Managing Tech Teams: New Study Identifies Four Culture Challenges Unique to Tech that Strongly Affect Performance

Provo, Utah (June 14) – A new study released today identifies four culture challenges in tech companies that substantially affect a tech organization’s ability to execute and innovate. And yet, tech leaders receive little-to-no training or coaching on how to successfully manage these challenges.

According to the study conducted by Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield and Chase McMillan, cofounders and researchers at VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty Inc. company, these unique cultural traits can act as either accelerants or drags on performance depending on the competence of leaders. Tech managers who master these four culture challenges can significantly boost the performance of their organization. The four include:

  1. It’s Gotta Be Cool. Tech employees are drawn to elite companies and path-breaking projects. If their current company isn’t seen as the “coolest,” on top of the latest technologies or getting top press coverage, they move to companies that are. And within a company, “cool” problems get all the resources while mundane issues like institution building go begging.
  2. Relentless Pressure. Tech employees work long days, during weekends and holidays and the pace never slows. They must meet demanding expectations and deliver on tight timelines and short project cycles.
  3. Consistent Ambiguity. Tech employees must navigate unclear and overlapping accountabilities that are constantly shifting and create confusion, misalignment and competition. Power gravitates to product problems while those who address organizational dysfunction get ignored.
  4. Déjà Vu All Over Again. Tech employees are one big network. People who are peers today become managers, peers or direct reports in another company tomorrow. This results in a kind of collusion where people avoid tough conversations that might be crucial to project success for fear of creating bad blood with a future boss or colleague.

While the workplace culture of tech companies like Amazon, Google and Apple has been heavily scrutinized anecdotally in the past few years, Grenny, Maxfield and McMillan wondered two things: 1) are these cultural idiosyncrasies real and 2) do they matter?

The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with senior and mid-level managers in large to medium-sized tech companies—companies that create technology as a product or service.

Leaders discussed challenges they felt were most important and unique to tech. Seven challenges emerged as trends and Grenny, Maxfield and McMillan surveyed 827 tech employees and 2,800 non-tech employees to measure the frequency, severity and solvability of these challenges.

By creating a performance scale and then using a regression analysis, they found four of the seven challenges (listed above) did an extraordinary job of predicting performance (R=.51, p < .0001).

“These inherent aspects of tech life can be either assets or pathologies—depending on the competence of leaders,” Grenny says. “For example, the fact that star players in tech tend to recycle through different companies can cause them to avoid confronting mission-critical problems. Building your network trumps getting things done.”

“What we found is that these challenges are elephants in the room that everyone sees, but no one directly confronts,” Maxfield says. “Our interviews suggest they go unaddressed for two reasons: first, leaders don’t have the skill to address them; and second, there is a heroic cultural norm in tech that suggests real players are too smart or too motivated to be daunted by these realities. Ultimately, they grow from manageable concerns to harmful undiscussables.”

And yet, the data confirms managers who successfully lead through these challenges see significant improvement in performance across their team.

“Far too many tech leaders think product is all that matters—get to market and all the cultural issues disappear. Our research shows those who thrive in the long-term give equal attention to building product today and a culture that can sustain results tomorrow,” Grenny says.

Grenny, Maxfield and McMillan combined the results of their interviews with their thirty years of experience leading culture change initiatives in Fortune 500 companies to uncover management strategies tech leaders can use to address the four culture challenges and improve performance.

  1. Connect to Cool: To attract, engage and retain top talent, the most successful managers are deft at making the work of their teams “cool.” They look beyond the trendy perks characteristic of the industry and focus on making tight connections between the work their people do and one or more of the following strategic areas:
    • Strategic Advantage. Connect to the organization’s identifying character, secret sauce or competitive edge.
    • Critical Uncertainty. Link to a burning platform or urgent opportunity.
    • Tech Edge. Show how projects push the edge of the technological envelope.
    • Careers. Show how the team or project will further a person’s career.
    • Social Values. Link the team or project to the positive impact it has on customers, society and the world.
  1. Build Rhythm and Flow: The best tech managers actively build a predictable rhythm and flow of work to reduce the relentless pressure of the industry.
    • Build Rhythm. Engineer procrastination out of the workflow by asking employees to track and report daily progress, provide lifelines to help when pressure peaks and allow employees to utilize and define their downtime.
    • Build Flow. People’s engagement peaks when they work in a state of psychological flow. When managers provide challenging work, autonomy, feedback and an interruption-free environment, flow naturally follows.
  1. Overcome Ambiguity through Dialogue: Keeping people on course and on track despite overlapping assignments, unclear ownership and changing priorities is a constant challenge in tech. The best tech leaders handle the problem of Consistent Ambiguity with dialogue. They build norms that support those who discover and confront contradictions as soon as they occur—a strategy that minimizes formal and informal divergence, inconsistencies, unrealistic deadlines and scope creep in plans and priorities.
  2. Déjà Vu Accountability: Managers who overcome the problem of Déjà Vu All Over Again know the tendency to prioritize positive relationships over accountability is a false choice. These leaders create a culture where accountability doesn’t come at the price of current and future relationships. To do so, they employ the following strategies:
    • Create Safety. Managers approach accountability as an exploration of causes and solutions rather than blame and shame which bolsters trust and improves performance.
    • Build Skills. Managers provide training and practice for holding others accountable without undermining relationships. Unless and until people have the skills, they’ll bite their tongues and problems will persist.
    • Step Out of the Middle. The best managers avoid using position power. In this industry “code wins arguments.” Deference to authority should never win out over deference to expertise.

Grenny and Maxfield, authors of the business bestsellers Crucial Conversations and Influencer, will share the results of this study in a live webinar on June 15. To register for the complimentary webinar visit: http://www.telenect.com/u/9bqrho1mui/. The full research report is available at vitalsmarts.com/managingtech.

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Note to Editor: Grenny and Maxfield are available for interviews. Copies of the research are available.

About VitalSmarts: Named one of the Top 20 Leadership Training Companies, VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty, Inc. company, is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations®, Crucial Accountability®, Change Anything®, and Influencer Training® and New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than 1.5 million people worldwide. vitalsmarts.com

About TwentyEighty: TwentyEighty is one of the largest workforce development companies in the world and is powered by some of the premier brands in the industry, such as Miller Heiman, MHI Global, VitalSmarts, AchieveForum, TwentyEighty Strategy Execution and Omega Performance. Our solutions are designed to help companies improve business results through the areas of Leadership Performance, Sales Performance, Credit Performance and Strategic Execution. twentyeighty.com

Contact: Clay Blackham: clay@methodcommunications.com or 801-461-9755.

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