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  • Writer's pictureCraig Risi

Building a successful team – Part 1 – Identifying purpose and culture


We can talk a lot about winning strategies and architectures that can be implemented for a company to achieve success in the software development world, but no amount of tech savviness and strategic thinking is going to help you be successful in your development pursuits more than a winning team. And navigating that trickiness of people management is perhaps the hardest thing companies will ever do.


I wish I could give you the ultimate secret and winning formula to make this easy for you, but the truth is that it isn’t. However that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot a lot of tips and guidelines to follow that will certainly get you in the right direction in this regard. As this topic is such a broad and complex one - as human beings cannot be easily put into 1’s and 0’s - I have split this up into multiple paths that focus on the important aspects of team development and growth.


What Does Your Team Look Like?

It sounds perhaps a little silly to say so, but the first thing you need to do is know exactly what it is you’re looking for. Yes, this includes the different types of skills that you require, but also an idea of what type of personalities, team culture and leadership skills you might need in the team. These are things that are a lot more difficult to identify, but often play a bigger part in the success of any team.


When it comes to this aspect, I’m not referring to the make-up of a team in terms of identifying the number of developers versus quality engineers or whether it needs a scrum master, UX designer or a business analyst. Those are important questions, but you’ll be surprised to learn that they are not as important as the culture and style in which you want the team to work. Skills can be taught, personalities and culture are a lot harder to change and so should be the foundation on which you build any team.


Personalities

I’m not a psychologist and so not going to go into the different types of personalities you get because I would simply just not be qualified to do so, but even as someone who is not a people expert, there are things that you can still apply for any position or team. Specifically, what you are looking for here is not so much extroverts or introverts, but rather people that will work well together or perhaps even share the same interests. While it would be wrong and illegal to recruit people based on their preferences of Star Wars or Star Trek, the idea is really that a team that gets along better with each other and has more common interests is likely to perform better. There will always be a need for people who think differently, but this doesn’t have to be in a way that prevents the team from gelling well together.


However what I am referring to hear is not so much common interests like movies or music, but rather how the people in the team view quality, change management and collaboration – and these are all things which can easily be targeted in the interview process. Essentially what you are looking for is people that fit the nature of the development team you are building. If it’s a team that is required to do a lot of innovative work or pioneer some new ideas for the company, it’s advisable to go for people who handle change well, are risk takers and value speed over process. Once a team is functioning and has something in production, people who have a strong view of quality and collaborative ownership are required and you need to ensure that all members of the team have this, otherwise you are likely to have a lot of friction along with unsatisfied customers.


Experience

Much like personalities, people’s technical expertise vary. However, what is less important than things like programming language strength, is seniority in overall experience. While competency should indeed be valued high, experience is something that takes time to develop and in any team you need to have a strong balance of experience to make it successful. No team should be filled with just pure veterans either, because you want to always be nurturing fresh talent and young engineers often bring a different perspective and skill set to this.


Team Culture and Team Leadership

I’ve grouped the topics of culture and leadership together because the leader of any team essentially determines the culture of it. It needs to looked at in duality though because a good leader does not necessarily mean that they will work within a given team if the culture is wrong and vice versa. As a company you need to not just identify managers or leads based on skill alone, but their ability to actually fit into the respective culture of a team which is why culture fit is so important. Yes, you could try and create a culture of acceptance and try and create a company where everyone just seamlessly works together, but given the nature of humans and their different personalities this will likely never happen and you need to identify the culture of the team that you want and then find the right leaders to implement these cultures. This is not easy to achieve and requires you having a clear knowledge of the people in a team and the culture that will make them work well together.


I’ve also experienced that technical produces technical and so if you are building a team that is highly technical, skills will play an increasing part where even the product owners and business analysts need to be of a technical nature to make it work. Having non-technical people in highly technical teams tends to slow down the development and innovation of the team – so this is a part of the cultural aspect that you will need to consider as well.


What is a Culture?

Before going further it’s perhaps worth asking what a team culture is. Well essentially it’s a list of character traits you want every team to have. This can often be identified in words or catch phrases such as customer focused, innovation or ownership. All are important traits to have, but no team can meet all these needs and they should need to be as not all teams serve the same purpose. While all people should be customer focused, you might want your development teams to be focused more on efficiency and innovation that simply focused on customer or business needs all the time.


This goes beyond just big concepts like this though, but also form part of things like frequency of meetings, admin processes, etc. Some people find meetings helpful, others have different approaches to learning and collaborating. Same goes for communication styles, some people like a leader who is clear, focused and driven, others don’t. It’s looking at what different traits will make a team work efficiently and then building its culture around this. You might on find the perfect mix of team and leader balance all the times, but man companies don’t even bother to look at things like this and then wonder why certain people or teams are ineffective and often blame the wrong technical skills or people when sometimes it’s simply just a poor culture fit from the start.


Not all Cultures are alike

While companies want to create a combined company culture, this is difficult to achieve. For small companies, hiring people of a similar culture is a must, but for big companies this is unlikely to happen and you are going to likely need some varying cultures to allow you to recruit and work with differing types of people. Large companies might claim to have a unified culture, but in my experience, no company has successfully pulled it off. There might be traits of the different aspects culture in individuals, but inevitably people will always have strengths in some areas and weakness in others. So as a big company they need to identify the right culture for the smaller teams and align the right people in them to make the differing personalities work.


What came first – the culture or the team?

However when it comes to establishing the culture of a team, you are inevitably stuck with what comes first. Do you identify a culture that best fits you and you company and then recruit to that or do you hire people based on their critically needed skills and then adjust the culture of a team to align? Well, again this depends on the individuals involved and how desperately you need their technical skills. I would personally suggest that culture is more important than skills and bringing in a person that might not fit the rest of your team is often a dangerous move, however that doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when it is needed. Especially if you’re looking to hire some critical skills that are hard to find. The trick though is if you do this, you then need to get the right managers in place who can balance the personalities to create a winning culture that allows for different thought styles.


One of the biggest challenges though when you identify a culture that best suits your team or leadership style is now ensuring that you can identify the right people that meets this specific team culture. Which is why in part 2, I will be delving into recruitment and the best things to consider when recruiting for a winning team – both culturally and technically.

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