The Dead Simple Guide To Building A Kick-Ass Team

Yesterday I talked about the basics of running a team.  Today I want to go a bit beyond the basics and talk about how to build a kick-ass team.  NOTE: There is an upper bound to your team's ass kicking potential imposed by your organization.  This doesn't mean that you can't kick ass, it just means that you are going to have to calibrate your measurements or implode under the weight of your frustration.  I learned, for example, that the AKP (ass kicking potential) of a large oil company is lower than that of a small or medium software products company.  This doesn't mean that I give up and walk away, I simply have to set my expectations accordingly.  With that out of the way, let's get to it.

Step 1: Have it mean something to be on your team.

You need something to make your team swagger.  The good news is that there are SO many ways to do this that absolutely every team in your organization can do so without conflict.  Swagger is unlimited and does not have to be mutually exclusive.  Here are some examples:

  • You do more work with fewer people than anyone else.
  • You have fewer defects BY FAR than anyone else.  Some number indistinguishable from zero.
  • You have the best hardware.
  • You have the worst hardware and still do better work.
  • You have the best software.
  • You're faster.
  • You're more creative.
  • You generate more revenue.

I could keep going, but you should see the point by now.  If it means something to be on your team, people who identify strongly with what you're doing will want to be on your team.  Almost as good, people who feel negatively about what your team is doing will stay away.  Which brings us to the next step.

Step 2: Prune.

If it's one thing that team leads do poorly, it's prune.  If it means something to be on your team, then not everyone will (or should) belong on it.  Chances are that someone who doesn't belong will end up on your team and it's your job to fix that.  Now, before you start thinking that I'm filled with some sort of managerial bloodlust, let me point out that pruning is a last resort.  If someone on your team isn't working out, first assume that it's your fault.  Go back to yesterday's post on the basics and make sure that you have all three covered squarely.  Then counsel the team member with specific behaviors to change along with measurable steps to take.  And, if that doesn't work out, come to grips with the fact that they simply aren't a good match for your team and that keeping them there is a disservice to them, the other team members, the organization, and yourself.  Prune so that they can find a place that fits.

Step 3: Be on the lookout for new talent.

You will probably have turnover in your team either through pruning or through your team members kicking so much ass that they get promoted.  Always be on the lookout for people who you think would fit, especially people who aren't fitting somewhere else.

Step 4: Replace yourself.

A team doesn't truly kick ass until it can do so without you.  If you don't have a "next in line" identified, then you aren't done building your team.  Having the team depend on you too much is a risk to you, them, and your organization.

Follow these steps and you can make a career of building kick ass teams wherever you go.  Leaving such teams behind when jumping to the next opportunity is the hallmark of a Big Swinging Developer.

The Dead Simple Guide To Running A Development Team

The secret to being a Big Swinging Developer is to be a force multiplier; make other people more valuable and you become incredibly valuable.  Don't believe me?  Which do you think is worth more: improving your own effectiveness by 50%, or improving 10 people's effectiveness by 10%?

There are several ways to improve others' effectiveness: tools, techniques, processes, infrastructure, the list goes on.  The most direct way, however, is if you're the manager or team lead.  If you've never lead a team before, or are afraid that you're bad at it, here is a dead simple guide to get you started or turn things around.

Step 1: Find out what success looks like for you & your team.

Your team exists for a reason.  It's there to build features, or test stuff, or support a system that's in production.  Whoever signs your check has a vision for what makes you and your team valuable and what success looks like for you.  And if they don't?  Easy, you find out elsewhere.  There are only 3 ways to provide value to an organization: increase sales/revenue/demand, decrease costs (aka increase efficiency and output), or decrease risks.  Your team is responsible for one of these, guaranteed.

Step 2: Determine how each team member can be valuable.

Remember in step one where I said, "Whoever signs your check has a vision for what you valuable"?  Well, you're that "whoever" for each of your team members.  Even if you don't actually sign their check, you are responsible for knowing what each person can do to be valuable and then communicating that clearly.  NOTE: This is the hardest part of management.  If you know what someone can do to help out and can communicate that clearly, you have it made.

Step 3: Monitor.

Lack of monitoring is the Heart Disease of management: It kills more teams more quietly than anything else.  Even worse, lack of monitoring can look like so many other things.  You see, one of the problems with organizations is that they're dynamic.  If you're not monitoring what they need, you may find yourself doing what you've always done and unemployed because that's not what's needed anymore.  Or you may do what you think is a great job of communicating to your team what you want them to do, but if you don't monitor them and provide course corrections then they could end up working really hard on something that you don't need.

If you put those 3 steps in an infinite loop, you can successfully manage teams for the rest of your career.  If you need more supporting evidence, look around where you work for teams who are struggling and you'll probably see lack of monitoring, poor communication, or lack of vision.

That covers the basics of running just about any team.  Next time I'll talk about how to build a really kick-ass team.

My Career-Changing Resolution

I'm not big on resolutions, but every now and then I realize that something has to change.

In December of 2006 I started having the "something has to change" feeling.  My career was going pretty well, but I always felt bogged down.  I started thinking about what was in my way and I came to the conclusion that I was wasting time fighting with co-workers.  It wasn't always head-on "2 developers enter, 1 developer leaves" Thunderdome style fighting, but it was fighting nonetheless. 

I made a resolution to be more positive.

After telling one of my close colleagues about my resolution he replied, "Dude, you can be as optimistic as you want, this place isn't going to change."

I explained to him that I wasn't going to be more optimistic, that optimism is something you feel and it's VERY difficult to change how you feel.  Instead, I was going to be more positive.  Regardless of how I felt, I was going to look for the most positive action I could take and pursue it even if it went against my emotions at the time.

It was hard.

It was worth it.

The first month or two were difficult.  The most positive action I could think of most of the time was to be quiet.  To simply not say any of the cynical, cutting, or downright mean things I was thinking (regardless of how funny they were).  A wonderful thing happened: Things stopped getting worse.  When an argument or flame war broke out, I no longer made it worse.  Things not getting worse is a huge step to them getting better.

My colleague was right: that place didn't change, but I did.  In my next gig (where I am now), I practiced staying calm and taking positive action.  I can assure you that after 2 years it is not only easier, but it is worth it.  I would never have been able to advance to where I am now without my resolution in late 2006.

Being a Big Swinging Developer is about how you act regardless of how you feel.  You are paid for your results and I can promise that you will get further faster if you start by being more positive.  Give it a try and your workdays will be happier and more productive.