How Adaptability and Reliability Help Me Build Highly-Functional Teamsby@ericbutz
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How Adaptability and Reliability Help Me Build Highly-Functional Teams

by Eric ButzApril 17th, 2023
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During periods of market turbulence and high growth, core values provide a valuable grounding point for decision-making for engineering managers. This article makes the case for reliability and adaptability as good core values because they are measurable and can be scaled up from individual teams to entire organizations, allowing for a shared framework to assess effectiveness across departments and the organization as a whole.
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"What would you say... you do here?"

How often do you get asked some form of this question? I get it all the time. From friends, recruiters, hiring managers, and even randoms at a bar.

I am a VP of Engineering at a blockchain startup and I find the question hard to answer without wandering into the weeds.

If I am talking to a tech insider I tell them: 

I build collaborative, highly-functional technology teams.

That is an okay elevator pitch, but it does not have much meat on its bones. It is still too abstract. Hmm, I need to think about this...

...and thus began my journey to uncover the concepts that I could use to create my professional story. Something to give me a narrative that would not cause eyes to roll.

Here is a start:

I support my organization by increasing the reliability and adaptability of the technical team. I support my technical team by providing them with social support, meaning, and trust.

Reliability, adaptability, social support, meaning, trust. These are my core management values.

I am a creator. These values are what I want to create.

They do not describe how I manage. That is, they do not describe management processes or a specific software development methodology. In fact, there may be many different tools, processes, or methodologies that can help build a team that embodies certain values. I would thus argue that it is helpful to have a working set of core values before you adopt specific management processes. Otherwise, how do you know the processes are working?

In this article, I focus on the core values that describe what I believe technology teams should provide to organizations: reliability and adaptability. I begin by outlining why having well-defined core management values is important for technology leaders. Next, I touch on organization theory literature to ground the concepts of reliability and adaptability in previous scholarship. Lastly, I make the argument as to why reliability and adaptability serve as a good foundation for guiding engineering leadership.

Core Values are the Foundation of Organizations and Teams

Core values serve as standards that inform our decision-making and guide our evaluation of people, actions, or events. They are important in our personal and professional lives. Personal core values influence what jobs we take and whether we adhere to different social norms. Organizational core values distinguish a company’s identity, guide recruiting and retention, and shape organizational culture. Value alignment within organizations can boost effectiveness and is crucial to building high-performing teams.

Core values are different from, but are intertwined with, the management methodologies organizations put in place to guide behavior and decision-making. For example, Teal management is a methodology that is defined by self-management (people have high autonomy in their domain), wholeness (people are encouraged to bring their "whole" selves and creativity to work), and evolutionary purpose (the organizational focus is on responding to the market versus the bottom line). In this definition, we see the overlap between values and methodologies: wholeness is a value embedded in Teal management.

Does this mean that if you adopt Teal management, you will suddenly increase wholeness across your organization? No. That is putting the cart before the horse. A more logical ordering would be for an organization that cares about wholeness to adopt Teal management practices because those practices align with the organization's core values. That is, organizations should first understand and nurture a set of core values, and then adopt management practices that will serve to elevate those values.

Similarly, the core values that guide decision making in organizations and teams are different from the organizational processes that are adopted to improve efficiency and effectiveness and achieve goals.

Examples of organizational processes include activities such as the Objectives and Key Results goal-setting framework, agile development, and pair programming. Similar to management methodologies, organizational processes should also be evaluated and adopted only if they support existing core values. For example, if employee autonomy is a core value, then adopting a heavy-handed task-tracking tool is likely to create friction.

In summary, it is good to develop a shared set of core values before adopting specific management methodologies or processes. Core values are deep beliefs that affect how we view the world. Certain methodologies may serve to support and enhance different core values, but they cannot, on their own, generate those values. For core values to truly fulfill their purpose, they must be embedded in all areas of an organization's operations.

Adaptability and Reliability

A central concern of studies of organizations is the relation between the search for new possibilities and the application, and profiting from existing knowledge and technologies. In the field of organizational behavior and decision making this tradeoff has been studied in March's (1991) theory of exploration versus exploitation.

Exploration refers to activities that require new information that comes from research and investigation such as developing new products or entering new markets. It includes things captured by terms such as risk-taking, experimentation, discovery, and innovation.

