Developing high performing software teams

Even though a lot of time is spent working in teams, little time is spent on developing teams in order to improve performance. The study to become a software developer is mostly about “hard” topics (“algorithms and data structures” etc) and not focused on how to work with others to translate skills into great user-friendly software. The busy days of developing software makes it hard for many teams to prioritize working on the soft skills of the job – how much time does your team dedicate in order to work better as a team?

During the last decade AGILE methods like SCRUM have been introduced to improve efficiency and to deliver what the customers want. The level of success with these agile methods varies. I believe one important source of failure is failing to comply with one of the premises for these methods: Autonomous teams. This premise, which is also a strength of AGILE methods, is that it allows all members of the team to contribute with their knowledge and understanding on an equal basis. But for true autonomous teams, it’s not enough with “allow to contribute”, it actually needs to happen, in every planning meeting, in every retrospective and in design meetings etc. Teams need to obtain a certain group dynamic where the members support each other, help each other to reach group goals, and dare to question and criticize ideas and behavior in a constructive way.

Finding the tools and methods for improving team performance can be tricky, and represents a hurdle for getting started with team development. At Confirmit we chose the same tool that is used in the mandatory course for all study programmes at the master’s level at NTNU: Experts in Teams (https://innsida.ntnu.no/wiki/-/wiki/English/Experts+in+Teamwork). The tool is called SPGR and there are courses available in Norway – see website: http://www.spgr.no/institute/?lang=en

We have been using SPGR for more than 3 years now, and our experiences so far have been good. We have defined team development as: long term, systematic, goal oriented work, in the context of the team and with the tasks & challenges they are set out to resolve. The purpose is to increase team performance. What we measure is a person’s behavior within a group (not a person’s personality) and with this the whole team’s behavior/culture/dynamic. SPGR operates with 3 main behaviors:

  • Task oriented/Structure. Color-code: Blue
  • Opposition. Color-code: Red
  • Social aspects. Color-code: Green

SPGR provides several useful diagrams, the most common one is the Field-diagram. This display team members according to their behavioral appearance and relation to other team members. For a particular team, each circle in the diagram typically represent members of the group. The display of members of a group by the Field-diagram is a “snap-shot” of the group’s dynamic at a given point in time and can be used to map a group’s development over time. SPGR Field-diagram is divided in three sectors, colored BLUE, GREEN and RED. Each person rated are positioned by a circle in this space. A given position in one of the three sectors represents the type of behavior or role described by that sector. Note: each person shows all types of behavior, it’s the average that determines the position (e.g. a person in the blue sector, shows more task oriented behavior than a person in the green sector).  The circles vary in size dependent of how much influence the subject or person exerts; a large circle indicates high degree of influence – a small circle less influence.

Figure 1: The first figure shows all team members rated by the group, while the second figure shows all team members rated by one team member (we see that person A’s perception differs from the average and could be an interesting data point to discuss).

Based on the team’s field diagram, we are able to determine strengths and weaknesses of the team as a whole  and map this to the current tasks the team has set out to solve. Some of the weaknesses that typically surface in these assessments are:

  • A lack of shared understanding of the team dynamics (visible as dotted lines in the first field diagram in figure 1)
  • Polarization among team members, which can be an indication that someone is uncomfortable with the group dynamics. Potential conflicts will be visible in the diagram and can be resolved before coming to the surface.
  • Too little Opposition-behavior (“cozy” team with not enough passion) or too much Opposition (discussions that turns personal and hostile)
  • Uneven spread in influence in the team, potential for loosing out on good ideas.
  • Too little task oriented behavior, resulting in long meetings/discussion without clear action points, unclear way forward.

We are using SPGR for  our teams in Oslo, and have started the work in our Russian teams as well. This gives the  R&D department (around 150 engineers) a common language for the “soft” parts of our job.
Some of the results we have seen so far is:

  • Team members have a more unified understanding of the team and it’s dynamics
  • Identified and addressed latent conflicts and reduced significant polarization
  • More task oriented behavior for certain teams
  • More equal influence in teams, and certain members have made large efforts to put forward their ideas. This is a significant achievement for persons with an introvert personality. (Remember: spgr is about behavior, and behavior can be changed through hard work).
  • Some people have gained personal and surprising insight in how their behavior impact others (“I had no idea I came across this way..”)

This blog post would have become too long if I were to go into the details of the SPGR method and tool, so for those who would like to dive deeper I recommend reading the book https://www.universitetsforlaget.no/nettbutikk/teamet-uf.html and see if this triggers enough curiosity to sign up for a course. 4 team leads in Confirmit R&D Norway signed up for a course and this has given us a common language when we are discussing teams’ performance.

Author: Trond Johansen

Head of Confirmit R&D Norway. Leadership – team development – coaching. Tech companies.

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