There are countless processes published that purport to deliver maximum effectiveness from a development team. What they really mean is that the process will maximise the effectiveness of the team as it currently exists. As the old adage goes:
You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear
The foundations for high performance teams are laid long before we overlay a development process. Technology organisations as it turns out are generally good at hiring top talent, but unlike other high-performance teams and organisations we are not good at sustaining that performance.
What’s the difference then between a high performance technical team and say a top-flight sports team? Well there are a few. Coincidentally we tend to start from the same place, but the approaches diverge as the process continues.
The technology industries and sports industries suffer under the same burden at the hiring phase. There is a limited talent pool from which to draw. Sports teams use talent scouts, technology organisations use recruiters and personal references.
A sports team will scout a player out, attend some events where they can see the player perform and develop an opinion on their abilities. Technology companies use past references and an analytic approach – in the form of a series of interviews – to determine those abilities. Whilst these approaches are different, the goal is the same – to whittle the large pool down to one or more candidates that show real potential. For the approach to work, you must have a crystal clear, measurable list of criteria that must be met. These criteria must be both hard skills and soft skills that indicate how well this person will work in a team scenario.
Be specific and clear on what hard measurements you require to join a team. Have an ancillary list of desirable behaviours or skills that put someone over the top. Don’t compromise.
Technology organisations can learn one key lesson from the sports world here, and some have:
Candidates should be put under pressure; they should be forced to bring their ‘A’ game to an interview and the company should be unforgiving in their appraisal of the candidate. All too often we are forgiving of a candidate because we’re trying to reinforce our own bias. That bias is based purely on the fact that we ‘selected’ the candidate for interview. If you’re not seeing an appropriate level, then you must be brutal at this stage. If you believe there’s a legitimate reason for the poor interview performance, then hold another interview – don’t just give someone a pass. Have you ever heard of an Olympic athlete who got to go to the games even though they lost every race? No, of course not.
Getting on to a team, whether it is a sports team, or a technical team should be an achievement in itself.
The seeds of the success of your team are sown here. Everyone should know that the person sitting to their left or right is a top player; has been through the wringer before getting a seat and can be relied upon to bring their best when the pressure is on.
Technology organisations and sports teams start to diverge in their approach from the moment the candidate has joined team.
In technology organisations we tend to run a three to six-month probation period where the new team member gets to justify their selection. If they meet the basic requirements – and bear in mind that we’re far too forgiving at this stage – they’re in for good and we take the spotlight off them.
Sports teams never finish their probationary period, you make the grade, or you go home. That situation exists from the day you walk in to the day you move on. The degree of latitude that a new team member has at the start is contingent on the team they’ve joined. A top-flight team in any sport will give a new player a couple of months at most to start to perform, but if they’re not delivering the goods then you’re dropped to the bench and often further.
Technology organisations need to develop processes to allow for this continuous evaluation. The moment a new hire walks in the door they should be greeted by an assigned mentor / buddy. That buddy is serving many roles: to guide the new team member in the cultural norms of the organisation and the team; to help them find their voice in the team; to help them navigate their new team and organisation but critically, and technology organisations almost always fall on this point, to continue to evaluate the new hire to see if they are meeting the expectations established during the interview process.
The probation period for new team members is there to determine if the opinions formed during the interview were correct. We are looking to prove that our selection was correct.
Too harsh? Not really. High performance teams don’t need to be told that their team mates deserve to be in the team. They know because those people constantly and consistently demonstrate their right to hold their position. This builds trust, confidence and most importantly interdependence between the individuals. It makes them into a cohesive unit. If one person is permitted to operate for too long outside of the standards of the team, the entire team will question their own efforts and overall performance will drop.
Continuous Assessment and the Off-Season
High performance teams know that there’s an off season. A team can’t run at 100% all the time. We need to balance the team’s time between the on and off season. Technology organisations naturally have an off season – generally where the majority of the team take their summer break. During this time the team is not entirely together or available. Technology organisations are dreadful at acknowledging that such a period exists. The off-season time should be used in exactly the same way as it is used by sports teams: recovery; recuperation; up-skilling (training) and rebuilding strategies and structures. All of this is in anticipation of the season to come. Finally, never, ever use performance during the off season as the basis for a performance review.
