Success Factors to Inspire a Team of Software Engineers


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By Markus SprunckRevision: 1.0; Status: final; Last Content Change: Dec 18, 2012;

I'm tired to hear again and again the same stale, old motivational quotes and/or generic mission statements. You know what I mean: "We are the favored vendor for ..., to provide the appropriate service level, ... and create more value for our stakeholders." At least for me this is definitely not inspiring.

Inspiring a team of software engineers, developers, consultants and/or operation specialists is difficult but in most of the cases possible. In the following short article I describe the most important success factors. To be a inspiring technical lead you need more that just some motivational quotes and/or managerial phrases.

Success Factors 

There are many success factors that characterize a inspiring leader - just to mention some oft them:

- high technical and/or technological competence,
- understand and explain the big picture,
- excellent communication and presentation skills,
- high emotional intelligence,
- be a trustworthy person,
- having a vision 
- good communication skills,
- act with fairness and be an optimist,
- have passion and walk the talk

Nobody is strong in all these dimensions. It's not possible to be a super hero. Some things are more essential than others. Let's formulate the most important:

 
"You need a real vision, the trust of team members, the accountability for execution and a lot of passion. High emotional intelligence will be important to give advice and support in an appropriate way. Don't forget to have fortune."

These six factors are from my point of view the most important. You may replace one or two factors by your own favorite, but they will stay in the top 10 most important factors list.

Vision

What is a Vision?

A vision is the 'WHY we do things'. The vision is the big picture/idea and motivation behind all the single goals, strategies and measures you will decide later. Important is in this sentence is the word 'later'. Quite often organizations think that the mission statement, goals and/or strategies of the next year(s) is the same as a vision and use the vision a kind of justification to explain what happened.

The Hill-Climber-Vision Example

Imagine you are 15 years old and have the vision: "I'd like to be the first hill climber who succeed all eight-thousander within one year, to do something extraordinary, get famous and rich." If this teenager really follows the vision - with a lot of work and luck, this may be achievable.

Derived from this vision there are now eight mountains to defeat and survive with a tight time schedule. Years before the first mountain will be climbed, many intermediate milestones have to be reached, e.g. finding sponsors, staffing a team, hard training, learn about geography and medicine, mental training, physical fitness. 

Maybe all the preparations will last ten years. To reach the goal and intermediate milestones, there are many strategic decisions needed. What routes are the best for my vision? Is it better to do crowd-sourcing or find a big sponsor to get the money?

Obviously there is a difference between a vision, goals and strategy.

Difference Between Vision, Goal and Strategy

The vision is the WHY (we do this) and this leads to the goals. The goals are the WHAT (will be needed or has to be done) derived from the vision. And the strategy is the HOW (will we do it) depending on constraints, time, resources, skills and many more factors. It is important not to mix up the vision, goals and strategy.

Some Test Cases for your Vision

- Makes the vision belief in a better future?
- Will it align personal goals of the team members?
- Is it in some way achievable?
- Is the vision consistent with the values?
- Fits it with the vision of your organization?
- Does it create a better world?
- Is the WHY clear?
- Can your vision actually motivate your team?

Especially the last question is important, because we often forget that: 

 
"What motivates me, doesn't necessarily motivate the others."

Trust

Mutual trust between you, the team and stakeholders is essential. Nobody will follow you without trust - even if the vision is fantastic and all other conditions are optimal. 

We don't work for companies, we work for humans. In some cases we would prefer to work with other people, but if we don't trust, we will be in trouble. Missing trust leads to poor communication, information hiding, blaming in difficult situations and a lot more serious problems.

 
"Trust is like a shy animal, you need a long time to create trust and just seconds to destroy trust."

Passion

The fire you may like to light in others, must burn in you. This means that it is utterly necessary to belief in the vision and trust in the idea and the team. Everybody will notice that the message is not convincing in cases you have serious doubts. Some reasonable doubts are needed, but you need a high likelihood that the overall plan and/or vision can be archived.  

Accountability

For sure you know the Story of the Pig and Chicken which is used in SCRUM to explain the difference of direct team members and stakeholders. In this story the pig is committed and the chicken is involved. Committed means you are obligated and/or dedicated to do something. In professional life this means that you agreed to do something.

Accountable means you are responsible for actions. This includes your very own actions and the actions of the team. To be accountable as manger means:

 
"If the results are good, it was the success of the team. If the results are bad,
it has been your fault as technical lead. Not, vice versa !"

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence has two important aspects (i) the intra-personal intelligence describes the ability to have positive relationships and/or good communication between people. This means that you understand what people fell and need and (ii) inter-personal intelligence describes the introspective and self-reflective capacities. Know your self, your emotions and what your weaknesses and/or strengths are, being able to control your own reactions.  

You need a good recognition of your own feelings, emotions and reactions to control your current inner state and bring own automatic reactions to mind and interrupt them if needed. The empathy helps to recognize the feelings and emotions of others, express sympathy in an appropriate way. This is important to reduce of automatic reciprocal effects and bring automatic reactions with others to mind and interrupt. All this helps to create mid- and long-term relations with others.

In this sense emotional intelligence is a kind a glue to bring all the other aspects (vision, trust, accountability and passion) together to the people.

Fortune

Imagine everything started perfect. You have a good vision, the trust of the team, acted with accountability for execution and have had a lot of passion. Your high emotional intelligence helped - you did nothing wrong.

Then something unforeseen happened and "bang!" the team motivation melts like ice-cream in the sun. Maybe it is rumored that there will be a restructuring of the organization, outsourcing of the unit or the top management decided to cancel the project.

To be successful you need luck - sometimes a lot of luck. Be aware that leading humans is not a deterministic activity. Small changes in constraints, team structure or other circumstances may lead to totally different results.

Change History

 Revision  Date  Author  Description
 1.0  Dec 18, 2012  Markus Sprunck  first version
 1.1  Jan 26, 2013  Markus Sprunck  fixed some typos and insert picture

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