The Überteam

Yaacov Apelbaum-The Team

A High Performance Team in Action

It’s tempting to view all development teams as homogeneous masses that operate with equivalent efficiency. When looking for ways to improve our team productivity, we tend to overlook the human factor in the equation and either embrace new management methodologies or focus on incrementally improving some existing processes (i.e. requirements management, bug tracking, etc.).

Certainly, there is always room for process optimization and by doing so, we can probably realize some additional efficiencies. But ultimately, these actions will translate to a relatively small enhancements to the team’s overall performance.

In order to realize an order of magnitude improvement, we need to focus on the cornerstone of the technology and development process, the “individual”. It has been shown in numerous studies (e.g. Steve McConnell’s Rapid Development) that different teams within the same organization can have significantly varying delivery efficiencies.

So how do we explain the formation of islands of excellence within the same organization? After all, don’t all teams within the company share the same HR resources, training, tools and culture?

The short answer is that operational excellence has a lot to do with management style, team structure, and makeup. Let me explain.

Building and managing strong development teams goes beyond the simple managing of developers to quarterly objectives and delivering functional products. What sets apart a high performance team from the garden variety team is that in addition to delivering acceptable products, the high performance team tends to exhibit more loyalty and less splintering. It works smarter, is more creative, is more cohesive and its members are more independent. A high performance team has certain qualities and a distinct spirit which emanates from the individuals in the team.

A high performance team’s esprit de corps is derived from a strong sense of individual belonging, common culture and shared vision. Building and managing this type of a team requires a clear definition of the team’s identity, documented history of success (and failure!), the cultivation of elitism (i.e. an aggressive selection process which makes team membership a coveted privilege), stoking the competitive fire (identifying the competition and targeting it), striving for being different than others and having a reputation for taking on and delivering difficult assignments. Above all, it should be a fun and intellectually rewarding environment.

Even though high performance teams are independent of project type and technology (they are certainly not limited to early stage startups), they all share certain characteristics. I call these the Seven Golden Habits, they are:

  1. Preach and Practice Honesty and Integrity – Always insist that all team dealings and communications (internal and external) be honest and open. The primary building block of all human relationships and the cornerstone of good leadership is integrity (both professional and personal), so you must show personal integrity (in moral decisions always follow the "Et si omnes ego non" principal) and instill its importance in your directs and their team members. You can always explain incompetence and overcome it. Not so with dishonesty and poor integrity.
  2. Promote Proficiency and High Technical, Operational and Personal Standards – Place strong emphasis on recruiting bright and talented individuals who are passionate about their work and are domain experts. Demand that each team member provides leadership in one or more areas. Work with each team member to develop customized training and professional growth plans and make sure that each has a clearly defined career path that goes beyond basic corporate training (plans for an advanced degree, leadership opportunities, professional certifications, etc.). Inspire them to continually learn so as to further excel. Organize training in emerging technologies, standards and best practices. Promote industry visibility for team members by encouraging them to present papers at conferences and to publish. Public visibility for individual members = visibility for you and the entire team.
  3. Emphasize Accountability and Responsibility – Carefully delegate responsibility and provide your directs and team members with ample opportunities for exposure and high visibility success. Never micro manage! At the same time, expect all assignments to be completed promptly and with a high level of quality. Do not tolerate procrastination and repeated failure to deliver projects on time, over budget or with inferior quality. Provide talented team members with frequent leadership opportunities. Generously give credit where it is due and swiftly sanction habitual underperformers.
  4. Promote Cultural Diversity, Sociability and Friendliness – Recruit heterogeneous individuals (promote cultural, racial and gender diversity). Consider the stimulating exchange of ideas between team members critical for team success as well as for your own personal growth as a manager. As such, encourage the establishment of forums and strategies to build strong collaborative teamwork, some of which may include: inner team mentoring and tutoring, brown bag technical luncheons and sponsorship of after work activities. Do not tolerate any abusive behavior within your team. Get to know each team member personally. Learn about their hobbies, their family and their personal concerns.
  5. Stop the Buck and Delegate – Serve as a single executive focal-point for your management and directs (handling both inbound and outbound escalations). Build, motivate and promote inner team leadership and a successful culture that is based on mutual benefits. Empower direct reports to contribute to the development strategy, while insuring that their action plans and implementations are based on the official strategic goals and well defined market opportunities.
  6. Develop a Competitive and Rewarding Workplace – Institute spot cash bonus programs and prizes (gift cards are a favorite), permit a certain amount of telecommuting when possible, subsidize technical books, on-line education, and hardware and software for personal use, place strong emphasis on social bonding (including after work hours activities and membership in online social networks).
  7. Deal with Ambiguity Effectively – Due to their intangible nature, ambiguity and uncertainty can have devastating effects on any development team. Ambiguity tends to increase with project size and complexity and can stem from many sources that may not be under your team’s control (i.e. budget, schedule, requirements, technology, strategy, etc,). You should expect ambiguity as a given and develop approaches to elevate and counter its effect on your team’s ability to shift gears quickly without having all the facts.

    Some of the coping techniques I have used to deal with ambiguity include:

  • Avoid "analysis paralysis" and “deadlocks” – Even though most of us subscribe to a structured, orderly and predictable management methodology, in the absence of more information, you should feel comfortable relying on your team’s advice as well as your personal experience and intuition to reach a decision without endlessly pondering all of the options.
  • Keep clear from the tried-and-true trap – Under conditions where the work threatened by various conditions of uncertainty, traditional solutions may not be feasible, you should push the team to innovate, think out the box, and take prudent risks to insure that business objectives are met.
  • Manage the effects of ambiguity on the team – Understanding the relationship between anxiety, impatience and uncertainty, you should work to develop an effective communication plan and control the effects of uncertainty on the team by: providing daily communication (meetings, e-mails, briefings, etc.), fighting rumors, requiring every team member to provide constructive suggestions, eliminating team splintering and factioning, speaking externally with a single voice, and avoiding finger pointing and blame.

These rules work well whether you are first forming a new team or transitioning forward a mature (and perhaps stubborn) one. Whatever the constellation of your corporate environment and culture is, these are tried and true methods that will yield significant improvements in operational efficiency and product quality.

Contrary to the old adage, you certainly can (and should!) teach an old pooch new tricks.

Good luck!

© Copyright 2008 Yaacov Apelbaum All Rights Reserved.

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  1. Willie Kinnett
    January 14, 2014 at 1:10 am

    It looks like your ideas are more applicable to a startup. Any advice on how you would apply these team building principals in a corporate setting?

  2. August 12, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    Hi Willie,

    From my experience, these ideas work well in any environment where software is developed. You may need to adjust or emphasis some of the pointers (i.e. team building, career path planning, etc.) but all of them are battle tested and will yield great results.

    Let me know if you need specific questions about any of the items. You can always reach me via email: Y (at) YaacovApelbaum.com

    Yaacov

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