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Accelerating IT team performance

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In this episode, our host and guest discuss many aspects that should be taken into account when accelerating the IT team performance efficiency.

Running an IT project is never a stress-free activity when done internally, let alone with an external partner. The good team is the key to the success of any IT project. Michał Grela and Essy Dahlin discuss various aspects related to working with IT teams including teamwork, accelerating performance and maximising team output. They exchange experience on various approaches towards team performance used by companies, talk about the role of a team leader, the importance of team happiness, and propose tools that the team could use to help increase productivity.

Our Guests: 

Essy Dahlin: With almost 20 years of experience from different industries in both private and public sector, Essy Dahlin brings insights from a broad range of roles and areas of expertise. Since 2016, she’s been working as a digital strategy advisor at Sogeti, part of Capgemini. With a holistic view of business, market, and organisation, she advises business leaders on how to address challenges facing their industry, accelerated by digitalisation and innovation. In close collaboration with architects, designers and developers, she also leads innovation projects where emerging tech proves its value.

Michał Grela is Future Processing’s Relationship Manager, working within the marketing department to establish and nurture relationships with prospective customers and expand the company’s network of contacts. He strongly believes that business is about people and that, at the end of the day, it’s all about Human-to-Human rather than Business-to-Business.

The transcript of the episode

Michał Grela (MG): Hi, my name is Michał Grela and I’d like to welcome you to another episode of IT Leadership Insights by Future Processing. Running an IT project is never a stress-free activity when you’re doing it internally, let alone doing it with external partner. And we all know how pivotal a team is for the final success of an IT project. Today my guest is Essy Dahlin, Digital Strategy Advisor at Sogeti. And we’re going to discuss the topic of teams, teamwork, team performance, auxiliary team performance and maximising team output. But before we start, Essy, could you please say a few words about yourself?

Essy Dahlin (ED): Thank you. In my work I consult business leaders on how to take care and address the challenges facing their industries with the help of technology and innovation. I also lead different kinds of innovation projects often related to AI.

MG: Thank you for joining me. Let’s get straight into the topic. How do you perceive a good IT team? What’s important, especially when you think about software development teams? And the second question is, would your definition be slightly different when considering internal and external, or even mixed teams? Let’s start with the definition.

ED: Well, a lot of questions.

MG: Yeah.

ED: The definition, I would say, of a team is not any different depending on whether it’s internal, external or mixed.

MG: OK.

ED: A team is–

MG: That’s the first conclusion.

ED: Exactly. A team is a set of people that are actually working together towards shared goals and having each others’ backs. Often, unfortunately, teams are just on the paper, so we have a set of individuals that work in parallel with each other, but not actually as a true team. But the definition of a team does not differ regards of internal, external.

MG: That’s very interesting. But how do you ensure the team actually delivers value? Especially in cases when, for example, they are remotely. The workload is distributed and they work abroad, maybe different time zones, different cultures, how do you ensure the value is there?

ED: First of all, what is value? Some teams might have very micromanaged backlogs where the value is reflected on a sort of product, for example, you are going to deliver this product – period. But is that the actual value? Or is it the impact of the product that is the actual value? So, first of all, you need to identify the value itself. Your second question, working remotely. Yes, it is more difficult to run a team remotely and I would highly recommend to use video, in the cases where you have remote meetings to actually use video because when you see each others’ faces you can see those nuances in a much better way that you would otherwise lose in a phone call. But, you know how it is with the technical problems and, “Hello, hello? “Does anyone hear me?”;

MG: Yeah, do you hear me now, of course.

ED: Peter seems having problems joining in and should we start without him?

MG: Same of beginning of every meeting.

ED: Yes exactly. Exactly and it takes time before everyone’s on board.

MG: Frustrating as well.

ED: Frustrating, exactly. It’s very time consuming, and it’s a huge risk of miscommunication related to this, as well. So, I would advise to evaluate different platforms and which one is best suitable for you and your team, depending on where in the world you’re located, actually. Because different platforms work better or worse in different parts of the world.

