Six leadership activities to sustain high-performance software teams
High Performing Teams (HPTs) are the pinnacle of many businesses today. This is especially true in the software space, where competition for talent and skills is prominent. HPTs are those that take on a life of their own and are largely self-sustaining (10 Leadership Techniques). However, this doesn’t happen by accident. Teams can only be self-sustaining if they’re operating in an environment that fosters certain leadership features.
Successful leaders build their teams around one simple goal: to create a space where people are charged with energy, can thrive, have a sense of belonging, and love to work as a team (Forbes).
In the software industry, the pressure to deliver flawless software craftsmanship is intense. As such, building HPTs is essential, but sustaining those teams and ensuring job satisfaction and the promise of meaningful work is what can keep a solid team together and delivering consistently.
Here are six activities leaders can perform to create these spaces to help sustain their HPTs:
1. Set goals for individuals and the team as a whole
Once you’ve built an HPT, it's important to understand that, in order for the team to remain so, it’s best to adopt iterative processes – with each new project, deadline or team member. Using team goal frameworks can help you identify areas for improvement and, ultimately, lead to growth and increased job satisfaction.
Our team has had great success using good ol’ SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. Conducting individual SWOT analyses and discussing each team member’s personal analysis provides a better idea of perceptions in the team and where energy should be focused: It can be informative to see how people interpret their own situations. Using this in my own team has helped me identify areas to improve team dynamics.
Another well-known framework is SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timely) goals. Develop SMART goals collaboratively with your team to build inclusive objectives. Your team's goals need to be in the back of everyone's mind, whether you reiterate your goals in stand-ups, display progress on a dashboard or communicate them regularly. Keep track of people's goals and SWOT analyses as this will form the backbone for planning their personal development and guide performance conversations. At Entelect, we have an internal platform I use for capturing conversations like this, but Google Docs or Evernote also work well.
2. Articulate and share your strategy
Share your strategy with the team. This is often overlooked in favour of goals, but goals are not strategies. Goals define the destination; strategies define the path taken, trade-offs and unique activities involved in executing a plan to reach your goals. Sharing strategy includes the team in a joint vision to strive towards and may help in increasing motivation and accountability to achieve a higher goal. Understanding the twists and turns involved in following a strategy also provides team members with added meaning in their work, which in turn stimulates job satisfaction.
Often, technical teams are the last ones to hear about new innovations, products or integrations in their pipeline. If you want the choir to sing on pitch, get everyone's buy-in and follow a unified strategy. It’s no secret that leaders can grow and retain great people by helping them have their say about the company or product’s long-term vision. Sometimes, the most unexpected people have the most awe-inspiring input to give.
3. Optimise operational efficiency
Operational efficiency is key to executing your strategy. But operational efficiencies are not static processes. They too are iterative and require constant review and diagnosis. There are a few areas where you can help to optimise general operations. Positive changes to these areas will help create a space where people can focus on their strengths and grow.
On-boarding can be one of the best ways to create a good first impression in any team environment. In an HPT, the on-boarding process must convert new team members into fully functioning team members as quickly as possible.
Some of the essential activities for new members of High Performing Teams are:
- Becoming comfortable working together and accomplishing tasks with minimal hand-holding.
- Communicating well in the team and utilising their tools and practices.
- Picking up the business domain relatively quickly and interacting with key stakeholders with confidence.
Consider using tools to help your new teammate progress through their on-boarding, such as a Trello board (here). My team and I introduced an on-boarding process using Trello at one of our big corporate clients where we on-board 30-plus people throughout the year. It helped us keep track of where our team members are at and quickly see if someone needs help.
Centralised and structured knowledge sharing greatly improves productivity and efficiency. In larger companies and teams, you often find a lot of duplicated efforts because of weak or non-existent knowledge-sharing facilities or practices. Be sure to share standards and tools used across the company and team to reduce rework and build on solid foundations contributed by others.
We have used wikis to great success to create ad hoc specification, document startup guides for developers and business analysts, share nifty SQL scripts, document go-to guys and business owners in our teams and partners - pretty much anything that would be of value for someone else, we try and offload here.
Instill the values in your team to look after their collective knowledge and you’ll add to their sense of job satisfaction and help sustain the level of quality delivery and pace that an HPT is renowned for.
Provide high-bandwidth, low-latency communication tools. High-bandwidth communication channels allow a great amount of information to be transferred between parties but often have long delays associated with it. Email is a prime example of this. Low-latency communication channels allow for quick turnaround times.
Help your team to find a balance and the tools to improve the quality of communication. Recently, our team had the opportunity to work closely with teams on different continents and in different timezones. With this new challenge, we had to re-evaluate our communication tools to promote shorter feedback loops and provide an adequate level of detail.
Process and red tape
Rigid and formal rules can kill a team’s productivity. Eliminate processes that diminish your team’s autonomy and authority. This definitely speaks to the agilist in that you need to value people over process. Put principles in place that allow people to adapt quickly and deliver quality.
4. Empower people to make decisions
Many business leaders overestimate their abilities to build teams and make decisions for them. If you fail to realise that you should not be the centre of all decision making, you will never be able to retain HPTs.
Create an environment for growth and empowerment. Empowerment means giving people the means and mandate to make more decisions that influence their work on a daily basis.
Leaders often mistake their roles as being the ones who direct the daily operations and tasks that get dished out to team members. But true leaders create an environment where other forms of leadership can emerge organically and flourish. Nurture and encourage leadership of all kinds.
Here are some basic rules for empowering your team members:
1. It should always be incremental - Don't dump someone in a situation that could be overwhelming.
2. There should be appropriate control in place - Facilitate and moderate appropriately.
3. Replace control with accountability - as ability increases, loosen your control and hand over responsibility AND accountability. There is no responsibility without accountability.
5. Apply situational leadership techniques
There is a wide range of leadership styles and almost everyone possesses leadership qualities that can be tapped into. One way to look at these leadership styles is to classify them according to their strengths in the three components outlined by Gerald M. Weinberg in “Becoming a technical leader”:
Motivational leadership - a leader who can motivate a team due to his or her technical ability.
Organisational leadership - a leader who can help create an environment for the team to perform at a high level (think tools, processes, mentorship and culture)
Innovation leadership - a leader who controls the flow of new ideas and encourages innovation.
Juggling these styles, given the situation and individuals at hand, can give your team the edge it needs to outperform. We have a handful of extremely talented and technical-minded developers in our team. Giving them the opportunity to lead our initiatives on a technical front has enabled us to adopt new technologies quickly, with the confidence that our top guys and girls have approved the team’s move.
6. Promote constant learning and improvement
Individual and team development plans can help you carve out a path for growing your team. Do you invest time, money and energy into your own people? Do you give them the same focus and attention you want them to provide your company?
The most important thing a leader can do for their team members is to facilitate continuous feedback. Promoting constant learning and improvement makes people more likely to stay on board and engaged; remaining loyal and helping your company on its journey. The threat of people leaving your organisation will always be there. However, the key is to make a concerted effort to invest in each employee and make them feel like a valuable, indispensable asset (while they’re there). Spend time with them, nurture them, and watch as the magic happens.
These six leadership activities all include constant review and diagnosis. Nothing can be static. An HPT can only be sustained if it is constantly evolving. Fostering the values outlined here will not only build High Performance Teams but also increase retention. These practices may seem daunting to implement, but start to incorporate them, one-by-one, in your team. Remember, small steps add up to big improvements over time.
Perhaps ask yourself, what vital principles, practices or values have your teams benefitted from most?