Illustration by Matt Peet
The focus in building high-performing engineering teams often zeroes in on assembling the best developers possible, then leading them to work well together. That’s all well and good—but the sole emphasis on development misses an entire half of the equation: the company strategy.
The best-performing development teams don’t just work in service to their organization’s strategy, and they definitely don’t work in isolation from it. And the ones that do will find themselves falling short of their potential.
Instead, according to Agile coach and Pluralsight author Dragana Hadzic, developers that are connected to and motivated by strategy find the most success. Companies need to align strategy and development in order to achieve their primary goals.
“Everyone needs to be aware about the importance of this alignment,” Hadzic says. “Everyone in this collaboration has a specific role.”
Hadzic is an Agile coach and senior manager at Levi9 Technology Services, where she has worked up the software development and managerial ranks for the last decade. She got her start as a software developer at Fondiaria-Sai and as a researcher in the Faculty of Science at the University of Novi Sad. She’s worked in international, distributed and co-located environments, and she’s a Pluralsight author focused on building high-performance teams. Her drive is to empower teams to do their best work, and to create environments that support continuous improvement and high-value delivery.
In our interview with Dragana, she dives into the factor that defines the highest-performing teams, and how leaders can ensure those tech teams are connected and aligned with the company strategy at all levels of the development process.
Distinguish the best teams with a sense of purpose
In her work with dozens of software teams across various organizational structures, Hadzic has tried to understand what distinguishes the best teams from the rest.
She has narrowed her results to a series of simple answers with complex depth—things such as shared team values, communication and quality leadership. But she’s concluded that the characteristic that carries the most influence is a sense of purpose.
“It’s very important that each individual understands their own goals, and team goals, but also that they are motivated by and connected to the overall strategic goals of the company,” she says.
The link between development teams and strategy goes both ways
The relationship between a company strategy and a sense of purpose is symbiotic. Delivery teams tend to succeed when they find motivation in the company strategy, and strategies tend to succeed when they are something teams can actually care about.
Connecting development and strategy may come more easily in smaller organizations. At scale, and especially when particular pieces of development work are outsourced, linking the two requires special attention. “A team operating as only one link in the overall product delivery chain, can have reduced visibility in the strategic or product direction,” Hadzic says. “They need to be aware of how their tasks fit in the big picture.”
She highlights how teams who understand the grander scheme of their work feel connected to their company’s strategy, which in turn brings this additional purpose to their work. The responsibility for communicating this sense of purpose falls to leaders—both at the upper levels and on a managerial scale.
“Leaders play a big role, because good leaders support each other in sharing this understanding with their teams,” Hadzic says. “The total success of an organization comes down to this synergy between delivery and strategy.”
Help teams see the rest of the chain
Communicating this sense of purpose to teams requires more than articulating the company strategy. Leaders must also convey a strong understanding of how any particular team fits into the entire chain of a product’s development, from concept through to client use.
“It’s really about communication and it’s about collaboration,” Hadzic says. “Everyone in that setup needs to be aware that the connection between delivery and strategy is dynamic. There are usually a lot of underlying assumptions that need to be validated. The landscape needs to be frequently revisited, and everyone needs to be aware of what’s going on.”
There is no single recipe for success
Collaboration and communication always sound great in meetings and articles, but how do we achieve them in different companies with different structures, scales and systems?
“I strongly believe there is no formula for this, because it depends on so many elements,” Hadzic says. “It depends on the type of the business. It depends on both the client and the supplier. It depends on the teams and the people in the teams. So there is no recipe for successful communication.”
That said, she emphasizes two necessities for aligning development, strategy and customers: everyone throughout the chain must be aware on a strategic level that this type of collaboration is a necessity; and, the organization needs to make certain they understand the clients, their needs, and their goals.
Meet the needs of the client in every step
“You need to design your service so that it meets the needs of the client in each specific step,” Hadzic recommends. “You need to have metrics in the right place to ensure that you’re going in the right direction. You need to have leadership on board, because this comes from the top. You need to work on a culture where people can be transparent and open.”
