Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Start Off Big

One of the most often heard requests for advice I get is from leaders who are trying to establish or grow a development organization. This makes sense because building an organization that can effectively deliver technology solutions isn't just hard, it is one of the most difficult types of organizations that exist.

Especially with the entrepreneurial types a common approach is try to do things on the cheap. They try and get the lowest cost resource who can do just the minimum type of work they think they need to get their idea of the ground. They think if they just had a guy who could do X, they'd figure out all the rest. And couldn’t that resource somehow grow into someone who can do X and Y? As if acquiring good technology talent is like finding a great pitcher. Not even close.

Finding a player for a team brings together skills of the various team members based on who they are now. Bringing together a world-class technology team is about finding people who will become fundamentally different when they are successful. You cannot see them for who they are, or even who they will become as they grow. You need contributors who perform in certain ways when things are failing, when needs aren't being met, when you are clearly not having success. You need contributors who won't necessarily compensate for the weakness of others to drive to success, but leverage those weaknesses to change the business or the circumstances. It's not always about success, sometimes it is about managing the failures. It isn't always about finding someone who can be successful, but identifying someone who will tolerate and grow even when objectives aren't being met.

These are hard truths but let me come at it from a different angle.

If you found someone who could very easily do what you need to do today to make the system run smoothly, they would likely be bored tomorrow once the system is running smoothly. They wouldn't necessarily have the motivation to seek the optimum solution, the unreasonably good approach to the circumstance. You don't want someone who knows your problem and only your problem and has done it a thousand times and will do it a thousand more. This person is a technician. They are a commodity and you should bring them in only for point-in-time consultations. Otherwise, they'll be bored and they won't think outside the box.

Finding someone who clearly hasn't done what you need and is willing to try something new is risky but might be worth a shot. The upside is you get someone who is willing to grow and learn. This is always valuable but brings with it some chance of failure. After all, they might not be successful in the direction they choose to take. You can mitigate the risk if you have some expertise available to stop them from going off the rails, but if you had that expertise already you wouldn't be in the position of seeking someone new.

What you want is someone who has done something similar, who can bring the lessons in their successes and failures to bear in the problem-space you find yourself. They can challenge the status quo, but recognize that most new things are variations on the patterns that have gone before. You want them over-qualified for the job so they learn the trivia of the circumstance and challenges the assumptions and your execution. But you want them demonstrable capable of adapting to the change as the solutions mature from idea to sustainment.

So like a good real-estate investor friend of mine once told me, go for the house just a little more than you can afford. You'll have to really work at it in the short-term, but very quickly you'll grow into it. You'll pay more for the big gun when you start off, but if he's good he'll have your organization growing very quickly and then you'll need someone with his experience to manage the technicians you will bring in as well as the young bucks who will need mentoring.

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