Posted by: wiltjk | August 2, 2016

How to achieve “A” Outcomes from “B” Teams

2004 August - Deutschland 787bFor many years I’ve had the pleasure of sporting around in a smart fortwo cabrio micro-car. By all U.S.A. standards, it barely even ranks as a car–so let’s bypass all the traditional criticisms and focus on how a three-cylinder micro-car can survive in an SUV biased world.

When it comes to performance, payload capacity, and comfort, I personally rank a micro-car at about 87%, 89%, and 72% of a conventional vehicle. It is surprisingly spacious inside with a cargo capacity (12 cu ft w/passenger seat folded down) close to the trunk volume of many sedans. For eight years, I have accommodated most everything anyone really needs to do with my micro-car, simply weathering the many opinions others have of it (too small, slow, unsafe).

This brings light to a comment an IT director shared with me recently: we will never be able to afford the level of developer talent of a Netflix or Facebook. Essentially, we have to work with what we have. I thought long about this comment and realized that this statement describes nearly all IT organizations as they must work with talent that may possess only 85% of the abilities of industry trail-blazers.

However, it’s not only those industry icons that are turning out stellar solutions–many organizations have some exciting and leading-edge solutions resulting from much more limited resources. Why? What makes them so capable of delivering “A” outcomes?

Rule 1: Stop Comparing

Even with all its pep, a micro-car could never hope to challenge the performance of a BMW M-series in any form (well, perhaps parking), so it’s obvious that I wouldn’t even try. The same should go for our IT teams. Should we really expect them to deliver bleeding-edge cloud-based solutions by inventing solution patterns that amaze the world?

If this is not the case, we should stop comparing those bleeding edge organizations’ teams to our own. Just because Netflix is pioneering some new cloud service approach doesn’t mean our internal IT teams should try to compete with them. Sure, there will be pattern elements to learn and apply, but we really need to reconsider projecting the expectation for our teams to mimic systems that address workloads we will never experience or apply solution strategies for consumption patterns that are wildly different from our own.

When you openly or inadvertently talk about your talent as being sub-par, the best you will ever receive from their efforts will be sub-par.

When a team already considers themselves sub-par, you will hear statements like:

  • That won’t work here – evidence that culture has overrun best practices in the advancement of solution development.
  • You’ll have to teach me because that’s not how we do it today – evidence that micromanagement has stifled the empowerment to self-educate and learn/experiment.
  • We’ve tried that n-times before and we always abandon it – evidence there’s lack of consensus on a common strategy among leaders.
  • Because that’s outside my domain, you’ll have to deliver X for me – evidence that team expectations are so controlled, anything outside their domain (i.e., promoting a stretch goal) will cause a complete shutdown.

It’s almost like telling a minor league hockey team to mimic play-books of a leading professional football team. Sure, there are elements of strategy that may apply, but overall, it’s going to be oil & water.

So, stop!

Rule 2: Empower Greatness

While my micro-car may never be a performance icon, it has unbelievable maneuverability and pep. I suppose because it was conceived by Mercedes in 1972 and took 25-years to come to market, there is some level of performance DNA deep in its core. Perhaps that’s why it requires premium fuel–to allow me to paddle-shift around tight corners, slalom around shopping carts with great precision, and with C-class size disc brakes, it can literally stop in a distance so short it defies logic.

To empower greatness in any team, look to focus on the following:

  • Increase Curiosity – encourage teams to be curious about what’s going on in the industry and encourage them to experiment (and fail!) with emerging ideas and patterns. While they may not adopt or use an emerging technology directly, they will certainly be able to apply their learnings.
  • Reduce Fear of Failure – provide sufficient think-time in tactical schedules to allow teams to experiment and fail; every failure results in multiple successes later. While building to a timeline is a reality, it too often shuts down creativity resulting in only the best mediocrity offers. By baking failure into the lifecycle, you actually will greatly reduce failures post release.
  • Eliminate Restrictions – several cloud vendors and many organizations limit the ability to learn emerging platforms and practices (e.g., access caps and spending limits). The surest way to shut down creativity is to restrict access to resources. ING Direct in Australia purposefully removed their developer’s resource restrictions and has seen tremendous innovation in their solution deliveries. The additional cost to experiment and fail-fast is easily returned with faster and more robust solutions.
  • Create Incentives and Rewards around Growth – publicly recognize those teams who have delivered greatness by stepping outside the box. Offer incentives to any individual or team who self-elevates their skills. Resources that invest in themselves accomplish much more than those who don’t.

Rule 3: Stop Assuming and Raise Expectations

Because a micro-car is small, everyone assumes it is an unsafe death-trap. According to our nation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), nine people lost their lives in micro-car crashes (0.02%) in 2014 (the latest year recorded). Compare this to a standard pickup truck which is assumed to be very safe at 6,041 lost lives (13.50%).

Likewise, even though a team may not necessarily invent the next storage pattern, never stop expecting anything short of Spectacular from them. Rather, when expectations are set high enough (i.e., just-out-of-reach) paired with sufficient “think-time” to grow necessary skills and knowledge, great accomplishments are achieved. The self-satisfaction that accompanies teams who achieve these goals serves to fuel accelerated delivery in the next round.

A common mistake is to exasperate by setting unattainable goals too early. Start small and land your first stretch-goal completely prior to imposing anything further. It’s a crawl, walk, run, fly approach.

Secret Truth: There are no “B” Teams – only “B” Players

Yes, it’s cliché, but the reality is that all organizations are populated with a mix of “A” and “B” players. The differentiating factor is neither skill nor ability, rather, it is attitude and drive.

When sitting on architect review boards, after a candidate presents their greatest achievement, I ask the following question: “if you were to do this project today, would you change anything?” One type of candidate will think for a moment and then answer, “no, I do not believe there is anything else I would do different in that endeavor.” Another candidate, without hesitation, will immediately go to the whiteboard and show how all the things they learned would be used to advance their architecture into levels greater than they were able to deliver the first time around. Which of these two types are “A” players and which are “B”?

How leadership guides their talent pools will determine if they are encouraging mediocre or spectacular outcomes.

If leadership sets scope based on skill & ability alone, mediocrity will prevail. However, if there is an environment of curiosity that fuels attitudes of adventure (which drive self-advancement), spectacular outcomes will be right on the horizon.

Only by investing in the right things the right way can we produce teams and cultures of innovation. This inspires the best out of our talent, empowering them to deliver those “A” outcomes you only read about in big name journals.

Final thoughts

Early one Sunday morning, a colleague and I were at a stoplight before entering a freeway. I revved my three cylinders like a pro. The light turned green and we were off! His six turbo-charged cylinders took him so far in front of me that his black sedan appeared to be as small as a period on a page. It took some time for me to catch up, but I eventuality passed him as he settled into the speed-limit–and I was, let’s say, slightly over.  When we arrived at our destination for a meeting, I joked about how fast he was able to completely lose me at the start.

His reaction was unexpected. He said, “Well, of course I could take you from the start, but when you passed me, that little micro-car is like a bullet!” It was certainly an unexpected outcome, but if you accept it’s actually an “A” player, it shouldn’t be so surprising.




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