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Managing teams

How do you build and manage great teams? This was a topic that seemed near and dear to the hearts of those who attended the recent XML Web Services One Conference & Expo in Boston. As part of a panel that discussed IT management issues, this subject became even more complex as we considered distributed teams, and distributed teams that were also intercultural. What management style works best for development teams? Are there specific things you can do to help a team to succeed? What are the critical factors? The answers to these questions could fill a book. This column is not that book, but I still think it is worthwhile to provide you with some insights that may help your team to succeed.

In the world of modern management, it has become clear that no one management style fits every situation. Leadership styles need to change to match the current situation. In fact, it often needs to vary with the maturity, time, place and culture of the group and its individual team members. The Hersey-Blanchard Leadership Model, also known as Situational Leadership, provides team leaders with a framework they can use to understand how to adjust their leadership style to match individual and team needs. In Situational Leadership, there are four basic styles of leadership: Directing/Telling, Coaching/Selling, Supporting/Participating and Delegating. The key to Situational Leadership is to understand which style to use based on the needs of those you are leading.

Let's assume you have a new, inexperienced developer. How do you manage them? In this situation, the Directing/Telling approach is best. The developer does not have the experience to know what to do, so you need to provide them with specific directions. You must focus on helping them to understand the task at hand.

In another example, the leader does not place much focus on relationship building. Another team member understands the task he is to complete, but does not seem motivated to do the work. The leadership style to use in this case is the Coaching/Selling style. You need to explain why a task is important and sell team members on your understanding of the situation. This style has a lot of focus on both task and relationship. You focus on the task because you need it done. You focus on the relationship with the developer because you want them to become a productive member of the team.

What about the team member who is fairly confident in her work, but needs some encouraging feedback to fully realize her skills and talents? In this case, you should use a Supporting/Participating style. If the developer is fairly confident in her ability to do the job and competent, you can be supportive by allowing her to have some input into how things are done. This is not the same as selling her on your ideas. This team member needs to be able to participate in a way that truly influences how things are done. In this situation, the leader focuses on relationships through the use of encouragement and participation. How the task is done is left to the developer.

In our final situation, you have a capable and confident developer you can rely on to perform tasks. Here, you can use a Delegating style to assign work and fully expect things to be done well and on time. In this situation, the focus of the leader is low on both task and relationship. You are confident the developer will get the task done and does not require extra encouragement to work at full capacity.

The IT fellowship
Synergy is a word that's often bandied about when discussing team capabilities. Synergy involves the joint action of many, in which the total effect is greater than the sum of the effects when acting independently. For teams, this means understanding what we can accomplish together that we can't accomplish independently. Traditional management and organizational styles are proving to be inadequate in meeting the needs of businesses today. Better responsiveness, more flexibility and greater efficiency are the demands of the day. Long-standing teams are giving way to ''ad hocracies,'' short-lived teams that are created to solve a critical problem. Once done, they dissolve and new teams are created to address other issues. These teams need to become effective quickly and deliver high value with the work they perform.

In their book Managing Cultural Differences (Golf Professional Publishing Co.), Phillip R. Harris and Robert T. Moran have four suggestions to promote team synergy. The first is to bring new people on board quickly. This means team leaders must be prepared to reach out and help the new member. Briefings need to be conducted so the new person can get up to speed with what is going on. Partner the new person with another team member so they can become part of the team as quickly as possible; include them in various meetings. Harris and Moran also recommend fostering intense, ad hoc relationships. For synergy to happen, individuals need to form smooth working relationships. This means leaders need to develop a supportive and respectful atmosphere. Creating events outside the normal team environment to foster social relations can help to build this atmosphere. The better team members know each other, the greater the opportunity to build trust.

On the other side of the coin, Harris and Moran recommend that individuals involved in an 'ad hocracy' disengage rapidly when a task is completed. These individuals need to be prepared to move quickly from one team to another. That said, it is helpful to have some follow-up with group members after the team has completed its work. This can be a limited communication, but keeping relationships alive after a project is a good thing. You never can tell when you will work together again or in what capacity.

Certainly, leaders want to set high standards for their groups. Typically, this means keeping the team focused on the goal and ensuring that each member contributes appropriately. Good communication is one of the most critical aspects of creating a high-performance team. It is even more crucial when team members are geographically dispersed or from different cultures. If team members know one another, they will find it easier to work together. If members don't know or trust one another, communication usually devolves into simply sending requirements and specifications and receiving back products that match the requirements. There is little opportunity for work improvement that comes from more free-flowing interaction and communication. When a team is communicating well, the leader's task is to keep the group's communication on target, while permitting disagreement and valuing effective listening. The leader should also encourage members to express their feelings and concerns about group morale.

Besides promoting synergy, there are attitudes a leader can foster to facilitate a team's success. Given the rapidly changing nature of teams, work and problems, team members need to be able to tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty and a lack of structure. A level of comfort can be created when team members are confident in their own skills and those of their team members. A sense of commitment from the leader and each member of the team can also help to build the desired atmosphere. With this as a base, the team can improve its performance through the use of nonjudgmental, constructive criticism. This implies that members will support and respect one another. They should also be realistic in their expectations of each other.

A leader can further foster a team's success by taking an interest in individual and group successes. People like to be recognized for their accomplishments. Groups also need to be recognized for their synergistic successes. If you have capable and competent team members, it may be helpful to share leadership functions within the group. This is one way to apply situational leadership and improve team performance. This implies that the leader be open to change, innovation, creative problem solving and team decision-making. Finally, the leader needs to periodically re-evaluate the team's progress and the effectiveness of its communications.

I hope these ideas about creating effective teams provide some insights. Send me your favorite technique for building effective teams and I'll try to share them in a future column.

About the Author

John D. Williams is a contributor to Application Development Trends. He is president of Blue Mountain Commerce, a Cary, N.C.-based consulting firm specializing in enterprise, domain and application architectures. He can be reached via e-mail at jwilliams@bluemountaincommerce.com.

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