MG: We’ve briefly just touched the topic of communication, but let’s get back to the workload management.

ED: Yeah.

MG: What would be, from your experience, the best way to tackle that challenge when it comes to, strategically speaking, methods of managing the workload?

ED: Well, workload – it’s one thing to monitor and another thing to manage. Often you use maybe Jira or some other tool to break down your workload and to allocate it to different resources. But also, often at least with inside of organisations, and even though we’re talking IT projects we must not forget the importance of having business people actually involved in the project, even thought it’s an IT project or called an IT project. Because the end result will be an impact for the business most of the time. And often, when you look from a more holistic point of view, you see a project portfolio and you need to have each resource’s calendar and space so you can see which resources are actually available and who are not. And it’s very easy to forget the work in the line of business that many people actually do have even though they are involved in the project as well. So you need to have to keep that kind of balance and also being data driven, look at what are the trends. Is this person constantly over producing or under producing? And sometimes it’s not about underperformance of a certain individual but other kind of aspects that are impacting that we have not yet identified that has an impact on the performance or the workload that that person can take on.

MG: When it comes to this team performance thing, companies have various approaches towards that and you, having this experience of working with many different industries, I bet you have had a chance to see different approaches, I would say. Some would start with stick and carrot method, well, old fashioned, but still I guess, happening. Some would find other ways to motivate employees. My experience, for example, at Future Processing is that, well we believe that if we treat our employees good they will also treat our customers good, so we keep them happy, motivated, informed. Foster this attitude and I’m keen on understanding what’s it like in different industries. Is there a market average, or what are the standards that you notice when it comes to this approach of team performance?

ED: Well, my experience is that regardless of industry to keep a high performing team, it’s like what you do very good example and a good strategy to keep your employees happy, and what is happy then?

MG: Yeah.

ED: One could ask.

MG: Yes.

ED: Yes, it depends, but one could see certain points that everyone is attracted to and it’s a challenge. You need a challenge to be almost on the on the edge of your capacity to feel it’s really worth trying and striving for.

MG: So that you’re developing yourself as well

ED: Yes, exactly.

MG: as an individual. Yes – as an individual, but also to have this shared goal that you actually feel is meaningful to you to work for, and to have that as a shared goal. It truly with–

MG: Talking about this feeling of being in this together

ED: Yes, in this feeling together and work as a team towards a shared goal. It’s a strong feeling of community and of belonging, and also this psychological safety, that you can actually raise concerns, you’re not afraid that people will talk behind your back if you do anything wrong.

MG: Okay.

ED: So this is also very crucial in the success of of any team.

MG:: So fostering this approach to be bold enough to stand up and say, “Right, we’re doing something wrong.”;

ED: Yeah, exactly.

MG: Challenge even the stakeholders.

ED: Yes, definitely, and what’s also important is this, it must not be any misalignments between incentives, for example, for you as an individual in the company and the team’s incentives, it must be aligned so you don’t contradict each other in this project, in contradiction to your normal work on your line of duty.

MG: You’ve mentioned a good few times already, that there has to be this alignment between the individual and the team and the issue is twofold, of course but on the operational level, how do you how do you manage competing priorities, leverage the strengths of individuals and teams at the same time, maximize the performance? What would be your ways to do that?

ED: From a prioritisation’s point of view, I think it needs to be clear and when you have done, for example an impact mapping towards the goal, you see why we are doing this? Who are the stakeholders? What are their needs? And how do we solve that with different solutions? When you do that, you can always map your different tasks to different solutions or services that you are building. All the time you are prioritising towards different goals or two different stakeholders or target groups. So that’s for the prioritisation part of it. When it comes to maximising output, I think the culture of the team, I can’t express it enough, I would suggest you start with a team charter, you build a team charter together with your team, we address like how do we solve conflicts, for example, how do we make decisions? Should it be in consensus? Should it be one person? A tech lead maybe should have the last saying in certain questions?

