The 5 Forgotten Keys to Teamwork and Why You Need Them

The sheer amount of content and books these days talking about teamwork, building teams, making teams productive is astounding. Are we that ineffective in groups? This stuff is in all shapes and buzzwords: collaboration, synergy, symbiosis, joint effort, and on and on. But what does it actually mean to build an effective team? What does a Tech Titan do to propel their team into super-productivity? It’s way more than ropes courses and group happy hours.

Wait, Why Are We Here Again?

At its core, an effective team is a group of people working towards a common goal. Thus the most despicable failures are when people just don’t know why the hell they are doing what they are doing. This is rampant in dysfunctional corporate environments (or those with poisonous people) where the mission is so obfuscated that not even the managers know what the hell is going on, or worse yet – everyone has their <own> mission and isn’t afraid to derail the world to get it done.

In the world of team productivity, it’s all about communicating the why; the reason for the mission. This results in one of the most challenging aspects of being a Tech Titan: asking the hard questions and asking them to the right people. We’ve seen this press corporate clients into a defensive corner – who owns the mission? And sometimes we’ve had to accept “I don’t know why we are doing this!” But the more positive result is that sometimes just by asking the hard questions to the right people, we’ve helped clients get a handle on their “why” and communicate it to their team. This is not easy work, but is of immense value.

Alas, if you cannot figure out your WHY as a team, trying to make it productive is going to be useless. If you don’t have a clear mission, trust in your leadership, and someone to take up the banner of said clear mission, your team will flounder. “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” (Helen Keller) Do the first things first – get straight on your why, build trust with your people, and move forward with confidence.

1. Physician, Heal Thyself

As it relates to Tech Titans and their participation in software development teams, there is one primary starting point: themselves. You can’t be a team player and be an a$$hole or complacent. At a minimum, you have to be able to manage yourself effectively to create a positive impact on your team. It’s a terrible thing to be on a team where a member expresses their sole devotion and unlimited self-sacrifice only to be a sh*tty developer who doesn’t actually <do> anything. This is called hypocrisy and is a trust destroyer.

It may sound like an oxymoron, but a productive team starts with solid individual players.

2. I’m Not One of Those, But I CAN DO IT!

Another quality of a Tech Titan that differentiates them from a hammer-swinging codeslinger is the ability to effectively jump into other roles when needed. In fact, true Tech Titans could actually function successfully in other roles, but they know their strengths and stick with those as their primary mode of operation.

What does this mean to you?

  • When the requirements are crappy, the Tech Titan can work as a business analyst to communicate with the client to fill in the gaps.
  • When the QA team loses a resource and we are staring down a deadline, the Tech Titan jumps in to help complete functional testing.
  • When no one knows the deployment schedule, the Tech Titan steps in and creates the release plan.
  • When the development process is chaos, the Tech Titan makes recommendations to streamline and resolve poor communications.
  • When the infrastructure is jacked up and the client site is down, the Tech Titan finds a way to get it back online.

Some might say then that the Tech Titan is a “utility” player, but it really goes deeper than that. Part of being an effective team member is knowing when to shift roles for the protection of the team and the project. This isn’t an “I’m gonna take your job because I need attention” role shift, but an absolute: “We need to get this part done and I can do it to help us get there”. You’re not going to get confused and think the Architect Tech Titan is really a quality assurance tester – but they have likely done a bunch of testing in their careers to get projects done and out the door.

3. We All Win When One Wins

Likewise, the Tech Titan is not there for the glory. Yes, we saved the day. Yes, we pulled out all of the stops and met the deadline. Yes, we protected the team from certain disintegration. Humility is a superpower. Sharing the glory of success as well as the pains of defeat is what makes a team a team. When you start to hear the pronouns change from first to third person, you know you’re creating something in your team that will carry you through to victory. We’ve advised many to simply change their pronouns in their day-to-day communications and have seen real results in their teams. It is important for every member to know that they are a part of something

Part of each person’s addition to the team is their unique skillset and experience. And what truly makes these projects (and your work life) an enjoyable experience (when the villains are held at bay) is the ability to share those experiences with the team. It is important to take time to share through training and mentoring when at all possible. It doesn’t have to be formal. In our experience the most effective training is ad hoc, on-the-fly, like “Hey, check out how I integrated the WHIZBANG with the THINGAMAWIDGET” That and a “Hey, you did a good job with the 6.8.1 Billing Module. Why don’t you take on the larger part of the integration?” Train, mentor, elevate your team, repeat. This is how you can proactively flip the saying, “you’re only as strong as your weakest link” to “you’re only as weak as your strongest link”.

