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How To Build A Successful IT Team

There are three key attributes high-functioning IT team members share that are identifiable in your initial interviews: Desire, willingness, and “teachability.”

There’s been a lot written about the importance of teamwork over the years. Entire books (and for some writers, entire careers) have been based upon what it takes to create synergy among disparate team members. But what business leaders often neglect to highlight is the importance of bringing the right peopletogether as a first step to generating great teamwork. For so many disciplines, having the right talent in the room is the critical first factor in determining team success. And this is particularly true with information technology teams. Here’s why.

IT is notorious for being over time and over budget. The reason almost always boils down to not having the right people on the job, because IT departments often dive straight into assembling teams from a project idea rather than from a project description. These are two very different things.

Developing a detailed project description at the outset often makes the difference between a project capable of staying on time and on budget, and one that is not. Once you have a project description, it’s easy to identify the specific mix of job descriptions needed. If you dive into assembling the team before going through these two steps, you'll forever be trying to reverse-engineer the ideal IT project team, and that is a recipe for failure every time.

The amount of time you spend thinking through the nuances of each job description will be rewarded by increased team efficiency in the long run. So, spend a lot of time and energy here, and you will be rewarded with a significantly higher functioning team. Once you have an accurate project description and accompanying job descriptions, it’s time to start recruiting your team. And when it comes to hiring, process beats personality seven days a week.

What attributes does a strong IT team need?

There are three key attributes high-functioning IT team members share that are identifiable in your initial interviews: Desire, willingness, and “teachability.”

The key with desire is you aren't just looking for people who want to win, but that believe they are going to win no matter what. They don't get out of bed to lose. They may not know exactly how, but they’re confident they and their team are going to win. When you can find these people and surround them with others who have the same winning style and energy, you are going to get it done.

When it comes to willingness, you have to identify individuals who you know have the conviction and strength of character to do whatever it might take to succeed (within ethical boundaries, of course). Look for potential team members who have demonstrated their ability to go beyond the ordinary to get a job done, including things that at first might seem counterintuitive, uncomfortable or even unbelievable. Project teams that include these individuals will exceed expectations.

A third, less tangible attribute is what I call “teachability.” This may be the most difficult attribute to detect, but the most important to find. Team members must be naturally teachable, willing to change, and open to new ideas. If they are not, your team will face unnecessary slowdowns, and overall progress will be hampered.

The right stuff, combined with collaboration and reward

Even a team armed with the right skills and attributes can fall victim to dissent and stubbornness. These are the progress killers you’ll need to eliminate and can be a challenge to avoid in a group of highly talented individuals. Dissention and lack of collaboration occur when someone must be right, and in IT "right" is not always an option. Teams that function without common goals struggle, because self-centered motivators lead to dissention. 

To keep a group of high-functioning individuals centered, you need to energize the team with a shared core goal that unifies everyone and everything. When problems arise -- and they will -- a unified core goal will provide the single touchstone needed to bring everyone back to center.

In addition to helping keep everyone centered, establishing a core goal provides measurement and accountability that can be used to determine success and most of all, rewards. We all know that financial incentives, while important, are not the greatest reward in the minds of IT professionals.

The best way to reward project teams and employees is through something tangible, given with public recognition so others understand the value of the team. I don't care if it is an engraved plaque on the wall, a shirt with a cool logo, or a challenge coin. A unique keepsake reward combined with praise in front of colleagues goes a very long way. When you reward a team in this manner, team members walk away legitimately happy with something they don't want to toss aside or minimize -- because it is an ongoing reminder of the recognition they received. 

On their own, following these guidelines may not insure you’ll have a winning team project, but neglecting to follow them will absolutely guarantee failure. There is no other way to build a great IT team than by first looking for the attributes required to achieve your goal.

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HK Bain has been building successful IT teams for more than 20 years. He currently serves as president and CEO of Digitech Systems, LLC, a provider of content capturing and management products, where he focuses extensively on team building and unification as a key pillar of the company’s success. For more information, email [email protected].