Continuous Improvement for Real Teams

Almost everyone agrees that continuous improvement is a great idea, yet many teams have trouble putting this idea into practice. This article will discuss the motivation, method, and momentum of continuous improvement. In other words:

  1. Why are you trying to improve?
  2. How will you improve?
  3. How do you keep going?

Before we dig in, let’s talk about the motivation for continuous improvement itself. The short answer is that everyone wins. Highly productive teams are valued by their companies, and their members gain skills which are valuable both in their current roles and as their careers advance.  It also feels good to be part of a great team.

As a leader, nothing is more critical to your long-term success than building a strong team. With an outstanding team, it’s easy to get outstanding results. With a weaker team those results will remain out of reach even with superhuman efforts on your part.

There are three pillars to building a strong team: team improvement, team member improvement, and great hiring practices. In this article I focus on team improvement, since it’s often the most accessible and can give the greatest return on investment: you don’t need a budget, and gains are multiplied by the size of your team.

I don’t have articles on the other pillars yet, but Software Career Advancement: Become More Valuable does cover some key team member development ideas – from the perspective of the team member.

Motivation: Why are you trying to improve?

For improvement to be continuous it needs to be self-reinforcing.  For improvement to be self-reinforcing, it needs to generate a reward larger than the cost.  

The continuous improvement cycle

In the case of personal development, these rewards must be of personal value: satisfaction, pride, comfort etc. In software team development, these rewards should deliver business value: faster execution, fewer bugs, and an improved bottom line.  The best improvement goals will satisfy both of these objectives: delivering both value to the business and personal satisfaction to your team members.

Identify motivations

As in most open-ended decision processes, it’s best to first generate multiple options, then select the best of them. 

When identifying goals for a team there are several sources of inspiration you can tap into:

  1. What do you perceive as your team’s current weaknesses?
  2. How would you like your team’s performance to be next year compared to where it is now?
  3. You might also look at where your team is spending your time: Are there opportunities to spend less time on low value work?  

The questions above can also be asked of your team members, or other stakeholders.

Picture a world where you have addressed each of the problems, or seized each of the opportunities, listed above.  Which of these delivers the most business value?  Would solving them also deliver personal satisfaction? These are the first areas to focus on.

Method: How will you improve?

Hopefully you’ve now identified several areas where you and your team would be motivated to improve.  That’s the reward side of the equation.  Now we need to consider how to actually get there.  

You’ll have to figure out the details yourself, but I can give you a few pieces of advice:


You’ve probably heard of SMART, it’s an acronym for: Specific, Measurement, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Although it’s a bit of a trope at this point, it’s stuck around since the early 80s for two good reasons: it’s easy to remember, and it works.

If the goal is well motivated, then we can assume it is relevant.  However, most people’s “first idea” is not very specific or measurable.  How will you know when you’ve succeeded?

Similarly, being achievable and time-bound are important and related.  If you have no idea when you expect to be done, are you really confident that you will get there?

Identify supporting actions

SMART goals will often have an outcome that involves demonstrating a new skill or some other improvement. For example “introduce less than 1 serious regression per week of new development”.  However, these outcomes won’t happen with good intentions alone.

Instead you and your team need to identify actions that will get you there. For large goals, the process for selecting actions might be a lot like the one for selecting the goal in the first place: brainstorm, prioritize, elaborate, execute. These don’t have to be formal steps: a quick “hey team, how could we improve X?” will often generate some great ideas. 

Just get started

Once you have a bit of practice, the ideas above can be executed in minutes, not hours or days.  One of the best ways to keep improvement going is to start small and experiment.

Perhaps your team thinks a change to the build process would catch bugs earlier.  You don’t need to spend a week researching it, if the change can be implemented in a day.  Go for it and see how it turns out.

Do take the time to evaluate whether the new process is actually improving things in a sprint or two. If not, it’s usually worth going back to the old process.  Change for its own sake can turn into busywork: take an optimistic attitude, but verify your results.

Momentum: How do you keep it going?

In order to close the loop and make improvement continuous, you will need to build a system that has low friction and generates results.  This is a little theoretical, so what do I actually recommend?

  1. Periodic “Big Picture” goal setting – this may align with corporate annual plans or it could be something you do yourself once per quarter. This is continuous, but slow.
  2. Retrospectives deliver continuous improvement on a shorter timescale.

Coming Soon: Retrospectives are important enough to deserve their own article. I’ll add a link when it’s ready.

Along with these two specific practices, it is critical to celebrate your successes. Remember, it’s success, and the rewards of success, that are the purpose of this whole endeavour.  Don’t fall into the trap of taking success for granted and moving immediately on to the next problem: you will soon find your team drained of motivation and if you aren’t celebrating your success, the rest of the organisation probably isn’t either.

Final words

While careful long-term goal setting is important, small incremental changes can add up to even greater gains over time. If you take away only one message let it be this: Constantly seek small improvements and try them out; apply just enough rigour to be sure they really were improvements.

Put it into action

Starting tomorrow

  1. Review any existing goals you have for your team
  2. Identify the next steps on those goals and check-in on them.

Over the next month

  1. Give retrospectives a try, if you aren’t using them already
    • Ensure you commit to at least one small change as a result
  2. Think about how your team goals help the organization and the team itself. Adjust them or propose new ones if they don’t seem very valuable.


Use the comments section below to share your successes, and let me know what you think. Do you have some great ideas I didn’t mention above? 

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