Ask yourself the following questions:
When your CEO comes to you requesting new customer self-service Web capabilities and mobile development projects, will you be ready and able to deliver quickly?
Have you positioned your development shop to help your business move quickly to take advantage of new opportunities?
Can it move fast and turn on a dime?
The truth is, many application development organizations simply aren’t ready for the next wave of growth and innovation. And it’s no wonder: They’ve been paring back costs for years, focusing on keeping the lights on and controlling existing projects. Their current processes, staff and tool sets lack the ability to support innovation and fast growth. As a result, these shops have to ramp up to meet their business peers’ elevated expectations.
One thing that keeps many shops from being able to build breakthrough software is the state of their development culture. Forrester’s research shows that development shops tend to fit into one of three archetypes: Solid Utilities, Trusted Suppliers or Partner Players. Of these archetypes, Partner Player is the most conducive to innovative application development. These shops are the best equipped to spring forward when opportunity knocks, as they are more flexible than the other archetypes, in large part due to their hiring and staff development practices, which focus on creating and sustaining high-performance development teams.
But how do you get there? How do you move from Solid Utility or Trusted Supplier to Partner Player? Building a high-performance development team is not much different from building a successful sports team: It takes a combination of superstars and players that know their role and who can click together. You’re looking to hire and keep intrinsically motivated development professionals. Internal motivation and a desire for self-improvement drive these individuals, not the basic motivations of paying the mortgage or padding their yearly bonus. Intrinsically motivated individuals get deeply involved in their professions for their own, varied reasons, not just for the money.
One of the big pitfalls development teams run up against that keep them from reaching their full potential is a reluctance to cut poor performers. Netflix avoids this by evaluating its team members regularly and asking one deceptively simple question: “Which of my people, if they told me they were leaving in two months for a similar job at a peer company, would I fight hard to keep at Netflix?” According to Netflix, those that fail this “keeper” test should be let go immediately—with a generous severance package—to open up space for a stronger team member.
While it may seem harsh, the keeper test isn’t any different than the question that the general manager of your favorite sports franchise asks himself on a regular basis. You should apply the same test to prima donnas. They may be good technically, but they are also corrosive to a healthy developer culture.
Once you have the right players on your squad, how do you keep them from changing teams? Fortunately, this is where the world of application development starts to splinter away from sports. Most development professionals care more about an environment in which they can thrive than they do over how much money they can earn. Partner Players use seven tactics to create development cultures with high autonomy, a path toward mastery, and a sense of shared purpose. Implement the following tactics to turn your shop into a high-performer magnet (don’t be afraid; to get your organization moving in the right direction, you don’t need to implement all of these tactics right away):
Govern and measure results, not processes.
Encourage the formation of self-directed teams.
Don’t stress over mistakes; manage for rapid recovery.
Offer “stretch” projects to promote mastery.
Promote developer engagement with unexpected rewards.
Create shared goals through “radical transparency.”
Simplify and reduce the number of big corporate rules.
Atlassian, a software tools vendor, is a good example of a company that has created shared goals. They classify all employees as financial “insiders,” because all employees have access to Atlassian’s corporate strategy and quarterly results. Atlassian’s leaders call this philosophy “radical transparency,” and it helps them cut through the common politics that plague many organizations.
Atlassian also sets clear, concise, shared goals and creates a shared purpose among its development professionals.
In addition to recruiting the right players and creating an intrinsically motivating culture, successful development shop leaders have found that Lean development processes and tools can have a huge impact on productivity. Most of the high-performance teams we talk to report that their shops use agile methods at the team level. Agile practices (creating self-organizing teams, building projects around motivated individuals, and delivering working software as a measure of success) are designed to create a culture of intrinsic motivation.
Some shops we’ve spoken with have even moved beyond basic agile practices to use demand-pull techniques such as Kanban that are inspired by Lean manufacturing. Kanban-based development teams don’t create features based on what they think users might need. Instead, they “pull” requirements based on customer requests for features or prioritized defects that have been filed against the system. Developers work on tasks they pull until they are completed. Then they return to the backlog to get the next-most-important task.
In Ultimate Software’s case, the Kanban board is the heart of the team, in part because it creates radical transparency of project status: Anyone can walk in and see exactly what’s going on and the current state of the team.
Making the leap is tough, but the end result is worth it. Follow these best practices in building high-performance development teams, and you will create a real change in your development culture and build your own high-performance teams composed of engaged, intrinsically motivated application development professionals.
Jeffrey Hammond is a Principal Analyst at Forrester Research.