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Leading Techie Teams

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This is a follow-up on our posting Four Challenges of Techie Teams.  Those four challenges (among others) came from research done by Rob Goffee & Gareth Jones from London Business School (Wikipedia)

But how does an organization meet these challenges?  How do you lead and manage “Techie Teams” in the face of these challenges?  Do managers and leaders need to learn a different skill set to get the best out of techies?

Here are some suggestions from Gofee and Jones.  In the excerpts below, the techie folks are referred to as “clevers”.

The growing importance of clevers in the knowledge economy poses a huge challenge for organizations. Our research suggests that leading clever people requires a very different style of leadership from that traditionally seen in many organizations. In our experience, getting the best from clevers requires many of the traditional leadership virtues, such as excellent communications skills and authenticity. But it also requires leaders to demonstrate some additional qualities.

Communicating with clevers is always a challenge because they are totally absorbed by their own agendas. Engaging with them in a way that means they see the leader as being on their side is vital.

Help them understand their interdependence with others and the big picture

The close association between what they do and who they are also means that clever people often see themselves as not being dependent on others. The leader must, therefore, start by acknowledging their independence and difference.  If leaders do not do this, they fail at first base.  But, and it is an important caveat, the leader’s job is to make them understand their interdependence.  Recognizing the symbiotic nature of the relationship is critical to both the individual and the organization.

It can be a hard sell. Interdependence only goes so far.  Clever people are so focused on their professional passion that the bigger picture can be immaterial to them. Clever people tend to be extraordinarily interested in whatever they are clever in. This can mean that if you try to explain where their part fits into the overall picture—of how the users are going to use it—they say, that’s interesting, but why are you bothering me with it?  The leader can end up constantly checking that people aren’t creating incredibly elegant … [ solutions] … that are of little or no use to the … [ customer ].  With clevers, their own sense of beauty can become a money-consuming beast.  They start off designing a cup, and you end up with a tea set. “Creeping elegance!” snorted one CEO we talked with.

Set Limits, have an iron will to act – for the good of the organization

“Clevers need to know where the limits are,” one leader told us. “Otherwise, there will be anarchy—and that is not good for anyone.” Leaders were also clear that once the line was crossed, they had to take swift and uncompromising action. Not for them the knee-jerk reaction to having their authority challenged. Rather, the iron will to act in the best interests of the organization.

Provide structure, discipline, timescale, and sense of process

A recurring theme among other interviewees was that the leader sets the tone and adds some sort of discipline, structure, or sense of process to the organization. “The value that I add is twofold,” says Kamlesh Pande. “One is creating an atmosphere for these people to sustain their cleverness and to ensure that they don’t fall sideways into mediocrity. The second thing is aligning what the organization wants and what they want to do. If I align at least 50 percent of these two things, I think my job is done. But then the rest of my job is about convincing them and following them and going after them. My job is to create a strategy or an atmosphere where I align what these clever people want to do and what the organization wants.

“What I bring is discipline, process, a sense of timescale, what I want by when, but then enthusiasm and vision about where we have to take our business and the part that they play in the picture and why that’s important,” explains a senior woman in a large, global pharmaceutical consulting firm. “I think they’re really clever, a damn sight cleverer than I am, but they’ll never get there if you just let them figure it out for themselves. They would go off and go down different routes that interested them.”

Give Recognition and amplify achievements

What clever people do is central to their identity—so recognizing their achievements is vital. This is why movie credits seem to become ever longer. They recognize the contribution of each and every person, from the star to the best boy. Seeing your name— however small the font and empty the movie house—is important.

Yet many clever people are starved of recognition within their own organizations. Although they may want it personally, they are rarely sufficiently concerned with the need to deliver it to their immediate colleagues.

Alison Fields comments, “One person was practically in tears when I wrote his performance appraisal, because no one had ever appreciated what he had done before. Another person gave a briefing, and as we were walking out, I said that was a really good briefing. I wasn’t even thinking about it other than he had done a really good briefing. He was a very senior person, and he said that in the last ten years none of his bosses had ever complimented him on anything.”

For recognition to be effective, much turns on the type of recognition that is delivered, from whom, and how often. Regular praise from a manager (a suit) who is widely regarded as a jerk is unlikely to be motivating.  An industry award every few years or a single paper highly cited by valued peers may be far more rewarding.  Clever people tend to value recognition from prestigious peers and clients outside their organizations the most.

Written by frrl

October 19, 2010 at 4:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Elwood…

    It is good that these agree in the sense that if multiple researchers look (objectively) at the same subject area or domain and they converge to the same general conclusions then that adds some confidence that these “independent” observers are arriving at legitimate conclusions.

    I have access to “Leading Geeks” by Paul Glen and will take a read on this. In just a quick pass of the full text I found this section on company loyalty and company engagement.

    This is a quote from the book –

    “Loyalty to Technology and Profession

    In almost every consulting assignment that I have undertaken, I hear the complaint at one point or another that the “technical people” aren’t loyal to the business. They have high turnover rates and frequently jump from company to company. They are variously accused of being incapable, disinterested, or intransigent.

    My typical response is, “Duh. What would you expect?” (or something a bit more polite). The clue is right there in the name itself: technical people. The word technical finds it roots in the same soil as the word technique. These are people who are more captivated by technique than by application. Their attention is more engaged by how a system works rather than what a system does. You can’t expect that they will respond to a situation in the same way that others would. When they are confronted with a broken computer, the puzzle of why it’s not working is probably more exciting than how much money the organization is losing due to the failure.

    Of course, this is exactly the opposite response of the typical business executive. Most businesspeople are much more concerned about how much the company is losing or the operational impact of a systems failure. This is not to say that geeks don’t care about business, but it does run a strong second to technique.

    Geeks don’t see themselves as disloyal. If you ask them about how often they change careers, they will tell you that they never have even if they held jobs with three companies in three different industries in the past five years. They may have changed jobs, but they probably haven’t changed technologies. Would a carpenter say that he had changed careers because he changed construction companies?

    The company or industry is not how geeks identify themselves. People generally identify themselves based on their membership in a group of some sort. This self-identification is made based on membership in a company, industry, profession, or technology. If asked at a dinner party what one does for a living, the answer is usually based on one of these categories. “I work for Microsoft,” or “I’m in insurance,” or “I’m a lawyer,” or “I’m a network analyst.”

    Since the primary orientation for geeks is toward technique, that provides the foundation for their strongest group identification. They are most loyal to their selected group, which is generally based on technology or service delivery method. This is where they are most comfortable…

    Geeks can develop an attachment to a company or an industry, but it will occur only when there is a strong corporate or industry culture.”

    Who is Paul Glen? (from the book)
    Paul Glen is a principal of C2 Consulting. Since founding the firm in 1999, Glen has been consulting, writing, and speaking about building effective technology organizations. For more than fifteen years, he has advised clients in North America, Europe, and Asia. He has also served as an adjunct faculty member in the M.B.A. programs at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Prior to founding C2 Consulting, he was western regional manager for SEI Information Technology, a national IT consultancy. He holds an M.B.A. from the J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.


    October 20, 2010 at 6:56 pm

  2. Most of these points agree with those in the book “Leading Geeks”, by Paul Glen.

    In my 35-year career as an engineer, I have often been asked to lead a team but always refuse because I honestly admit I can not move my focus from what interests me to what interests my employer. But I have worked for some wonderful managers who knew exactly how to “handle” me and in those situations it was pure nirvana.

    Elwood Downey

    October 19, 2010 at 5:08 pm

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