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High performance teams: Playing to strengths

Richard Harpur
High performance teams: Playing to strengths
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In this third and final installment of your guide to creating a high performance team, let’s examine how to get the best from your team by playing to each person’s strengths. This isn’t about doing what team members want and nothing else. Instead, it’s about recognizing the strengths each individual team member can bring to your organization, being aware of their limitations and then structuring your organization around maximizing their contribution. This, when done correctly, is great for the organization and great for the individual team member. It is an essential component of creating a high performance team.

The following essential tips for playing to strengths are detailed below:

1. We are not all created the same

2. Assessing your team’s strengths

3. What your organization needs

4. Using your radar to identify skill gaps

5. Getting your team to gel

 

1. We are not all created the same

To build a high performance team you need to have an awareness of (and respect for) difference; one of the most important things to recognize is that not everyone you hire or work with will think, work and behave exactly like you do. What’s more, you really don’t want them to! Different people possess different strengths and weaknesses. It takes many different types of team members to make a successful team.

The skill set required for running a high performing operations division, for example, and ensuring that systems operate within SLAs (Service Level Agreements) and that users are satisfied is very different from the skill set needed to design and solve a business problem with a technical solution. Your team will need to be made up of different types of individuals that value different things. Being aware of the need for different skills will help you to move more quickly in positioning your team members into the correct roles, and in hiring new team members to fill gaps you witness in your team’s composition.

Consider this real-world scenario: One team member is highly driven in their database role. They’re motivated by learning new technology, attending conferences and training. They value learning new things, staying current with technology and applying new technology to existing problems. Another team member is simply one of the best best service delivery people in the industry. These two team members, with very different personalities, strengths and talents, would complement each other and together deliver far more than either could deliver on their own.

The analogy of 2+2=5 is often overused, but if you can recognize the differences in your team members and get them working in a complementary manner you can achieve great synergies.

2. Assessing your team’s strengths

So, how do you assess your team’s strengths? The answer to this question depends on how well you already know each individual. Have you worked with them for years, or are you about to hire new team members? Depending on the scenario you encounter, there are various methods for assessing your team members.

You can learn a lot about your team members by simple observation. Observe how they undertake their day-to-day responsibilities. Are they very organized, well planned, and is work delivered on time with no surprises? Maybe they are more creative and always bringing new discoveries and suggestions for better ways of doing things, but could not plan the simplest of tasks with any degree of accuracy. Observe, but remember that your own biases may influence an objective assessment of your team members’ strengths. You need more data, but beginning with observation is a key step.

A good method that gives you far greater coverage in terms of assessing your team members’ strengths is to listen to your team members. You must do this in the correct sequence in order for it to work successfully.

Once you’ve observed and listened, you may begin to establish trust. If you can establish trust among your individual team members, they are more likely to come to you with feedback and assessment of their peers. More data for you to form a more complete picture of who you’re working with. Take feedback and act on it appropriately to increase the flow of information you receive. In time, all your team members will learn they can provide honest, candid feedback to you, and then directly to each other. Establish an open channel for trusted feedback from your team members about your team members, and even about you.

Let’s assume your IT Operations Manager comes to you with concerns about a new solution that is going to be deployed. The Solution Architect has notified the Operations Manager that he wants to put a new solution into production next week. The Operations Manager has requested the documentation for the new solution, so that all required documentation can be written up and training of the operations team can take place. The Solution Architect responds by saying, there is nothing complicated in the new solution and there is no need for documentation. What we can observe here is that the Solution Architect may be very strong on the design and delivery of new technology, but is not really that interested in the on-going support and maintenance of this new technology or the customer impact.

The Operations Manager, on the other hand, is more concerned about the on-going support and customer impact than the solution itself. The Operations Manager doesn’t really care about the type of solution or, to some degree, what it does or how it does it. They are intensely concerned about how they can ensure that this solution keeps operating and doesn’t cause an issue for the users.

If this scenario occurs in your organization, you can take comfort in that it appears that you have the correct people in the correct roles already! The Solution Architect is solely concerned about creating new technology and solving business problems with technology. The Operations Manager is concerned with keeping the lights on, all the time. Yes, they also care about solving a business problem, but they see their day-job as one where they ensure all systems are operational at the time they are supposed to be. However, this example indicates that the Operations Manager doesn’t trust the Solution Architect fully, maybe because of previous experience.

