A Day in the Life

A day in my life. Thoughts on leadership, management, startups, technology, software, concurrent development, etc... Basically the stuff I think about from 10am to 6pm.


Company Leadership: The Power of Team and How to Make One

I’ve read well liked authors and thought that their books were crap. Why? Because the authors didn’t convince me that they knew what they were talking about. This tends to happen with authors who are writing about smart people or complex situations. The characters that a writer creates can not be smarter than the writer. For the situations to be believable the writer must work within the limitations of their own creative state. Individuals are limited.

Writing and creating to please the masses may get you points in some places but in the software industry it will only buy you the status quo and it will eventually put you out of business. We can create as ourselves, create down to common accepted practice, or create up by embracing a team. Put together a group of folks, challenge them into becoming a team, and the creative energies can increase exponentially. The higher the creative juices, the higher the quality of the effort.

Creating a team is a people process. Here is how you do it:

  1. Identify the purpose of the team. When initialing building a team it is vital that you (the team leader) understand why you’re building the team. The reason must make sense and it must have a clear end result or objective. You can not successfully build a team if you do not have a clearly defined goal for them to work towards. Make sure that the goal is something that requires some stretch or challenge. And make sure it’s something that you can explain. Until it is, you can’t sell anyone on it and you can’t build a team.

  2. Understand each individual on your team. No two people are a like. So your first job is to get a basic understanding of the individuals on your team. Few of us are ever lucky enough to pick our entire team. If you do get to pick people, make sure that you select enough team players to create a core. This will make the team building process much smoother. Keep in mind that it is human nature to follow the group. Having a core of team players can kick start the others into joining. You need to know each person’s skill set, experience level, interests (related to the project), communication style, etc... The more you know about them the better you will be able to facilitate action.

  3. Create visibility. Teams happen when people have a common cause that they are emotionally committed to coupled with a sense of responsibility to the others in the group. To let people know how their work affects others you need to create visibility. Each project and team is different so how you create visibility is up to you. But you must do this. If you find that there is someone who just can’t get it. Drop him. If you need him for some specialized expertise - use him as a consultant. Do not keep him on the team. One person can throw off the group dynamics and neutralize the team.

  4. Have the group identify the milestones. You know the goal. You should have some mental picture of what is needed to achieve the goal. Guide your team through the process of identifying the milestones. You may have some reading material or research you can assign them before your milestone meeting. Do that. A team must have control over how they achieve the goal. Your job is to guide them. Don’t micromanage them. Just make sure that they stay within the defined boundaries such as technology limitations, budget, time, etc...

  5. Assign roles. The group exercise should have given you a feel for any people who might need special handling (ego stroking, extra help), as well as identifying people who have more than you expected. Anonymously allow each team member to tell you what role they want to fill. Have them give you first, second, third choices; more if the project warrants that. I tell my teams that if there is something in particular that you want to work on let me know. Otherwise I’m just going to assign you where I think you should be.

    Deciding on which role to assign which team member is a balancing act between the current skills of each member, providing a learning experience, overall team dynamics, the needs of the project, and the needs of the company. A lot to think about. When you’ve decided on roles you will find that there are some key project elements. Nail those down first. Talk to the people associated with the key roles first and get a commit from them. Do this privately. Be ready to negotiate. Get individual, one-on-one buy in from each person. Don’t expect everyone to be happy when you have finished this exercise. That is not likely to happen. But everyone will have been heard and that makes them respected. Respecting someone will often get you more points than liking them.

    If you’ve identified any bad apples eliminate them now. Don’t eliminate someone just because they will be hard to work with or you don’t like them. Eliminate people who failed to emotionally buy into the project and who were disdainful of their peers. If you’re stuck with them, stick them someplace on the project where no one else is dependent on their work, and keep a close eye on them.

  6. Take the team to lunch. Silly right? But take people out to lunch once a week. At your expense. Yes, I am telling you not to expense the lunch. At least not at first. Why? Because if you pay for it, then people will perceive that you care about them and the project. Make sure that the lunch conversations focus on...life. Social bonding during the ritual of eating is wired into us. Start conversations that the others will pick up and then just listen. Ask people about current events, shows, movies, music, or sports. Draw them out. Let them find people that they share common interests with. Your job as the team leader is to create opportunities for the team to become emotionally involved with each other. And that includes you, so make sure that you contribute to the conversations. Team players help each other. But asking for help can be hard, by letting people bond in a casual environment you help them build trust in each other. Making it easier to ask for and receive help.

  7. Meet regularly. A regular weekly status meeting is a good thing for team building. I’ve talked to a lot of managers and employees who absolutely hate meetings and think that they are a waste of time. I disagree. The meeting should be short and structured. Your objective during the meeting is to create visibility into each person’s tasks and accomplishments. Make sure that you have a standard agenda and stick to it. I suggest strongly that you ask each person if there was any really cool problem they solved that week or trick they learned. Celebrate (tactfully and appropriately) accomplishments and milestones. Also find out if there are any problems that are slowing them down and encourage others to assist with sticky problems. Reward any and all behavior that makes the team bonds stronger. A reward can be as simple as buying someone a beer.

Building teams is about taking a group of people who don’t know or care about each other and getting them to a state where they are emotionally bonded to each other, then driving them to some challenging goal. Create opportunities for team members to gain respect for each other, to help each other, to care about each other, and to shine. As the team leader you can only help that happen by creating bonding opportunities. And those opportunities will never bear fruit if you don’t lead by example: by respecting people, caring about people, and helping people.


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