Exploitation refers to activities where the central goal is to leverage existing knowledge and expertise rather than relying on experimentation. It is captured by terms such as refinement, efficiency, implementation, and execution.

Adaptability is a key characteristic of teams wanting to focus on exploration. Adaptable teams are able to quickly respond to unexpected events and adjust their processes to meet new requirements from inside and outside of their organization. For example, adaptability is an attribute of technology startups where the focus is on developing novel software and rapidly innovating based on feedback from early adopters.

Reliability is a key characteristic of teams wanting to focus on exploitation. Building reliable software means creating a product that works consistently, is free of bugs and errors, and meets user expectations. Reliable engineering teams maintain roadmaps and release schedules and have clearly defined development, QA, and release processes.

Ultimately, high-performing organizations must be adaptable and reliable. Organizations that focus on adaptability to the exclusion of reliability are likely to find that they suffer the costs of experimentation without gaining many of its benefits. They may exhibit too many undeveloped new ideas and too little distinctive competence. Conversely, organizations that focus on reliability to the exclusion of adaptability are likely to find themselves trapped in suboptimal stable equilibria. In other words, organizations that focus too much on adaptability may never reap the benefits of their work while organizations that focus too much on reliability may remain static and fall behind industry trends (March, 1991).

Adaptability and Reliability as a Foundation for Engineering Leadership

Reliability and adaptability are good core values for a technology team because they are measurable and easily linked to organizational goals. These values provide clear benchmarks for success, making it easier for managers to evaluate the effectiveness of their teams and processes. For example, reliability can be measured in terms of uptime, time to market, bug rates, and customer feedback while adaptability can be measured in terms of time spent on R&D, response time for new features, and new product revenue.

Instead of debating release schedules or budget line items, it is more beneficial for a VP of Engineering to engage in conversations with executive teams about reliability and adaptability. Inquiring whether the technology team is viewed as reliable and adaptable by both the executive team and customers should be the primary focus of these discussions. Furthermore, as reliability and adaptability are also critical organizational objectives, engineering leaders can employ these discussions as opportunities to "manage up" and determine if the organization is fully capitalizing on everything that the technology team has developed and provided.

For example, startups often engage in a prolonged phase of product development as they strive to create a minimum viable product. Following this, they may spend time building additional features that were not included in the initial release. As an engineering leader it is critical to question whether all of these new features are generating revenue and increasing user adoption. If they are not, then redirecting resources towards initiatives that prioritize reliability should be discussed with the executive team. This could include efforts to simplify developer SDKs or increase product accessibility for larger enterprises.

On the other hand, startups that achieve early product success often fall short in keeping up with changing market conditions. Take, for instance, a team that develops a database tool that significantly improves the processing of large volumes of business intelligence data. With satisfied customers, growing revenue, and a competitive edge over their peers, they direct all their technical resources towards enhancing their product's features to keep their advantage. As a technology leader, it is essential to question whether the team is anticipating emerging trends and the requirements of customers outside of their target market. If not, then a discussion should be held regarding the additional allocation of resources to increase adaptability. This could involve initiatives such as setting aside time for technical brainstorming or creating bounties for developing prototypes of new features.

Final Thoughts

In this article, I make the case for using core values as the foundation for team building. Engineering managers experience a constant barrage of new tools and processes and are faced with increasingly dynamic markets. We cannot afford the time to thrash about experimenting with the latest management trends but instead must be able to quickly evaluate opportunities for improvement. During periods of turbulence, core values provide a grounding point for decision-making.

As a VP of Engineering, I prioritize adaptability and reliability. These values provide a foundation for building teams and developing management processes and can be scaled up from individual teams to entire organizations, allowing for a shared framework to assess effectiveness across departments and for the organization as a whole.

Future Considerations

Adopting adaptability and reliability as the basis for decision-making and team-building raises questions that merit exploration. How can a team be built to effectively demonstrate adaptability and reliability as the situation demands? Are there specific hiring strategies that can be employed to onboard developers who can support the technical team's adaptability and reliability? Do adaptability and reliability require different management processes? Answering these questions is an important step towards implementing a core values-based approach to management.