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High performance teams: Objectives, strategy and standards

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

We live in an increasingly automated world. Algorithms and artificial intelligence dominate technology news cycles. Machine learning programs run quietly in the background, simplifying tasks and becoming increasingly efficient. Teams are laser-focused on optimizing their processes through a hybrid of machines and human capabilities.

And yet, in spite of this growing efficiency, there remains no shortcut for hands-on leadership.

Building a motivated team is one of the greatest challenges for CIOs. But creating such a team, and playing a part in your employees’ achievements, is a deeply satisfying experience for a technology leader. Watching the interaction, orchestration, synergies and, most of all, the delivery of a high performance team is an inspiring moment in one’s career. In this guide, you’ll learn how to mold and cultivate talent into a productive workforce capable of realizing your organization’s technology strategy.

But first, a disclaimer: there’s no single magic formula guaranteed to work for all technology organizations. This makes the management of technical talent interesting—and difficult. Often, the popular and well-regarded management books available today don’t consider the nuances of technical teams. This guide will address these nuances, and provide key insights in the following areas:

1. Communicating clear objectives

2. Applying your strategy

3. Employing standards

Communicating clear objectives

It’s a reality in the workplace for IT teams to be seen as order takers. Often, business executives make requests for company technology to deliver a service or functionality. IT teams are expected to deliver, even if they haven’t been given needed context as to why the request was made and its overall tie to business impact. Sometimes CIOs and CTOs are involved in the decision to make these requests, and sometimes they’re not.

This cycle is a sure way to kill performance (and morale) in your organization. Instead, leadership must understand the organization’s objectives for a project and relay these objectives within the context of the IT team. This isn’t the same as a CIO deciding the organizational objectives of a project, but if the department doesn’t understand what the larger organization is trying to achieve, then the team cannot perform to the objectives.

The objectives of the IT team needs to align to the overall organization objectives, but they can and should be different. By having team-specific objectives, performance becomes even more personal; progress is realized in day-to-day work, which in turn helps contribute to motivation on a team.

I’m going to share a few real-world examples drawn from my experience leading an IT team through two large objectives. First, I’ll discuss how the objectives were formed for the IT team and then how strategy is applied.  

 

Objective 1: Improve system reliability

In this first scenario, the organizational objective was to retain a key client through a contract renewal process. As a leader, I adapted this organizational objective for the IT team to improve system reliability. Improving reliability means the team must eliminate chronic system performance and downtime that negatively affects customers and revenue. In this example, the IT objective was aligned to the organizational objective in a way that the entire IT organization understood.

 

Objective 2: Scale technology to support expansion

The second objective was to scale the technology in the organization to allow for growth and expansion. System reliability was addressed, but the organization was entering a new phase. The IT team had to scale the technology to respond to business demand. In this case, the organizational objective matched the IT team objective.

 

Before we move on to strategy, I want to emphasize the simplicity of these objectives. Although these two scenarios are different, the objectives are both clear. At any time, your team should be able to come up from their day-to-day work and know whether they are working in the right direction. This clarity is imperative as you build your plans and measure performance.

Applying your strategy

The key to a high performance in the strategy phase is relevance to every part of your IT team. Every person on your team should understand the part they play in achieving the objective. Strategy is where leadership skills become critical. You must manage many inputs as you involve your team in building strategy, but it’s imperative that your team feels ownership—it needs to be their strategy also. While leadership is responsible for making final decisions, your strategy is best served with lower level knowledge and insight refining your vision.

 

Let’s jump back to our first example:

Objective 1: Improve system reliability

Strategy: Have no single points of failure

 

With our objective of improving system reliability, we deployed a strategy to remove all single points of failure (SPOF).

Eliminating SPOF was a tangible concept that everyone on the IT team understood, no matter their role or whether they were aware of the reliability issues with systems. If you were a database administrator, you made sure you had your databases configured in a cluster. If you were a network engineer, you made sure you had all firewalls and switches in High Availability configuration. If you were a developer, you made sure you had strong error handling and graceful application recovery built into the code. If you were sysadmin, you were driven to virtualize your entire estate so that you are no longer dependent on physical hardware for your servers. Performance was universally measured by one’s ability to deliver on the strategy.

