“Many people say they went into technology because they don’t like people very much.”
This statement from ThoughtWorks’ CTO Rebecca Parsons probably makes most of us give at least a little knowing chuckle. We’ve all encountered the stereotypical IT person, one who’s happier interfacing with code than colleagues. However, with technology at the forefront of virtually every growing organization, it’s more important than ever to bring strong communications and leadership skills to technical roles.
So, what’s the secret when it comes to being the kind of leader that can proficiently guide technical teams while inspiring innovation? Successful leaders do these things:
Maintain a Disruptive Culture
“Disrupt or die.” That’s the way cloud-based ERP alternative Workday began its efforts. According to Joe Korngiebel, the company’s CTO, company leaders knew they had a “crazy idea” to disrupt their industry by putting people at the center of enterprise software. As they grew from the startup stage and became an industry leader at scale, they had to mindfully keep an attitude of innovation as part of their culture, rather than allowing bureaucracy and adherence to the status quo to creep in.
The fact is that the biggest ideas are usually a little crazy. That’s not to say that all crazy ideas are good, but by creating an environment where crazy ideas are not only encouraged but heard and considered, you can inspire the type of energy and reflection needed to keep your team one step ahead of the market.
No matter what advanced systems you put in place, at the end of the day, people are the most important asset your company can possibly have. In a world where technology evolves rapidly and the skills gap is growing, it’s important to create an environment where your people recognize the trust you have in them and their ideas.
Establishing an internal environment built on trust allows people to thrive and be successful. It also gives your team members the confidence to feel safe experimenting, innovating and bringing exciting possibilities to the table.
As a leader in a technical area, your most valuable skill set is no longer your ability to get your hands dirty with day-to-day development efforts. Instead, the most valuable resource you can provide is your time. Time spent listening to employees and customers can yield intangible value through relationship building, as well as actual tangible results through shared brainstorming that leads to innovative new services.
No one likes the idea of failing, but in a tech environment, failure is just a part of the game.
“To encourage creativity, you really do have to celebrate the sensible failures,” Parsons said. If a team member has wholeheartedly invested in understanding their project, from the technology to the cost to the customer impact, then there is knowledge to be gained even from a failure.
Failure correlates with risk; if you make daring moves, you’re bound to fail occasionally. Look for the kernel of reason and the energy that went into the endeavor. If employees are afraid to take risks because failure is punished, the next big thing may pass your tech teams by. Korngiebel that when celebrating failures, we actually “celebrate the human spirit,” the intrepid desire to continue pushing forward and disrupting to build and enhance the world.
Adapt To Change
Speaking of change, one of the most important characteristics of a technical leader is the ability to adapt and evolve. With today’s speed and constancy of innovation, we don’t know where change will come from or what form it will take, so we can’t prepare for specifics. All we can do is prepare for disruption in one form or another.
The best way to do this is to make sure your systems and processes are as easy to understand as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean creating simple things; rich complexity can and should still be present, but your teams should be able to explain each system and understand its importance within your business.
Making moves, and allowing team members to learn cross-functionally, can also help your organization remain healthy and ready for change. Korngiebel referenced a move his team made, taking the head of design and moving them to lead front-end development. While moves like these can seem strange to outsiders, they work because they give talented employees a better overall understanding of processes and allow them to experiment and bring their own knowledge to other parts of the business.
Balance Your Teams
Technical leaders may have a bias toward colleagues with strong technical skills, but it’s crucial to balance out your left-brain tech skills with right-brained team members.
Your developers may bring robust tech skills to a project, but you will also benefit from non-technical employees serving on the team. Why? Because they bring empathy and a customer or end-user-focused perspective to development. Look for a broad range of perspectives so you can create projects where balanced collaboration makes the sum greater than its parts.
Understand The Importance of Design
When you have a strong team in place, you have to make sure everyone is on board and ready to work from the right starting point. Top-notch design is crucial to creating a positive end result. Use feedback from employees and customers to make sure you’re building products that really work and meet users’ needs.
Customer-driven innovation can provide your team with a better understanding of what is needed before design even starts. Taking this approach makes the development process better and more seamless because you’re delivering truly useful innovation. No one wants to build a product that doesn’t get used, or that flops because it doesn’t provide what the user wants. Consider design workshops, feedback sessions and even hackathons with outside participants as opportunities to bake in customer-focused design from the very beginning of your project.
One of the hardest things for many technical leaders? Understanding when to get your hands dirty and when to step back. It comes down to trusting your people and staying curious and involved. To be truly successful as a technical leader, you need to strike the right note between those two sides. If you can do so, you’ll be able to build strong, creative, effective teams that understand what’s ahead and why collaborative innovation is interesting, exciting, and mandatory for success.