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High performance teams: Objectives, strategy and standards

By Richard Harpur

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 with increasing efficiency. Leaders 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 or substitute for a high performance team.

Building a motivated team that interacts and works seamlessly is one of the CIO’s greatest challenges, but also one that is deeply satisfying and rewarding when done correctly. In this guide, you’ll learn how to mold and cultivate talent into a productive workforce capable of realizing your organization’s technology strategy.

When it comes to accomplishing key objectives, there’s no single magic formula guaranteed to work for all technology organizations. This makes the management of technical talent both interesting and difficult. Popular and well-regarded management books aimed at achieving efficiency don’t often consider the nuances of technical teams. The first portion of this guide will address these nuances, and provide key insights into communicating clear objectives, applying your strategy and employing standards that will allow your teams to function at a high level.

Communicating clear objectives

IT teams are usually seen as order-takers in the workplace. 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. If the department doesn’t understand what the larger organization is trying to achieve, then the team can not perform to the objectives.

The objectives of the IT team need 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 for a team.

Here are 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 meant the team needed to eliminate chronic system performance and downtime issues that negatively affected 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 high performance in the strategy phase is ensuring 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, too. While leadership is responsible for making final decisions, your strategy is best served with lower-level knowledge and insights helping to refine your vision.

Let’s jump back to our two objective examples, this time adding the layer of strategy:

Objective #1: Improve system reliability

Strategy: Have no single points of failure

Eliminating single points of failure (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 a 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 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 — 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.


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 necessity of standards for high performance teams. As a leader, standards are essential in setting objective baselines and removing emotion from conversations about delivery expectations. Standards exist to align your team, and can be extremely helpful if you use the right ones 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.

But adopting third-party standards alone won’t transform your IT team into a high performance team. Achieving compliance with the standard sets your team up to deliver to a minimum baseline, not a maximum output. Hitting the minimum baseline is an important milestone on the way to creating a high performance team, but it is not the finishing line. So, how can you utilize standards to make a high performance IT team?

  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.

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.

Let's go back to our first example:


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 24/7/365 support from the vendor

Standards enhance objectives and strategies. This example standard outlined that any new production hardware, software or devices must be purchased with a certain level of vendor support; While some published standards mentioned equipment maintenance, in this case it was a standard set from within.

With this standard in place, there was no ongoing discussion on what support to purchase with the kit; it was just a given that our hardware had to have support. The CIO was also aware of the support in place for all production equipment from the beginning, so they didn’t waste time checking when they needed to respond to an incident.


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

High performance starts with alignment

The foundation of a high performance team is 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.

Once you’ve mastered the basics of high performance teams, it’s time to learn about developing authority, ownership and motivation.

About the author

Richard Harpur is a highly experienced technology leader with a remarkable career ranging from software development, project management through to C-level roles as CEO, CIO, and CISO. Richard is highly rated and ranked in Ireland's top 100 CIOs. As an author for Pluralsight - a leader in online training for technology professionals - Richard's courses are highly-rated in the Pluralsight library and focus on teaching critical skills in cybersecurity including ISO27001 and Ransomware. As a Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) Richard is ideally positioned and passionate about sharing his extensive knowledge and experience to empower others to be successful. Richard also writes extensively on technology and security leadership and regularly speaks at conferences. When he is not writing for his blog Richard enjoys hiking with his wife and 4 children in County Kerry, the tourist capital of Ireland. You can reach Richard on twitter @rharpur.