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Best practices for building high-performing application development teams

After interviewing software vendors, media companies and enterprise IT shops, Forrester Research recently came out with a report highlighting best practices for building high-performing application development teams. In this tip, we’ll take

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a look at the top three best practices from Partner Player organizations and how you can implement these practices in your organization.

Best practice #1: Recruit the right players for your team

Recruiting talented individuals has been a common-sense management practice for years. But in order to really build a high-performing team, managers must recruit people who will work well together as a team. It’s not enough to look only for people who are strong individually. With added emphasis these days on collaboration and communication, it’s important to look for people who will fit well with your team and culture. It will be the team synergy that results from the combined talents of the individuals, which will set your organization apart.

It’s recommended that you hire top-notch performers and plan to pay above the market rate. Look for intrinsically self-motivated candidates who are passionate about what they do. Do they participate in professional improvement activities outside of work hours? Are they participating on open source projects? Attending user group meetings? These are examples of intrinsically motivated development professionals-- the type of people you want on your team.

“Improve team autonomy first, and then invest in your most-promising individuals’ paths to mastery.”

Forrester Research

In order to keep your team staffed with top talent, you need to regularly evaluate your team members. If you would not fight to keep an employee, the recommendation is to let them go. “The keeper test may seem overly harsh, but it’s what GMs [General Managers] do to build winning teams-- and it’s less destructive than setting up a shop for long-term failure.”

In fact, reluctance to cut poor performers is listed as one of the pitfalls to be avoided in the report. Another issue where organizations can go wrong is trying to fit their stars into specific functional roles. It is better to create long-term technical positions in which individuals with strong cross-functional skills can thrive and grow. A third pitfall that should be avoided is tolerating prima donnas. Once again, teaming is important, and employees must be team players to truly shine. “Make it clear that confidence is good, but arrogance is intolerable.”

Best practice #2: Create an intrinsically motivating development culture

In order to attract and keep intrinsically motivated individuals, you must provide them with an intrinsically motivating development culture. The report lists seven tactics used by Partner Players to create cultures with high autonomy, a path towards mastery and a sense of shared purpose-- all things that develop and encourage intrinsic motivation according to Daniel H. Pink’s book, Drive:The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The seven tactics are:

  1. Govern and measure results, not processes.
  2. Encourage the formation of self-directed teams.
  3. Don’t stress over mistakes; manage for rapid recovery.
  4. Offer “stretch” projects to promote mastery.
  5. Promote engagement with unexpected rewards.
  6. Create shared goals through “radical transparency.”
  7. Simplify big corporate rules.

However, it’s not necessary to do all of these at once. It takes time to change a development culture. The report recommends: “Improve team autonomy first, and then invest in your most-promising individuals’ paths to mastery.” Not everyone will be on-board with the changes. It will be harder for poor performers to hide and they may leave of their own accord, but attrition will decrease as the culture shifts. The report also stresses the importance of using measurements that will lead to success, tying individuals’ actions to company goals.

Best practice #3: Manage your team with lean software techniques

The third best practice recommended by Partner Players is to use lean processes and tools to improve productivity. Lean techniques recommended:

  • Use agile approaches to increase autonomy and focus on results.
  • Get teams in the “flow” zone, and keep them there.
  • Ruthlessly attack waste in your development processes.
  • Pull demand directly from customers.
  • Encourage organic processes that improve team flow.
  • Implement 360-degree feedback policies.

The pitfalls to avoid include:

  • Confusing increased autonomy with relaxed discipline.
  • Collecting too many metrics or the wrong metrics.
  • Using too much application lifecycle management (ALM).
  • Forcing tool standardization.

Some of the keys here are to transition to an agile, lean organization with self-directed teams, eliminating waste, allowing developers to stay in the “zone” and focus on the most-important tasks. Fostering transparency and processes such as retrospectives and 360-degree feedback reviews will allow your organization and the employees to continually improve and grow. However, it’s important to keep the team intrinsically motivated by watching for individuals who do not self-discipline, measuring the right things, and introducing the ALM processes and tools that can best keep your organization running smoothly while adding value.

This was first published in December 2010

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