In other words, serving the customers’ needs isn’t the role of one department or one leader. Customer success is integral to every step of the development process and building a strategy. In a very real way, that sense of purpose that motivates the best teams is—to a great degree—helping the customers and end-users achieve their goals.
Strive to achieve better outcomes
A team can meet two different definitions of success. A team can come in to work, accomplish the goals laid out for them, and move on to the next set of problems in a semi-robotic fashion. Or, a team can come in to work, get curious about new, experimental and creative ways to solve the problems at hand, and stretch themselves to always be better.
The output of the first team might be higher in the short term at least. Customers and executives may even be pleased with their productivity. But the second team will discover new solutions and push both the organization and its clients into new realms of possibility.
“You need to strive all the time to achieve results that not only foster outcomes, but also better outcomes,” Hadzic says.
Motivated teams require creativity and psychological safety
If having a strong sense of purpose pushes teams to take risks and achieve those better outcomes, then an undoubtable sense of psychological safety gives them the freedom to do so. Organizations need teams to operate like that in order to differentiate themselves from the competition.
“The technology has gone so far that people can deliver whatever is needed,” Hadzic says. “Tools are advanced and technologies are advanced. It’s really come to the point where you need creativity in your work. And having creativity in your work depends on how much you are allowed—and how safe you feel—to make mistakes. If you're creative, you need to experiment. If you experiment, you will sometimes make mistakes.”
Of course, there is a place for continuing to produce what works, without the need for much creativity. But as the old aphorism says, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” A company can continue to provide tried-and-true mousetraps, while at the same time working on designing ones that will better match customers’ mouse-trapping needs.
Developers need to witness and experience that if they experiment in order to deliver some successful and creative work, and they fail or make mistakes, that they are still secure in their standing. “This needs to be considered a normal part of the process,” Hadzic says. “That will encourage them.”
It’s about achieving goals, not just hitting metrics
This freedom of experimentation holds true on a strategic level as well as a development one. “In the same way that you need to try and fail with delivery teams, you need to try and fail with thinking about how to achieve business goals, because business goals can be achieved in different ways,” Hadzic points out.
Enabling experimentation means breaking out of rigid forms of understanding. We work in a very metrics-driven industry, and understandably so. Data can provide deep and powerful insights into our workflow and productivity. But just as delivering software isn’t the primary purpose of a business, neither is meeting specific metrics the primary goal of a company.
Measures like speed of delivery or the amount of work delivered are useful information, Hadzic says, and we should rely on them. “But the real measure of success is, in the end, how much did we contribute to our clients’ business goals,” she says. “This is what everyone needs to be aware of, and then we can build structure and strategy around it.”
Hadzic stresses these three main principles of connecting strategy and development within a technology organization:
· A sense of purpose distinguishes the highest-performing teams. When teams feel motivated to benefit the end users of their product, they align with the company strategy. And vice versa—a company strategy will succeed when it’s something the development teams can actually care about.
· Leaders must help teams understand the entire chain in which they are linked. Leaders need to work to understand how the company strategy assists customers’ goals, then collaborate with each other to communicate the entire process of meeting those goals to their development teams.
· Meeting clients’ needs is the lodestar for both development and strategy. And not just meeting them—but innovating and developing new ways to help customers better achieve their goals. Developers need the freedom and the safety to work creatively, and all internal assessments should serve as intermediaries to fulfilling the ultimate goal of benefitting clients.
“You need to have synergy between delivery and strategy, because without delivery—without their motivation and contribution—a strategy cannot be implemented,” Hadzic says. “Delivery teams cannot be fully successful without having a vision. Many people are motivated just by technology, and this is also fine. But my experience is, it gets even better when you have a sense of purpose together with it.”
5 keys to successful organizational design
How do you create an organization that is nimble, flexible and takes a fresh view of team structure? These are the keys to creating and maintaining a successful business that will last the test of time.Read more
Why your best tech talent quits
Your best developers and IT pros receive recruiting offers in their InMail and inboxes daily. Because the competition for the top tech talent is so fierce, how do you keep your best employees in house?Read more
Technology in 2025: Prepare your workforce
The key to surviving this new industrial revolution is leading it. That requires two key elements of agile businesses: awareness of disruptive technology and a plan to develop talent that can make the most of it.Read more