Supporting a Technology Team

Technologies build the future. Teams deeper in a technology than ourselves are all around us – providing support at a vendor, evaluating you as a customer, reporting to you, supporting you indirectly, or in some other format.

0/ People first.

As with any group – a team, regardless of their nature – is a collection of individuals who have their own needs, wants and lives. Treat them as individuals, treat them with respect and establish trust. Be sincere. Insincerity is more obvious in demanding situations – trust takes time.

1/ Set goals.

“Tell them the goal, not how to do it – then let them surprise you.” Phil Knight, Shoe Dog

Set clear goals. Create alignment around those goals by getting input and feedback.

A team with a goal that is incorrect will outperform one with no goal. Goals make it possible to budget time and confirm you’ve got the right resources. In the absence of a clear strategic goal, start with basic SMART goals.

Energy is required to create change. Spend energy wisely. Team members who can create success flourish when allowed to show their creativity. Crafting goals and building alignment brings out the most in team members.

A great deal of turmoil, morale issues and other team challenges can be addressed by stating the goal and framing how it can be achieved.

2/ Trust, but verify.

“Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Start from a position of trust. You need this team because they have capabilities and expertise that you do not have. This team has been chosen over other options (other teams, other methods, or even the option of no team). What is the point in choosing a team that you do not trust?

Ask questions to help the team educate you. Be prepared. Do not flaunt your preparation. Do not, do not, do not reference worthless credentials from years ago. If the team cares about your credentials, or if the team wants your background – they will ask. You are in their world and you need their help. Your effort to understand and your ability to keep your mouth shut is your passport that allows you entry.

Questions may uncover a Trust Issue (TM), or an Obvious Unstated Issue (TM). Individual questions can yield better results than group dialog in these scenarios. Allowing avoidance of embarrassment can accelerate dialog. Crafting scenarios which allow reversal of past beliefs permits open dialog. Creating social permission for change is a valuable skill that benefits from facts and transparency.

3/ Teams outperform individuals.

Modern technology problems are most efficiently solved with teamwork. Open debate and collaboration will beat a brilliant individual functioning as a top-down, command-and-control leader. A good team will beat a brilliant individual. A good team of brilliant individuals is unstoppable.

4/ Methods beat goals.

Teams should craft their own plans to achieve the goal [1]. Drafting a plan for a team may work – but over time this is less effective. A team that drafts a plan owns the plan. Teams that draft their own plan show more creativity, more resilience and are more likely to succeed than teams that simply follow instructions. Using well known methods allows the team to deliberately move ahead and provides insurance if it turns out that the original goal [1] turns out to be incorrect.

Goal modification is a fact of life – robust methods are insurance against such changes.

A plan, once drafted, is put up for debate. The dialog should be open and collaborative. Debate and input from all is important. Identifying as many of the needed steps and dependencies is essential. (In a perfect world, we should follow Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints and Critical Chain Project Management methods. That can take time to implement.)

With steps identified, time and resources can be identified. Milestones are often needed to anticipate approval steps and future sign offs.

5/ Share context.

Resistance can come in many formats.

“We don’t want to set a goal, as we haven’t hit one in this industry yet.”

“We don’t want to set a plan, as we know it will change.”

Team’s come with their own history and their own context. Things that worked for you may have just failed for them. We know from [1] that ordering people about is a short term tactic that eventually plays out.

Resistance needs to be met with context and patience. Commercial perspective is often important in helping a technology team understand the goal and develop suitable solutions.

Teams will often want context from someone other than you. This is normal and if possible can be a great way to encourage a broader perspective.

6/ Create transparency.

There are many ways to create transparency – especially as the Goal is published and reinforced. Good plans allow for simple metrics to track progress – often referred to as Key Performance Indicators (“KPIs”). Picking the right KPIs is part of the debate.

Finding the right KPIs is also part of the debate. Great KPIs allow quick benchmarking across teams. KPIs track progress across time if peer projects are not available.

“Same book, different chapters.”

Transparency can slide into information overload. Big projects have many facets. Every team member can’t possibly know every part – in the same way that a leader cannot know every activity of the team. All parts of the plan must be internally consistent. Different parts of the team may read different chapters, but each chapter is from the same book.

7/ Small teams are good.

“Figure out the right number of people and remove one.” – Bill Gates

Teams require budgets. Leaders who measure life accomplishments by headcount are unlikely to beat those who focus on profitability. Large teams require coordination that cost time and effort. Technology has many components and requires integration of many fields – excess team members cost more in coordination than they pay back in productivity. Teams should be as small as possible. And then get rid of one person.

The small team that has been built should have as many possible skills that help achieve the goal given the number of people on that team. Diversity is good. Diversity comes in many flavors; functional role, geography, education level, gender, race and more.

Broad perspective accelerates the debate required of good planning. Leaders of culturally narrow teams must be active in creating feedback loops.

8/ Remove constraints.

Constraints stand between the team and the goal. Constraints may arise even earlier – preventing the setting of a goal or the creation of a plan. Remove and address constraints as they arise. If there are no constraints – evaluate and reframe goals to uncover constraints.

A system that has no constraints is not operating at capacity and resources can be deployed elsewhere. If constraints are not clear, simulating a repetition of the goal can be useful in identifying other considerations.

“What if we hit the goal, but then the company / customer / market needs us to do it all again, but in 1/2 the time?”

Leaders set goals, facilitate planning and remove constraints. Constraints come in many forms. Leaders can often create more constraints than they remove when working with new teams!

Christensen’s “Resources / Systems / Priorities” framework is effective in highlighting possible constraints. Large companies often find constraints in too many ineffective systems and too few useful systems. Small companies find constraints in resources – most often in personnel or assets. Both large and small companies can be constrained with poor use of priorities.

Sidenote: Firing a Colleague

Any ethics violation or insurmountable Trust Issue(TM) merits a firing. Fraud, gross negligence, safety and health issues are not tolerable. In these scenarios, firing should be assumed, with the onus of explanation being on the individual. Thorough investigation is required to determine the scope of the problem.

In general, development is the preferred course to termination for an employee with a bad fit to their current role. Institutional memory and respect is important. Firing as a motivational tool for those that remain can be effective only a few times before it causes a major shift in the company’s reputation among potential recruits.

A underperforming individual should be fired when:

• Coaching is not effective.

• Any possible new position interferes with the project where they were previously staffed. If they can’t let go after having been moved on – then they will slow the progress the company needs.

• It has been shown that they do not have the skill set needed for the position they are in, and it isn’t possible to coach them up.

• If an employee has been put through a notice and improvement process, but not shown effort to improve.

• The individual has shown continual, repeated failure over a long time horizon and not shown enough initiative to improve the company’s position.

• Failure without learning is costly.


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