4. The Magic of Being Able to Communicate “Up”

A challenge in many environments is understanding when and how to escalate issues. There are many different scenarios involving different personalities all with different agendas. Although this is not something that a techie generally has in their arsenal, a Tech Titan must know how to “communicate up” effectively – they have to know how to get important messages up to managers and executives so that they can respond accordingly. This is especially challenging when dealing with a$$holes or other types of project villains – because the messages to be delivered aren’t always “nice”.

This mostly happens when clients and companies tolerate huge levels of complacency that puts the team, its projects, and the business at risk. We’ve seen it many times – it’s easy to be on the wrong side of a CIO when something goes sideways and it’s SO not easy to make effective, clear, and non-confrontational communications in those situations. The Tech Titan works constantly to put themselves in a position to be listened to and to maintain that position throughout the course of their engagement such that when these situations arise, they can communicate clearly up the hierarchy when needed.

This is a truly understated part of a team. Knowing how and when to bring in “air cover” is crucial to being productive and delivering business solutions within defined parameters. It requires a high level of emotional intelligence to not get washed up in politics or power-struggles and to see through that to move a team forward. If you have someone capable of this level of EI on your team, you are certainly lucky. Not every Tech Titan can wield this power. But those that do have massive positive impacts on teams, projects, and business.

5. The Real Agents of SHIELD

Productive teams are like the goose that lays the golden eggs – if you ever get your hands on one, you do WHATEVER is in your power to protect that goose. It’s amazing to us how many simply do not realize this eternal truth. They ruthlessly and without thought decide to chop the head off the goose that is laying these beautiful golden eggs of software functionality; delivering bottom line cost reduction or top line growth to their businesses, in light of rapidly changing technology and requirements.

The “goose killer” comes in many forms: the well-meaning business user who throws in arbitrary changes that have little-to-no valuable impact, the business analyst who just thinks the word should be “Log in” instead of “Login”  and would like to spend an entire week of meetings to discuss it, or our favorite classic: the outside business consultant who fancies themselves an “architect” who completely derails developers from their important day-to-day tasks at his own whim and fancy, only to have most of the requests be invalid or require rework at a later time.

Although the Tech Titan is not always the leader of the team, they know that you’ve got to protect the goose. Tech Titans will protect their teammates from project villains as much as it is in their power to do so. In some cases, where communication is fairly mature, the point can be made and acted on – the team survives the villains. In other cases, the Tech Titan must speak out. This can make the Tech Titan look pretty doggone brash. And since the Tech Titan can communicate up (and has in the past), they generally are unafraid of the consequences to themselves, as long as the team stays intact. Suffice it to say protecting the team and its members is not always a clean and pretty job – but it must be done.

BONUS: Trust Always Wins

It is sad to say that as a whole the world we live in is a world riddled with mistrust. Sure, we see pockets of trust here and there, but most feel that they can’t really believe anything anyone says anymore. Just look at mainstream media. But as Tech Titans, in our own world of software development projects, vendors, teams, and companies, we see things a bit differently. Trust is powerful and important. It is not easily gained, but very easily lost. We believe that trust is imperative to the successful team and software development project; even though we know we can’t control others, arrangements our clients might have made, or nefarious activities of people we might work with, it is <still> our responsibility to establish and maintain trust in our working lives. Trust can supersede and eradicate all sorts of problems. Sometimes it rubs off on our cohorts and constituents and everyone’s lives are made better; other times it’s like a teardrop in an ocean of depravity. But it is still our responsibility.

Successful software development teams are built on trust. There is simply no way around it.

What It’s Like Working with a Tech Titan

It varies in its level of impact but generally speaking people <know> when they have a Tech Titan on their team. There is positive momentum, a generally positive attitude (but maybe a little snarky), the right questions are getting asked (and answered), and the team is generally protected from turmoil. The project is moving in the right direction, clear communications are happening, and the other members of the team benefit and are better just by having a Tech Titan around. That’s why you should get one for your project.