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How to Become a High-Performing Software Team

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The four major elements that enable high-performing software teams are purpose, decentralized decision-making, high trust with psychological safety, and embracing uncertainty. Teams can improve their performance by experimenting with their ways of working.

Mark Cruth spoke about high-performing software teams at ScanAgile 2023.

Interpersonal alchemy is the study of that mystical science behind good teamwork, Cruth said. When you look at high-performing teams across the board, you begin to notice some similar things; you notice patterns emerge that can be attributed to the basic ways of working within teams, he argued.

Cruth presented four major elements that enable high-performing teams:

  • Purpose creates autonomy
  • Decentralized decision-making fuels empowerment
  • High trust with psychological safety accelerates cohesion
  • Embracing uncertainty sustains growth

As purpose creates autonomy, Cruth mentioned that the questions he asks his teams are "Do you know why you’re building that feature?" or "What’s the end goal of the work you’re doing?" When developing software, our goal is not to develop software, but rather to solve a problem and high-performing teams truly understand the problem they are trying to solve, he said.

With decentralized decision-making, you can push the decisions down to those doing the work to empower them, Cruth said. Whether it’s pushing code or determining what feature to build next, those decisions shouldn’t be made two levels above the team; the team needs to make those decisions, he argued.

There’s a difference between trust and psychological safety. Trust is how one feels towards someone or some group, whereas psychological safety is how one feels among that person or a group. High trust with psychological safety accelerates cohesion, Cruth argued. If you have both, that truly accelerates the connection people have and turns a group into a kick-ass team.

In software more than any other industry, certainty is a delusional dream. We never know if what we develop will actually impact the customer the way we expect. Embracing uncertainty sustains growth, Cruth mentioned. This mindset embraces the uncertain reality we work in and allows us to become clever about our work, to grow as both individuals and teams.

Change happens in spoonfuls, not buckets, Cruth said. He advised to start small by trying a practice and seeing if it solves the problem the team is experiencing and let it build up over time:

Many times people feel they have to throw everything out and start again, when in reality this is the worst thing they could do because the level of violent change prevents any long lasting change from taking hold.

High-performing teamwork is reachable if we just put more intent into how we want to work together. No fancy frameworks or expert coaching will create a high-performing team; only the team can do it by experimenting with their ways of working, Cruth concluded.

InfoQ interviewed Mark Cruth about high-performing teams.

InfoQ: Why do some teams perform better than others?

Mark Cruth: The reason why some teams perform better than others has everything to do with two things: the intentional practices they put in place and the environment leadership creates.

For example, the family favorite Pixar movie Toy Story almost wasn’t created because they didn’t have intentional practices in place around how they worked. It took Disney almost pulling the plug on the project in 1993 to jolt the Pixar team into realizing they had to get intentional in their ways of working. They instituted a daily meeting where everyone could hear about what was happening around the studio, as well as became explicit about who made creative decisions about the movie. These sorts of intentional practices helped them turn things around and turn Toy Story into a generation defining hit.

When it comes to creating the right environment, the leadership at Ford nailed this back in the 1980’s when they introduced the idea of "directed autonomy" which decentralized decision-making around their vehicles. No longer was the CEO making decisions on the size of headlights; they pushed the decisions to those closest to the work. Thanks to this and the psychological safety they created with their team members, they were able to launch the Ford Taurus, the car that was deemed to have saved Ford from the brink of financial disaster.

InfoQ: What practices can help teams to unleash their potential?

Cruth: Some of my favorite activities to do with teams include:

  • Give the team the larger purpose behind their work and where they are going by creating a team vision statement
  • Decentralize the way you make decisions as a team by running a game of delegation poker
  • Reflect on the health of your team practices by running a retrospective focused specifically on how you work as a team
  • Eliminate bad meetings by taking an inventory of your team meetings and determining which ones to keep, change, and remove
  • Help your team play with the unexpected and unpredictable by introducing improv games into team events

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