“The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
-Rudyard Kipling, The Second Jungle Book
Right now, companies are struggling to hire and retain software makers. High demand and low supply have created a super-competitive talent marketplace for software developers, designers, and project managers. Specifically, opportunities from national organizations that offer higher pay and fully remote work are leading to people making job changes.
Not every technology company can compete successfully on salaries in this market. And not every job can be fully remote — nor should it be. Competing in only these dimensions creates a free agency relationship between the company and hires. Employees can leave at any time for a better offer. And companies with remote workers can easily cut them during hard times. These market conditions in the long term are unsustainable and will lead to bad outcomes for everyone.
For your company to compete, you’ll need to offer competitive pay and workplace flexibility. But more importantly, it is necessary to lean into the cultural dimensions of your organization. One of the best ways to do this is by leveraging the power of teams. And, specifically, the practice team.
Introducing Practice Teams
There are two common teams in every organization: administrative and project teams. Administrative teams are functional and designed to fulfill some ongoing operational task. Project teams accomplish a specific goal in a finite time and disappear afterwards. Both are necessary for a business to operate effectively and grow.
In professional services organizations, a third type of team offers a unique experience. This team focuses on the specific craft performed by its members. It has the power to create shared purpose, learning through mutual curiosity, and connection through supportive relationships. This is the practice team.
You will find examples of a practice team in a variety of professional services businesses. For law firms, there are practice groups focused on areas of law like real estate, trust and estates, and patent law. In accounting, there are practice groups focused on public, government, and private accounting. And still more can be found in the medical and dental fields.
The Practice of Software Professionals
Naturally, software professionals have their own unique disciplines in which they specialize. Software developers “practice” their discipline in their work and often look for opportunities to further their skills with other developers. This can happen within the company but also through participation in groups and activities external to their company. External participation offers a great way to build and expand their professional network.
For a software consultancy, leveraging internal facing practice-oriented teams is a powerful way to serve the needs of the company’s software professionals. A practice team will create a strong relationships through a shared identity. Members of practice will often support each other through difficult work. And they will share information freely, pool knowledge resources, and learn from each others mistakes.
A great benefit of practice teams is that they last longer far beyond ephemeral project teams. Project team members will change from one project to the next, but practice team members will stay the same. This allows the practice team and ability to evolve processes, tools, and methods together over a long period of time.
A practice team in a software business is not designed as a division focused on selling its own work to generate revenue. Instead, it exists to elevate the craft in the practice and the level up the skills of the members. Thus, through this work, a professional software consultancy delivers a superior quality and service to its clients.
Leading the Practice
Practices can exist as a collective group working in a democratic way to support each other. But the best practice groups have a leadership element in the form of a practice leader. In fact, David Maister points out in his book “Managing the Professional Services Firm” the factors that are noticeably different at the best firms. That is “energy, drive, enthusiasm, motivation, morale, determination, dedication, and commitment” of the team.
He states that one factor stands out in creating this dynamism, and that’s “the skills and behavior of practice leader(s).”
The Practice Lead is an experienced maker with excellent consulting skills. They need to be respected by their team and live by the values of the organization. The right Practice Lead will bring a level of organization and coaching that will grow the people within the practice.
A good Practice Lead will:
- Provide informal coaching on a “one-on-one” basis, acting as a source of help for personal growth and development.
- Initiate and run regular meetings of the practice group.
- Ensure practice group meetings are engaging, productive, and valuable for both the organization and meeting participants.
- Rapidly and effectively disseminate knowledge, skills, and expertise to their practice group.
- Encourage collective development of tools and processes to benefit everyone in the practice.
- Advocate for learning opportunities for members of the practice group.
- Stay current on the ever-evolving state of industry tools and best practices.
For a software consultancy that bills by the hour, it will be important to set aside un-billable time for the Practice Lead to work on the practice and people within the practice. The exact amount of un-billable time should be based on how large the practice is within the business.
Coaching for Growth
The Practice Lead is not the direct manager of the team members within the practice. And they don’t account for the time team members spend on work.
Instead, a good Practice Lead is an active coach providing guidance and feedback. They motivate people towards constant self-improvement as they drive towards excellence in their maker craft. When people are confronted with a difficult situation, Practice Leads will encourage a player mindset so that the person concentrates on their behaviors and focuses on factors within their control to improve the situation.
They can participate in hiring activities and provide input on a member’s development to managers. But they stay away from any direct HR-related activity.
Finally, a Practice Lead creates long-term value for the business through their coaching efforts to engage, encourage, focus and channel the energies and ambitions of software professionals. This is the best case for having a formal Practice Lead in a software consultancy.
Making it All Real
For Atomic, we are implementing the Practice Lead job in our Grand Rapids office. In that office, we’ve been prototyping many habits and behaviors you find in practices within our development, design, and delivery teams over the last couple of years. This fits Atomic’s point of view on first running experiments and living with the change before formalizing them.
Having practices teams for our development, design, and delivery teams allows us to continue honing our craft while forging deeper functional and emotional relationships with each other. It provides a supportive and caring relationship to our Atoms to help them grow their skills as consultants and mastery of their craft.
We believe strong practice teams combined with fair pay, flexible schedules, meaningful projects, and a unique culture makes Atomic an attractive place to work and grow. The ultimate yield is the creation of true professionals who perform at the highest levels of their craft and bring good into the world.