MG: Like a governance would be

ED: Yes, I would say

MG: inside?

ED: like a governance model for that particular team and also to find out to do an inventory. What kind of skill sets do we have in this particular group? And it’s not just about the obvious competencies that would most likely be the reason why you’re in the team, but it could be more of soft skills. Maybe someone is very good at diplomacy and meddling between different parties. Maybe someone else is very good at presentation techniques and maybe that will be useful in this project as well.

MG: I feel that it might be sometimes underestimated or undervalued definitely. The other interesting thing I’ve heard the other week the other conversation I’ve overheard is that with a point of view. I wonder if you agree or not, is that each team has a different culture and even within an organisation every team forms an independent unit that’s very different from the guys that are sitting in the other room, even if they’re all the same nation or the same culture, the same company even, not to mention cases where the teams are combined of, different nationalities, different cultures, which is very common now. So every team, every group of individuals is always forming this, there’s something unique for them. And to some extent that goes with what you said before to have this, to be aware of it and to agree some rules on top of that.

ED: Yes, norms…

MG: What do you think about that

ED: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think it’s always the case. If you don’t manage a team as a team, you get a team on the paper, but it’s just a paralleled working. But if you actually build a team, yes, that team will be unique because there’re always unique individuals.

MG: That’s it.

ED: But agreeing on certain norms, especially when you are in a team with multiple nationalities, from different backgrounds and cultures, it’s really important to address these issues.

MG: Have you ever come across an example of a team that did some tweaking or juggling perhaps and maximised the performance quickly or well? Or have you noticed a significant change? Do you have any examples in mind? Have you ever had this sort of experience?

ED: Yeah, I’ve seen both teams that are highly dysfunctional, from beginning to end – although everyone has the best intention, they don’t take the time needed to actually form a team and the result will be suffering. And I have seen teams growing from a pretty dysfunctional team towards a very-high performing teams as well, after having addressed these certain questions.

MG: What behaviors, if we are talking about individuals and teams, what behaviors would you encourage to not only accelerate the performance, but to actually build a team, that’s not the team on paper only?

ED: I would say dynamic thinking, having the ability to change your thinking and to think outside of your own role or own industry, think outside the box more or less, but also to have an interest in people and to be a good listener. You have two ears and one mouth. So be a good listener and don’t interrupt and this sounds simple, and very natural.

MG: Yeah like a building

ED: That you should

MG: block off…

ED: never interrupt. Yes, exactly. It’s–

MG: I’ve just interrupted you.

ED: It’s not that easy, you see. But when you’re forming a team, and this is actually quite common, you have an organisation, this department is set of maybe 20 to 30 people, and then you form a team for a project. Some of these people come from this department and some from maybe some other department, but you think that since we all are within the same organisation, we have the same corporate culture, and we know each other, we don’t need to do a team charter, we don’t need to go through all of this debate.

MG: It will be a waste of time,

ED: Exactly. It’s a waste of time, we know each other. But, even more important, I would say, because within a company, at least a few have been in the company for a couple of years, or so. You have established like hidden hierarchies and rules and roles that you take on, more or less with your own consent. These roles need some time to be broken down to be become a truly high functional team and find your own responsibility and your role within this team that may not be your role in your line of business.

MG: Every team has to have a leader. So let’s focus on that person a bit. Who should they be? How should they behave? Where are your thoughts on that?

ED: Well, a good leader, I would say, is an authentic individual, an inspiring and an authentic person that can take on the accountability and responsibility for the team. You can stand up for your team towards other leaders and managers that are maybe not always very happy with your team or with the individuals within it. So you need to be that rock to be able to lean against when it rains and blows. But also I think, to guide your team through the process from maybe ideation state, through the process of development and celebrate those little moments when you do something good and when you succeed.

