade writes a newsletter on engineering leadership at, and is an advisor and fractional VPE at many startups. Jade’s interest is in the intersection between effective and human leadership.

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How can managers make smooth changes with a team?

It’s pretty common to run into resistance, skepticism, and fatigue with change. Here are five things I’ve found help with implementing changes. 

  1. Always be listening

First of all, you need to be steeped in the problems of your team. You need to understand them better than anybody. This requires a lot of listening and questioning. Use your 1-1s to ask people what’s going on for them:

  • What problems do they see?
  • What’s frustrating for them?
  • What do they love about their team?
  • How do they interact with other teammates, or other teams?

The more you understand the team’s problems, the more the team will trust that you’re there to improve things for them. Your proposals and changes will go over better if there is a track record of you listening to them.

  1. Keep A Management Backlog

This isn’t obligatory, but one thing I’ve found helpful is to maintain a management backlog. I usually keep a prioritized list of Problems I’m seeing. Each problem is something I think will require management work to improve. While I might not tackle everything in the backlog, I do shift the priorities as I hear things from people.

  1. Making the change: problem, diagnosis, and remedy

Once you’ve selected something from the top of your backlog, here’s how you might go about making the change. 

Step 1: You start with a problem. The problem is an observation of the issue that’s happening. 

Step 2: Assess how large of an issue this is. 

Step 3: Next, your goal is to come up with a diagnosis. A diagnosis is the issue that is at the heart of the problem. This is the step most managers skip, and it’s the most important step. You dig in and research it so you understand it better than anyone. 

Step 4: Finally, you come up with a proposed remedy. This should be something that will make the situation better. It doesn’t have to completely solve the problem, but it should make things a lot better.

I usually recommend writing down these things in a half-page or page doc. This clarifies your thinking. The sections are Problem, Diagnosis, and Proposed Remedy.

  1. Socialize your plan

After you’re done all this work, you may think you have the best plan in the world. It might be the best plan in the world. But people resist smart plans all the time. 

The best way to get people to get on board with a plan is to give them a chance to interact with it. Instead of laying it on them, give them a chance to provide feedback. This can often result in them improving it as well!

So the next step is to shop your plan around in a gradually widening set of people. It’s important to really ask each person to try and improve the plan. Don’t just share it with people — ask people to critique it. Ask them to make it better. You can do this in person or through collaborative tools.

As you get feedback from each person, incorporate what seems valuable, so the plan improves. Iterate quickly, and thank people who improve the plan.

Like magic, everyone who participates in the crafting of the plan will be more inclined to support it. And the plan will improve from all of the additional feedback. As it gets to a wider and wider audience, it will go from being a good plan, to a great plan, with widespread support.

  1. Communicate the change

You’ve circulated the plan with leadership, and key people. You may have talked with a few team members about the changes. It’s important to act quickly so that things don’t start being spread by rumor, and the people affected have a chance to weigh in.

The next step is to communicate the plan to the whole team. At this point, you have already received a lot of feedback, so you’re probably able to anticipate objections or concerns.

The most important thing when communicating the plan is to say it is the plan, and that you’d appreciate any feedback on it if people have ways to improve on the plan.

This may seem like a dangerous thing to do. But people don’t like to have things imposed on them. And by following the previous steps, you will be better prepared to respond to any feedback. And they might improve the plan! Be open to changes.

When you tell people about a change, different people need to hear different things to understand a plan:

  1. Goals. What are the goals? What do we want to happen?
  2. Process. What is the process we’ll follow?
  3. Constraints. What are the constraints and requirements?
  4. Roles. Who will be doing what? What will everyone be responsible for?

You need to communicate all of these things when you communicate a change.

What can managers do to reduce the cost and fear around changes?

I see managers get into trouble rolling out changes. Usually this happens because people are nervous about the changes. So here are a few things you can do to make the changes seem less threatening.

First of all, if you communicate the change as an experiment, that’s often less threatening. Use language like, “I’m seeing this problem, and I’d like to propose we try this for three weeks.”

A second element is to communicate whether the change is easily reversible. Some changes are one way doors. Others are two way doors, easy to reverse. Don’t fret over two way doors. But be sure to communicate what type of change you’re implementing.

Finally, you don’t need consensus to move forward. Your role on the team (if you’re responsible for team process) is to adapt and continually improve the way the team works together. 

How can you tell how much change the team can absorb?

As a manager, you should assess your team’s ability to absorb change. 

Don’t underestimate the power of lots of small, incremental improvements. The best performing teams are the result of the compounding interest you accrue from these types of improvements.

However, change can cause stress on your team, and teams that are already under stress can reject change. Ironically, the more under stress a team is, the more change may be necessary.

When you’re in such a quandry, look for disproportionately valuable changes. Things where a small change can result in big improvements. Ideally, the result of a change is more bandwidth on the team to absorb future changes.

How do you determine the iteration speed?

I’ve seen many managers get into a trap where they implement changes too slowly. What matters is how long it takes from when you start working on a problem to when you’re able to turn your attention to the next problem. (Also, it matters when the impact of the change occurs).

When you embark on a change, it’s often better to solve a problem in an incomplete way if it takes less time. As long as the situation improves, that means you will have gone through a complete cycle of improvement. Iteration speed is more important than perfection.

There is a trap on the other side of this, however. Making changes without good information is destructive. The key is to accelerate how quickly you can gain context, and be confident you’re making a good improvement.

You can use the people around you to help make sure you’re making good decisions. Ask them what problems they see with your suggestions. Ask them to improve your plans. This only works with trust, so when trust is lacking, you may need to slow down.

This post was originally posted here.

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