 

Objective 2: Scale technology to support expansion

Strategy: Simplify, shrink and scale the technology

 

In this scenario, the organization as a whole was entering into a phase of high demand. And the technology needed to respond to meet that challenge without an endless budget. Objectives of this nature need collective effort, and I relied heavily on the insights of others to communicate what was constraining their areas of responsibility. As a team, we arrived at a strategy distilled down to simplify, shrink and scale.

Simplify: all legacy configuration and integrations that were built over years now seemed to be somewhat unnecessary.

Shrink: once we simplified the technology, we consolidated the tools, processes and technologies where possible. It was a smaller footprint, but a cleaner footprint, e.g., newer SAN technology allowed for reduction in colocation space (and cost).

Scale: by removing clutter, the team maximized the capability of our technology, and this helped us get to a place where we were ahead of business demands.

With these three principles at the core of our work, everyone on the team could see their impact in delivering the strategy. Whether they were simplifying, shrinking or scaling our technology, they were a part of a large-scale effort to support the future state of the organization. This strategy didn’t talk about markets or revenue. Instead, it was easily applied to the IT team. They knew they were capable of delivering on their terms.

As a CIO, it’s your job to translate the commercial goals of the organization to relevant and actionable strategies for your IT team. This is where you add value as a technology leader and further your strategic presence at the executive and board levels.

Employing standards

Finally, let’s review the presence of standards for high performing teams.

As a leader, standards can be essential in removing emotion from conversations about delivery expectation and setting objective baselines. Standards exist to align your team and can be extremely helpful if you use the right standards for your environment.  

For IT services, there are many international standards like ISO20000 for IT Service management, COBiT or ITIL (Information Technology Library). For Information security, there’s ISO27001. Depending on your industry, there may be other standards that apply directly to your organization, such as the Payment Card Industry (PCI), Data Security Standard (DSS), or HIPPA.

Adopting standards won’t transform your IT team into a high performing team. Why? Achieving compliance with the standard sets your team up to deliver to a minimum baseline—not a maximum output. Achieving compliance with the standard is an important milestone on the way to creating a high performing team but it is not the finishing line.

So, how can you utilize standards to make a high performing team IT team? Follow this formula:

  1. Select the most appropriate standards for your organization and team.

  2. Augment or supplement the standard with additional requirements that suit your organization and team.

  3. Drive the team toward achieving compliance with the standard and be sticky about remaining compliant. You want to build in incremental improvements and keep the team from slipping back to old habits.

  4. Recognize the standard as the norm (your minimum baseline) and establish that no member of the team should accept anything below the baseline.

I want to note the critical nature of the first step of employing standards. It’s imperative that you select the right standard for your team at their current level of maturity. The standard your team works to doesn’t have to be internationally recognized or published, but your team must work to the quality and level (i.e. the standard) that is right for your organization. Blindly implementing published standards just to be compliant isn’t a good approach; the end goal is to raise the level of performance, not to blindly comply.

 

Here’s a quick example, building on the first example I shared earlier:

Objective 1: Improve system reliability

Strategy: Have no single points of failure

Standard: All production equipment and devices need to be purchased with enterprise grade 24x7x365 support from the vendor.

 

Standards enhance objectives and strategies. This example standard outlines that any new production hardware, software or devices purchased, must be purchased with a certain level of vendor support. This is a standard set from within. (However, some published standards mention maintenance for equipment such as the ISO27001-2013 A.11.2.4 “Equipment maintenance” clause that states “Equipment shall be correctly maintained to ensure its continued availability and integrity.”)

Think of the benefits when purchasing new equipment such as a server. There’s no ongoing discussion on what support (if any) to purchase with the kit. No longer does some server hardware come with support and other servers get purchased without support. Even better, you as the CIO are aware of what support is in place for all production equipment, so when you need to respond to an incident you don’t waste time checking.

Standards allow your team to move quickly and eases the burden on leadership and practitioners alike. This ease helps your team respond faster and conduct more productive conversations—both hallmarks of high performing teams.

High performance starts with alignment

The foundation of a high performing team is a unity. And it’s up to you, the team leader, to bring every member of your team into alignment through clear, collaborative communication. The collective effort of your IT team defines success for the group. When that effort is concentrated around clearly defined objectives, strategy and standards, high performance is highly likely.

After you’ve mastered the basics of high performance teams, learn more about developing authority, ownership and motivation.

Learn something new. Take control of your career.

Richard Harpur

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