MG: Yeah, from our perspective at Future Processing, we’ve noticed that the leader of a team is the most important person when it comes to the actual happiness of the team members. It’s not the board, is not the top management, it’s always the direct person above the team members so, companies have to understand that you have to focus on that level and educate that level to then translate the values and the things the company believes in down to the team members. So that’s more or less what you’ve said, I guess. When it comes to some more practical terms like a toolkit, is there any, a toolset a team should use to boost performance? Or can we even get that deep? Are there any general things that would sort of do with any other team? Or how would you tackle that one? The toolkits for those looking for performance.

ED: Well, I think that is one of the things you actually address in the team charter. You look at how do we communicate? How do we measure our success, and so on, and as I mentioned before, Jira is a very popular program or platform tool for managing the workload and Slack is a very popular amongst developers, you have GitHub.

MG: All the basics.

ED: All the basic exactly, but I would not stare myself blind to own the tools itself. Because the tools, that’s the easy part.

MG: Mm-hmm.

ED: That’s an easy word. Just if you can agree on which tools to use.

MG: I agree with that one, definitely. Let’s talk about talent for a bit because every company would like to attract and retain the best talent. But in a team, let’s say the talent pool or the skills are not equal and there are many cases when there is a person that’s highly outperforming others and cases when there are team members that are, maybe slightly behind. How do you tackle that challenge? And how do you sort of attract this talent, and then not to discourage these well talented people for joining maybe less talented teams? What about this difference?

ED: Well, I would not say that any team is untalented, actually. It’s all about using the talent you have within the team. And sometimes you have a role in your organisation that is not leveraging your talent in the best way. But if you get to know these individuals, you can actually find out what is this person’s particular talent and how can we use that in the best way for this team. In terms of attracting talents, talents also want to work in happy teams. And the best ambassadors are happy team members.

MG: That’s it then.

ED: So if you have a happy team, whether or not they are high performing, or low performing. The team itself, don’t stare yourself blind on the individuals, but look at the team composition. This was actually a great experience of mine.

MG: I’m curious to find out.

ED: Yes, all right. This was 10 people from the beginning, ideal consultants that were picked from different parts of the organisation. We were supposed to build a magic mirror, a talking mirror.

MG: All right.

ED: Yes. And none of these people had ever worked with AI before or any cognitive platforms.

MG: Okay.

ED: But everyone was very curious and energetic about this. And it was so much hard work, sometimes we worked until 12 at night. But what I heard from the rest of the organisation was that more people wanted to join this team,

MG: Okay.

ED: because the team was happy. It was a happy team. They were hardworking, but they learned so much, knowledge that they actually then later on brought out to our clients, of course. So the team itself was attracting talents and the team members itself were the best ambassadors.

MG: Just from looking at the team from aside from different perspective people were willing to

ED: Yes.

MG: join it.

ED: Yes.

MG: And how did it end up? Did you did you build the mirror?

ED: Yes. And we showcased it at Data Drives Business in Stockholm, and it’s been touring around Sweden ever since,

MG: Magic mirror?

ED: Yes. It was great.

MG: Okay, let’s start to summarise this interesting conversation step by step. When it comes to maximising the team output, How would you summarise that one?

ED: Don’t look at single individuals look at the team output, but also recognise when you see trends that are going negative, maybe people being stressed or maybe people are not leveraging on the right capabilities, or if you have a workload that is not met, you have a very bad burn rate, for example, in speaking the Scrum language. You need to pay attention to those signals, because that will in the end lead to an unhappy team.

MG: And what about the performance and the feeling of being in this together, how to foster that one? One tip, just one tip.

ED: One tip. Put some effort in the beginning. Put some time, real quality time and effort into f the team from the beginning you will have it in the result.

MG: Thank you. I really enjoyed that one. Thank you Essy, and thank you our viewers for watching this episode of IT Leadership Insights by Future Processing. If you have found it useful, please don’t hesitate to like it and share it and feel free to drop us a line if you’d like to have another topic covered in the episodes of IT Leadership Insights by Future Processing. Thank you.

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