Building Sustainable High-Performance IT Teams

Teams play major roles in almost every area of IT, but it's a challenge to build high-performance teams that can stay together and generate top-quality work. Here's how.

Teams are pervasive in the world of IT, and they come in many different flavors. Short-lived, single-purpose teams are often assembled to get one task completed. Project-oriented teams construct multifaceted solutions addressing complex but finite problems, and product development teams tend to be diverse in composition but stable over time. Within many organizations, a great deal of energy goes into building high-output IT teams that are sustainable in the long term. To qualify as a high-performance, long-term team (HiLTT), the team must:

  • Consist of 10 to 25 IT professionals at various stages of career development.
  • Exist as a long-term (multiyear), sustainable entity.
  • Exhibit internal pride in its capabilities and accomplishments.
  • Display cohesive internal interactions.
  • Be self-managing and self-regulating.
  • Exhibit loyalty to team leaders and colleagues.
  • Produce significantly larger volumes of high-quality work than anyone might expect.

It's the last point that justifies the effort required to develop and manage a HiLTT. A well-formed and properly lead HiLTT can, and will, produce amazing results. But like any complex and finely tuned entity, HiLTTs are not easily constructed and can easily degrade to ho-hum.

While not impossible, it is significantly more challenging to mold an existing team into the HiLTT model than to start from scratch. While there are many recipes to bake this particular cake, it's always important to:

  1. Know your purpose.
  2. Consider your environment.
  3. Create a vision of what the team will look like.
  4. Plan your compensation model.
  5. Build a recruiting plan.
  6. Select and interview candidates.
  7. Integrate new hires into the team.

Know your purpose

You wouldn't purchase a vehicle without knowing what you intend to use it for, and you can't build a team without having a clear understanding of its reason for existence. Some teams are assembled to provide ongoing maintenance and enhancements to large, complex and slow-moving systems. Others are assembled to execute multiple, short-term, high-impact but short-lived projects. Long-term projects require mature and stable individuals. Rapid-development environments benefit from the exuberance and energy of younger team members, but strong group leadership must offset the inexperience of these members. Every time you consider a team member, ask yourself if the decision is congruent with your purpose. If not, if you start compromising for a specific individual or benefit, you will put your entire effort at risk.

Consider your environmentAs a business leader, there are things that affect your team that you can control and things that you cannot. You can control, for example, the group's culture, its assignments, tools, processes and practices. You can't control the corporate culture, corporate HR policies, customer requirements, and general economic and environmental issues.

An HiLTT works best in a controlled environment with minimal distractions and controlled interactions with the outside world. Within reason, a good manager builds a protective shield around his team, insulating its members from the things that might frustrate them, such as rigid working conditions and assembly-line-mentality time-reporting policies that are not consistent with the way a software development team operates.

By knowing your environment, you can determine what factors you need to insulate your team from. For example, let nonteam members know how they should interact with the team by defining policies and educating others on how to best leverage team resources. Project managers, end users and even company executives can create chaos when they interact directly with team members without regard for hierarchies and accountabilities. A casual comment or suggestion from the CEO of the company will send many developers off on a tangent believing that they have executive-level orders to change course and be independently creative. Identify those entities and processes that exist within your environment that may decrease productivity, and construct plans to mitigate them.

Create a vision of what your team will look like

Anyone who has browsed through a bookstore will know that there are many theories and models describing the organization of the ideal team. Some that have worked for me are:

  1. A hierarchy rather than a matrix. The clear lines of responsibility, authority and accountability inherent in a hierarchical structure are essential within most HiLTTs. Input from all team members is valuable, but a vision is crystallized in the head of one individual and then communicated to all team members through accepted and established channels. High output requires high coordination and strong leadership. Look at Microsoft during its early years.
  2. Define roles and assign clear responsibilities. Ambiguity leads to confusion about accountability. A lack of accountability is a short road to failure.
  3. Lead positions can be defined by technology area (for example, SharePoint or .Net development) or by business area (financial sector or health care). Business specialists are contributors to or consumers of HiLTT services rather than HiLTT team leads.
  4. In teams of 10 to 25 members, there should be at most three levels in the hierarchy. Each team should have one recognized, trusted and well-respected leader. This individual must personify the virtues that you are trying to instill in the team. Below the team lead, there may be two to four project leaders who will act rather autonomously and be responsible for significant deliverables.

Plan your compensation modelNow that the dotcom era is just a memory, you probably don't have gobs of money to pay the members of your team. Based on your available budget, you may have the luxury of recruiting the best and highest paid talent, or you may have to work hard looking for bargains. There is also the question of how much variation you want between the highest and lowest paid members of your HiLTT.

Don't underestimate the importance of compensation, but HiLTTs are not motivated by monetary drivers. HiLTTs are driven by the need for self-actualization, that is, by the need to grow, to be challenged, to be successful and to feel a strong sense of accomplishment and self-worth. HiLTTs thrive when composed of self-motivated team members. Compensation is an external motivator, and high compensation attracts a different kind of individual.

  1. Ensure that compensation levels are fair according to your market.
  2. Create meaningful--but not extreme--steps in the compensation model for different roles within the HiLTT.
  3. Remember that the paycheck is only one part of the compensation package. People are compensated for their hard work and loyalty by all the things you do for them, not just by how much money you pay them. Publicly and privately recognize their work, ensure that they are being properly mentored, give them training and the opportunity to try new things, and give them the respect that makes them feel valuable.

Build your recruiting plan

Recruiting is the most difficult and sensitive part of building an HiLTT. Mistakes here, while perhaps not fatal, can be very damaging and will inevitably require rapid remediation.