To help create high performance team, you need to improve the interaction between the two team members and establish greater trust between them. This can be achieved by the Solution Architect understanding and respecting the views and concerns of the Operations Manager, and likewise the Operations Manager needs to get a better understanding of the needs of the Solution Architect. You may need to broker this in the early days, but once you have set it in motion it should gather pace and you will see a deep respect for the interdependence that is being recognized.

Another method, and a faster method than raw observation over time as described above, is to use a type of psychometric assessment. These assessments can be very useful when you do not know the individual you wish to assess. You have no opportunity to assess the individual’s past performance. In these cases, using psychometric assessment is a good alternative. This type of assessment is commonly undertaken during the interview stage, to help organizations select candidates and position them within the team once their profile is known.

You can also run such tests on your existing team members to help you validate your own assessment through observation.

3. What your organization needs

Every organization will have different needs at different stages. Depending on the stage of your organization, you will have different requirements from your team. high performance will mean different things to you if you oversee a startup doing two releases per day, as opposed to overseeing a mature enterprise doing two releases per year.

If you are a startup organization and trying to launch the first product, a high performance team for you means having a team that can anticipate the needs of the customer, build the product with reasonable quality and do this quickly. At this stage of maturity your organization is selling to customers that value the solution you are bringing to their problem, and if the product is a little rough around the edges, it is not a blocker to using the product.

Fast forward to when you are a more mature organization selling to large enterprises. These customers will be looking for the product features of course, but there are a lot of other things that might become showstoppers, blocking the sale to these larger customers. For example, something like single sign on (SSO) may be required so that the enterprise customer can authenticate users with their own active directory and manage user accounts centrally. 24x7 support or localization into different languages might be essential to secure such enterprise customers.

When you are creating a high performance team, you need to be aware of the maturity stage of your organization as well as what you need to deliver to customers, and then identify the gaps within your organization accordingly. If you remain with the organization and see the transition from startup with a single product through to securing multiple enterprise customers, you will have to regularly redefine what is meant by a high performing team, and reconfigure your team accordingly.

4. Using your radar to identify skill gaps

Sometimes you cannot create a high performance team with the team members available to you or the environment and constraints within which you operate. You need to be able to recognize when you are faced with such a situation, otherwise you will become bewildered after trying and failing many different configurations of your team.

Based on real events in Boston harbor, the Nut Island effect refers to team members working as hard as they possibly can within an environment set up to fail or erode over time. Team members begin to lose touch with reality, or at least the reality of a properly managed environment, as they struggle to do the best they can with wholly inadequate funding, resources and support from leadership. Only when things go horribly wrong does support arrive, but that is after significant damage is done.

Talk to others outside of your organization to undertake a sanity check and ensure that you and your team are not suffering from the Nut Island effect. By recognizing this yourself you can avoid a major issue and minimize damage for your organization. Furthermore, you cannot create a high performing team if they’re playing the wrong game.

5. Getting your team to gel

This guide is all about creating high performance teams, not high performance individuals that work for the same organization. Teamwork needs to be fostered, supported and mentored.

As a leader, you need to forge links between team members, establish the norm open feedback and build mutual respect. If you can get these elements working, high performance will result.

First, establish bi-lateral relationships with your team members—one-to-one relationships with trust and respect being the key drivers. Continue by getting the individual team members to work more closely. Instead of having strict one-to-one weekly meetings, change these to one-to-two weekly meetings, whereby the trust and respect starts to triangulate. Continue with this approach until you have all your team members in a single weekly meeting, and you no longer need to have those time consuming one-to-one meetings. By doing this you will establish trust and respect across your entire team.

Once you’ve established a high performance team, you’ll know it! You can become a satisfied observer, watching your team work the way you want them to work. They will do this without reverting to you for affirmation and will begin to surprise you by bringing forward improvements and advancements that you have not thought of. Remember that the definition of a high performance team will change as your organization grows, matures and changes over time. Your high performance team may need to change multiple times to stay in synch with the organizations demands, but you’ve got the skills to get it done right, and your organization will benefit greatly for years to come as a result.

Learn something new. Take control of your career.
Richard Harpur

Richard Harpur

Richard is a highly experienced technology leader with a remarkable career ranging from software development, project management through to... See more