Recognise your off-season and use it for recuperation, training, strategising and restructuring
If technology organisations have an off-season, then logically they have an on-season. During this period there is a legitimate expectation that the entire team is performing at peak. There are no excuses during the on-season, perform or face consequences. All performance evaluation should be done during the on-season.
Performance evaluation on high performance teams is continuous. The moment a drift from the established levels is noted you must deal with it. You must have direct conversations on exactly what is being seen and what is expected. You must respect the person enough to be honest in your feedback. Even where leeway is being given, the team must know that there is an expectation and that their performance is being monitored on that basis.
High performance teams are constantly evaluated and are constantly being given feedback
It’s worth noting at this point that there is no requirement to be an overbearing ass when delivering the feedback. In point of fact, people are more open to criticism if they feel that their circumstances are being given equal consideration. Even the most professional sports star has off times where external or personal factors dominate their performance. A good manager recognises these situations and takes them out of the game for a period. Technology organisations seem to be very reluctant to ‘bench’ a team member for a week or two for the benefit of that person.
Rule 6 / 7
Your team is full of humans, not machines. Deal with them in that way with respect and understanding and you will gain their respect and trust.
If a team member is under-performing because of external or personal issues, do yourself and them a favour and take them out of the game for a period of time.
The range of challenges that face the ‘human condition’ are so wide and varied that the only logical approach is to give people space to deal with issues. Loyalty is built out of mutual respect and trust. If a person doesn’t believe that you genuinely have their best interests in mind, then they are going to curtail what they will do for you. It’s a reciprocal relationship. Treat your people as people and watch the results.
Continuous assessment and feedback logically makes periodic, formal performance reviews more straightforward. All too often technology organisations tell their people in generic terms how well they’re doing and then get to a performance review and hit their people with all the bad news. This is nonsense and simply poor management.
On a high-performance team everybody knows exactly how a formal performance review will play out. There are no surprises, and, if you’ve done everything right, nor should there be. Be honest and direct and the payoff is that you will have fewer difficult conversations during formal performance reviews.
There should be no surprises during a formal performance review
Triage and Dropping Team Members
In the technology world, our bodies are not subjected to the same stresses and strains as those in the sports arena. In theory, we should have a longer shelf life, but as with everything, a star will wane at some point.
Sports teams and technology organisations could not be further apart than at this stage. The world of high-performance sports, both amateur and professional is brutal, harsh and unforgiving. If you don’t make the mark, or someone else appears who is younger, faster, fitter, more skilled or maybe just has better eyesight and you’re out. Done. Career over for the most part. For those happy few who have had long and glorious careers, the option of coaching or managing. Bear in mind though that this represents about 0.2% of all professional players.
I wouldn’t ever advocate this approach to technical team management, well I would actually but usually just to get a reaction. Happily, we get to keep using our brains long after our bodies start to fail, so we don’t often have to force a team member to retire.
We do need to be ruthless in our management of under-performing team members. If you want to maintain a high-performance team, then you must ‘drop’ those members who regularly fail to meet the required standard.
What that drop means, and how it manifests very much depends on the organisation and its rules. There may be other more suitable positions in the organisation or perhaps not.
It is of vital importance though that poor performance is not seen to be rewarded. Loyalty, sure, length of service, alright, past success, ok, but poor performance being rewarded is the first crack in your high-performance armour.
Team members who consistently miss the mark are dropped. No excuses. Poor performance is never seen to be rewarded.
If there is the slightest indication that poor performance is somehow garnering a benefit, then your entire performance management system is undermined. Unrecoverably.
The best teams have strong captains. Often that person is not the most skilled, nor necessarily the strongest voice in the team, but they are a natural leader. The know how to marshal the wild, crazy, hyper talented and hyper sensitive cohort of people that comprises their team. They drive where necessary or defend and fight where appropriate. This person is common across every industry and sport. Hiring, training and supporting the captain ensures that you have eyes on the ground that will push your rules and your agenda.
Having found your captain, you must give them both space to operate and authority to make decisions.
Find a strong captain and support them
In conclusion, there are may areas of high-performance sports team development and management that we as technologists can learn from. If we genuinely are seeking to build the best performing team, then we must look to where those behaviours are exhibited. For all that sports and technology people make for strange bedfellows, and for all that the behaviours may not be the most natural to us, they have been demonstrated to work time and again.