The first part of recruiting is deciding how you will find candidates. If your company has an HR department, you may allow it to source your candidates for you and do initial screening. While this can save time, there is a significant chance that HR will not truly understand what you're looking for and will not provide you with the resumes that you need. Try to work closely with one recruiter in your HR department and take the time to help him understand the kind of person you are looking for.

Similar considerations apply when dealing with placement agencies but are exacerbated by such agencies having many clients to satisfy. Try to find one or two agents with whom you connect and be loyal to them.

Advertising on job boards is both effective and painful. In the rock slide of unsuitable applicants, gems can be found. Here are some ways you can discourage the unsuitable and wade through the resumes that you receive:

  1. Always insist on a cover letter with the resume that highlights relevant experience. A good cover letter indicates a willingness to invest time and effort in the enterprise.
  2. Look for an employment pattern that suggests a balance between growth and stability. Both job jumping and career stagnation can be cause for concern.
  3. Even if English is not your candidate's first language, pay attention to presentation and accuracy in the resume and cover letter. Poorly formatted and organized resumes that contain careless errors are indicative of a person who is not detail oriented or is not motivated to impress you. Again, this reveals the candidate's attitude, attention to detail and degree of commitment to the job search process.
  4. Place significant weight on certifications and formal education. People with a strong formal background who recognize the value of achieving certifications are likely to be a good fit for your HiLTT.

Another method of locating candidates is through the "friends and family" route. I tend to avoid this route, as the candidates who come through this door may have strong preexisting emotional connections to team members.

Finally, you need to think about which roles to fill first and when to hire. I recommend starting with the most senior team member and then making this person instrumental in hiring the rest of the team. Take your time and hire well for this role--it's critical. After recruiting the most senior team member, start recruiting for the second level and then work your way down. Always maintain a good ratio of senior to junior staff so that you have adequate supervision and accountability at all levels of your hierarchy while you're building your full team.

Select and interview candidatesBy this point, you should have a short list of resumes (ideally about 10 per position) and select the top three or four for face-to-face interviews. Guidelines for selecting your best bets:

  1. Review technical skills and employment history carefully. Technical skills are often overstated, so look for matching certifications and work experience. Employment history should show a progression of skills development and increasing responsibility.
  2. Be cautious of lifelong contractors now looking for full-time employment. I have seen some of these turn back to contract work as soon as the market improves and a decent opportunity presents itself.
  3. Don't disqualify candidates because they have no North American experience. Along with being an underutilized pool of talent, these types of candidates tend to be grateful that you took a chance on them and can be fiercely loyal if you treat them well.
  4. Finally, be wary of both positive and negative stereotyping. While place of origin and education can affect cultural perspectives, leave the evaluation of cultural fit for the face-to-face interview.

Interviewing a candidate can be stressful for both parties at the table. Both have a lot to gain or lose. Two things to look for during an interview are technical ability and cultural fit; both are equally important. Evaluating technical ability tends to be rather dry, and everyone has his own procedures for this. Instead we'll focus on cultural fit.

Culture can include work ethic, dedication to task and team, loyalty, integrity and attention to detail. All these factors make individuals outstanding contributors to any community. Cultural fit is crucial when building an HiLTT.

In every team, there will be a distribution of technical skills and levels, but there can be only one standard for cultural values. There will be a tendency for people to migrate toward the lowest common denominator in cultural values, so set the bar high and lead by example.

Evaluating cultural fit is more art than science. A question like "Do you work hard?" or "Are you a team player?" will elicit only obvious replies. Spend more time on topics like family, pastimes and hobbies. You're working on a relationship, not inspecting cattle. As your applicant relaxes and opens up, you'll get a much clearer picture of the person, not just the interview mask that all candidates put on as they walk into your office.

Once you move past this first phase of the interview, describe your vision of the working environment you're building and your expectations of each team member. Don't hold back or dance around the fact that the bar is set high. The kind of people you are looking for will want that. If you see fear or hesitation, you're getting an early indicator that the person may not want to work to such high standards. If you get a bad feeling on the cultural fit, don't make excuses for the candidate--you're likely to regret it later.

Integrate new hires into the team

It's easy for a new hire to feel isolated while team members feel threatened by this new, unknown factor. To ease the transition and increase acceptance, appoint a mentor or principal peer within the team and make it clear that this person's role is to manage the integration of the new hire during the first four weeks of work. Make sure that the mentor or peer has enough time to pay attention to these duties, and try to assign the new person tasks that will offset the time burden being placed on her new best friend. Creating some common goals for the pair is an excellent way to drive the development of a working relationship and speed integration into the group.

The truth about team buildingNo matter how good your processes, and no matter how excellent your intentions, not every hire will work out. During the first weeks and months, you and your team members will learn a great deal about the new team member. A tightly knit team will have collectively embraced or rejected a new member within the first three weeks. Stay involved during this time, listen to your team members, take action quickly if things go off course, and be prepared to admit a bad match and replace the new hire if things don't work out. It's much too easy to look away and hope that things will work out. Things seldom do and, as the department lead, the greatest disservice you can do to your staff is to not fix your own mistakes.

With more than 25 years of experience working in the field of IT, David Donnelly rose through the ranks from junior developer to his current role as Director of Application Development Services at UNIS LUMIN Inc., a Microsoft Gold Partner servicing Ontario, Canada. With a history of building IT-oriented teams from scratch, Donnelly has many years of experience in IT team building for projects relating to commercial software development and contract development in areas such as sports medicine, financial services and government.

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7 secrets of successful remote IT teams