Understanding tech-team dynamics

Understanding how poor team chemistry can lead to underperformance, and how to build your team up.
Written by Tim Landgrave, Contributor
The CIO of a Fortune 2000 company engaged me recently to help him determine why one of his development groups was underperforming. The particular team had bright people, a proven leader, and access to all the technical tools and training requested. Yet, despite all of these advantages, code was overdue, budgets were blown, and customer requirements were met marginally at best.

After attending several team meetings, conducting code reviews, and talking to key team players, I told the CIO that the performance problem wasn’t an IS-related issue—it all tied to poor team chemistry.

Examining how personality fits in
In order to gauge the extent of the problem, I suggested conducting a blind test on the development group and then comparing the results to a blind test of another in-house tech team that was meeting and exceeding expectations.

While there are plenty of personality test tools to use, the one that I’ve used to successfully build teams is the Keirsey Temperament Sorter.

Developed by psychologist David Keirsey, the test is a quick and simple way to help determine which of the 16 basic personality types a person possesses. Keirsey’s book Please Understand Me II: Temperament Character Intelligence explains the personality types in detail and provides an exhaustive discussion of which personalities work well together, which don’t, and more importantly, why.

Each member of the development team took the test and then submitted the forms to an HR coordinator. Once the results were compiled, the HR coordinator reviewed the results with each team member individually. The only ones who knew the individual results were the HR coordinator and the team member to whom the test was administered.

The test results, as a team, were grouped by function (developer, designer, and architect). I then met with the HR coordinator, the CIO, and the two team leaders to discuss the results. To describe the discussion as enlightening would be an understatement.

Performance tied to personality issues
The team that was performing well had two interesting characteristics. First, all of the core developers had the same personality profile with few variations in the dominance of each key characteristic. The same was true of the designer and system architect team members. Second, the three distinct personality types (developers, designers, and architects) were all compatible types; i.e., they were able to work together without having to be cognizant of their personality differences.

The same could not be said for the nonperforming team.

On that team, the developers had different and incompatible personality types. In fact, once the team leader saw the types that were comingled on the team, he was able to recount several situations that mapped almost directly to Keirsey’s predictions on how these different types would respond to each other in times of conflict or stress.

After looking at the results, I commented that this team leader must be spending all of his time sorting out disagreements between team members. He laughed uncomfortably and then confirmed that this was, in fact, the case with this team.

The next step involved meeting with both teams and conducting a training session on the basics of each personality type and how they can work effectively with those of a different type.

We then shared each team's aggregated test results with its specific members and pointed out the difficulties that the nonperforming team likely faced when trying to solve problems. We encouraged the team members to discuss the results among themselves and work to develop an understanding of each other's personality strengths.

The result was pretty radical: Within a month, a large percentage of the nonperforming team members either changed roles or requested reassignment to another part of the organization.

Team building a core element to project success
The scenario I've described is an example of using test tools in a very reactive approach—trying to solve a problem already created.

Obviously, the best and most successful approach to strong team building is working proactively. As IT shops resume hiring, there is a unique opportunity to use technical and personality skills assessment tools to build, and rebuild, project teams that will work well together from the start.

Many companies I work with are now taking the time to determine the personality types that work best in surrogate departments—such as development, engineering, help desk, etc. They do this by testing top performers and determining which personality profiles tend to excel in these positions.

With this information in hand, they not only can hire applicants that meet technical requirements but also those that will “fit in” to the environment and work productively with other team members.

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