5 Duties of a Technical Leader: Clarify Direction

June 25, 2014

The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious.
— John Scully

How does a technical leader act in a company with empowered teams? This blog post is part of a series that tries to answer that question. I believe all leaders must attend to five fundamental duties: demonstrate character, clarify direction, solve problems, increase motivation and develop people. Read on to learn how a leader creates momentum by attending to her second duty: clarifying the direction in which the team is heading.

Most of the leaders I encounter these days are under enormous pressures to deliver. Often, they exclusively dedicate their time and energy to solving the problem at hand and feel that there’s no time to also think about tomorrow. “Let tomorrow take care of itself”, they seem to think. Effective leaders, however, have learned to detach themselves from the day to day worries and think hard about the team’s direction. To do that, they need to clarify their vision, make public all the relevant information, encourage others to join them and set a high bar for performance.

Envision the future

There’s a very funny conversation in Alice in Wonderland between Alice and the Cat:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“– so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Where is your team heading? Does it have a clear direction or is it just going “somewhere”? A good technical leader knows what their company’s goals are and tries to catalyze team changes that will help the company achieve its goals. The team should agree on the vision and create a series of experiments that will take them closer to it.

Here are some examples of a True North* for your team:

  • Achieve 50% code coverage of our legacy app through continuous refactoring.
  • Deploy our web application with one click.
  • Zero critical production defects.
  • Develop all production code using TDD.
  • Every Sprint ends in a production-ready build.

* A term borrowed from the lean community, used to describe the vision for our work system in the future.

Democratize information

You’re a team leader, ScrumMaster, architect, senior developer or manager. Your managers ask for your contributions in determining the technical strategy for the next quarter. You feel good. This is what power is, isn’t it? The ability to influence key decisions. But what about your other team members? How aligned will they be with the strategy?

Traditional thinking associates power with exclusive access to information. “Here’s what was decided in the management meeting. Execute and don’t ask any questions!” But good leaders know that a company is only as strong as the decisions made by its frontline employees. I like to call them “the people who do the actual work”.

Whenever a technical direction is mandated, the decision should be explained to everyone: what were the considered alternatives and why was one chosen over the other. For bonus points, engage everyone in the strategic processes. Create an internal idea market place that everyone can use to provide suggestions. For smaller companies, use town hall style discussions. Larger firm can create internal social networks using tools like Jive, Yammer or Socialtext.

Enlist others

The best vision in the world will have zero chance of success if the team does not believe in it. As John Maxwell said: “He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk”. Your vision should be audacious. It should have a 50/50 chance of success. Therefore, you need every single person behind it. Make sure you have everyone’s support before moving forward.

Ask your colleagues what they believe about the goals. Do they commit to achieving them? If not, inquire about their source of resistance. Perhaps they need more training, they don’t see the value or feel unsafe to move in a certain direction. Sometimes when we are transitioning to Scrum, the managers ask me if the company will still need them. Other times developers struggle with unit testing because they haven’t been trained in modular design. And a couple of times I’ve had to explain to architects the value of having the entire team engaged in designing the system. These are all important and valid concerns that we need to solve. I always make sure to clarify the vision of the transition and ask for everyone’s support in achieving it before we get started.

Expect the best

In a famous study from the 60s, Rosenthal and Jacobson created a social experiment in which they told some midschool teachers the names of pupils expected to have great results that year. When measuring at the end of the year, indeed all the named pupils had above-average results. The catch? The pupils had been chosen at random. They weren’t necessarily above average. The conclusion of the study was that when teachers expect higher performance from their students, the students will perform better.

Sometimes called the Pygmalion effect, it seems that there’s a high correlation between the expectations we set for our peers and the way they behave. To take advantage of this effect, introduce and reinforce the message that you will always bring your “A” game to work each morning and that you expect your colleagues to do the same. Provide positive and negative feedback whenever the high standard of quality/performance/teamwork/transparency etc. is not being respected. Ask the others to also provide the same type of feedback in return.

***

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the day to day challenges of a modern company. Most of us cope by trying to be more efficient and productive with the current task. But in order to truly achieve great results, we must also look forward and chart our course. Leaders should engage their peers in defining a common direction, make ample amounts of information available and hold everyone accountable for doing their best.

Read the other blog posts in the series:

Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/6NVMNq

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