03 Jan 23

Demoralized Teams


Shortly after starting at a fintech company, I was asked to take over the Director role for the data platform. A team existed but was completely demoralized. Their previous leader was asked to leave. The majority of the team had come over alongside the leader from Living Social. The solution they were supporting had been created by the CTO on a weekend bender and put into Production. The remaining members were spread across two different offices in two different time zones.


The task at hand was to rejuvenate the team. A direction was needed. A purpose other than keeping the existing solution running was needed. Improving performance and delivering new features were needed. Retention was needed. It was a large task considering the small size of the team and the business value being recognized.


The first thing put in place was a weekly fireside chat. The whole team was invited, everyone from engineering, QA, Product, Data, etc. Because of the time zones it happened over video, cameras were turned on. It happened on Monday mornings and time was reserved to talk about our intentions for the week, as well as, answer any questions the team had. No JIRA boards or any formal agenda, just time reserved to chat and build camaraderie. The first few were rough. A bit of Festivus happened. But giving the team this space and being inclusive started to lift spirits.

The team started being proactive about their direction. We started plotting a new course. We brought in some team members to help with the new direction.

Meanwhile, we invested some energy into improving the existing solution just enough that we didn’t have to babysit it all hours of the night. We weren’t aiming to build off of it or even make it better, we just needed it to be maintainable. That bought us some points with the CTO who had authored it. By doing so, we could use the information to sell our proposal for a new real-time solution with the CTO’s approval.

I got my hands dirty and was “on-call”, so the team could focus on the replacement. They had not had a “player-coach” before. Orders were top-down previously, people felt talked at and disrespected.

We continued our weekly fireside chats. They eventually shortened in length, but people claimed they were their favorite meetings.


The team hit a stride and rhythm and became an influencer on other engineering teams. We introduced true DevOps. We introduced Machine Learning. We built a real-time solution. We accelerated the time it took to ship features. This was no longer a demoralized team and it was on display pretty clearly during the company-wide Sprint demos.

We gained the trust of the CTO. We retained all team members and grew the size of the team. Members from other teams asked to join our team.

Most importantly, the team was no longer demoralized. Through some very simple processes, we were able to air our grievances and then start to be proactive about our future. We kept the lights on and innovated. There were plenty of late nights and pleading our case, but being confident in our proposals and executing at a high level was a complete 180 degrees from where the team was at a short year prior.

Many of us still work together to this day, granted at a different venture, but that says something.