How to build a high-performing software team

@samueljabiodun · January 28, 2023

aligned team

How do I build a high-performing team?

This is one of the common questions managers ask themselves. No one wants a low-performing team. We all want to build effective and high-performing teams – a team that is highly interdependent, bound with a common goal, plans work, makes decisions, solves problems and delivers superior results.

But you can’t just pull a bunch of people together in a room and expect outstanding performance.

Building a high-performing team requires deliberate efforts. You have to create an environment that allows and breed outstanding performance.

Over the years, I have experienced underperforming and high-performing teams. I saw the kind of environment where high-performing teams thrive, things high-performing teams do differently and the culture that enables them.

But how do you create a high-performing team and what levers are there to pull?

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. But certainly, there are a few levers you can pull that will put your team on the way to superior performance.

Hire strong talents. Strong talents make a strong team.

You want to build a strong-performing team? Hire strong people. Why hire a strong senior when you can have 2 medior for the exact cost? Well, superior performance doesn’t come cheap.

Strong engineers are high achievers, trail blazers and catalysts for improvements. It’s worth the cost.

If you want to build a strong software team, hire strong people in product, data, design and engineering. Hire people who constantly challenge themselves and work to better or improve themselves.

Hiring a group of people and expecting outstanding performance doesn’t work. There have to be some thoughts behind the group composition and why they exist.

Usually, we often fail in two ways. Suppose we don’t fail at composing the right team by carefully hiring folks that bring complementary skills, we fail at defining why the team exists and ensuring every team member understands why they exist and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Empower them

Have you hired a strong team? Coach, empower and get out of the way as necessary. A high-performing team is an empowered team that makes decisions within a defined boundary. They are able to make effective micro-decisions in their day-to-day work.

An engineering team that relies on a single decision-maker, albeit a product manager or an engineering manager is not empowered. Progress stalls when a team depends on a single person to make decisions.

Coach your team to the point that everyone knows what the expected outcome is. Coach them to a point where they know what they should be doing and what’s not.

An environment where one person is solely responsible for figuring out what to build, which is then handed over to the team creates a situation where a team fails to see why they’re doing what they’re doing. It becomes a game of “they ask us, we do it”.

Create synergy

Synergy is when two or more people work together to produce something of value. The more people you have, the more difficult it’s to create synergy – this is one of the reasons why the concept of two pizzas garnered popularity.

Synergy, at its core, is about team working, connecting and collaborating effectively together.

Communication and collaboration are key to maintaining high synergy. Folks having to chase information they need to do their work drains motivation and depletes trust between teams.

When communication breaks down, synergy suffers. And it could feel like every other person is out there to prevent you from doing your job. Often, it’s just a misalignment between functions, as rightly said in this post:

Every team in an org has its own pain points as well as its objective. While it seems that one department refuses to fix the problem of the other, it is also true that most people in the company work with good intentions. Hence, if everyone is trying to do a good job and they also complain about each other, the problem therefore lies in communication (or more specifically, communication breakdown).

If you want to build a high-performing team, pay attention to how different functions collaborate and the willingness of people to share information that benefits the wider group.

One of the best ways I have seen this play out is having a “default open” culture where ideas, information and feedback flow freely.

Create a culture of learning and improvements

Invented by psychologist Bruce Tuckman, a team goes through four stages of psychological development known as forming, storming, norming and performing. For a team to get to the performing stage, there has to be a lot of mistakes and learnings along the way.

A high-performing team is not formed in a day. High-performing teams go through periods when they’re low performing. It’s through mistakes and learning from those mistakes that make the team become better and better as days go by.

A team that reflects on how to become more effective and then tunes and adjusts its way of working gets better as time passes.

As Jocko and Leif stated in their book titled the dichotomy of leadership:

No team can deliver flawless performance. No one can achieve perfection. What makes the best team great is that when they make mistakes, they acknowledge them, take ownership and make corrections to upgrade their performance. With each iteration, they enhance its performance.

High-performing teams make incremental changes in processes (way of working) to improve quality and efficiency. They have a mindset that whatever is good today might not be good tomorrow. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

To build a culture of learning and improvement, you have to create an environment where people feel it’s okay to fail and not be afraid to voice out their shortcomings.

This is where psychological safety plays a crucial role.

Build psychology safety

Psychology safety is the belief that you have the freedom to speak your mind without being punished for that. Such belief is rooted in deep trust between peers and leadership. In a software team with high psychological safety, members are more open to taking risks, trying new ways and not afraid to fail. It’s this tolerance for mistakes and risks that allows the team to be more innovative, develop muscle to try new things, fail quickly and learn.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to build an environment that doesn’t make people feel they can’t freely share their opinions but also an environment that lets them feel their opinions are welcome and you love to hear them.

In summary, building high-performing teams will take time to happen. It’s through deliberate effort but it’s worth it. To build high-performing teams, hire strong talents, empower them, create synergy and build a culture of learning and improvement.

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