Seven Leadership Focus Areas to Cultivate Engineering Excellence

Posted on September 12, 2023

If you’ve been following my posts you’ll know I’m passionate about cultivating cultures of Engineering Excellence and why leaders need to go beyond numbers and data and focus on teamwork and what makes a team exceptional. But I haven’t explained what technology leaders can do to achieve this.

I’ve come up with seven areas technology leaders can focus on to create these cultures of engineering excellence by developing mechanisms which provide teams with the feedback loops they need so they can autonomously drive towards improving customer, business, team and individual outcomes.

Here’s the key: leaders must provide these tools in the teams first and bring value directly to them. Once in place leaders can reuse these same mechanisms to better connect what’s really happening on the ground with the broad organisational goals they are responsible for driving.

1. Align everything to Customer and Business Impact

To excel in engineering, teams must first understand the customer and user deeply and the relationship between them and business success. Clarify each team’s purpose in customer terms, demonstrating how it contributes to the business. This alignment fosters a sense of purpose and motivation among your engineers.

Develop feedback loops that facilitate a deeper understanding of customer needs and behaviours. For example by capturing customer activity and interactions. These signals provide invaluable insights into user needs and preferences.

Next, measure your business capability metrics to gauge operational effectiveness. How efficient are your business operational processes in delivering value? For example, are payments completed with accuracy and speed?

2. Monitor Delivery Logistics and Quality of Service

To continously improve on your customers satisfaction and business outcomes you need to be confident that you have the capability to be responsive to new ideas whilst providing reliable services.

Establish feedback loops that give teams insights into the health and agility of their Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) and Operations (Ops) by using metrics like flow efficiency, DORA 4KM and Service Level Indicators (SLIs).

Ensure that you have a strong understanding of your cross-functional requirements (security, availability, accessibility, compliance etc.) and that you have visibility of how you are performing against them.

Focus on continous improvement and help teams identify waste and impediments and give them the tools and time so they can proactively elimate them independantly.

3. Build Pride in Practice and Craft

As humans we are intrinsically motivated to become good at what we do and develop pride in the quality of our work.

Supercharge this instinct by working with the community to co-create practices and standards. Empower your community to create and own frameworks that align with their context and discipline. Let them be the torchbearers of progress as they advance ways of working.

Help individuals assess their skill levels against these practices. For instance, if Test-Driven Development (TDD) is a practice, provide a clear path for developers to self-assess, gather feedback from others and grow their expertise.

4. Accelerate High Quality Decision-Making

Empower your teams by pushing decision-making closer to them. Embeding the above feedback loops at team, rather than management level, will provide them with the framing and data they need to make fast, high quality decisions and learn from them.

However, be mindful of consistency and alignment risks. Invest in decision support mechanisms such as joint solutioning forums, knowledge management, and lightweight, co-owned governance structures. These mechanisms enhance collaboration, speed up decision-making, and maintain alignment without becoming rigid.

5. Foster Individual Growth

People are your greatest asset, and the more you can help them grow the greater the impact they will have.

To nurture engineering excellence, provide individuals with feedback loops that enhance their intuition and accelerate learning. Imagine it like a musician who uses a metronome to improve their sense of rythm and timing.

Offer coaching and mentoring and use yours and others expertise and experience to provide an objective sounding board, increasing empowerment and growth.

Proactively look for and create opportunities for people to take on more responsibility and leverage your own leadership.

6. Develop Sense Making and Ethnography

Whilst leaders should invest in building these feedback loops to empower the teams, it’s important that they are not blind themselves.

Leaders should don the hat of researchers, striving to grasp both the big picture and the minutiae of obstacles. Leverage existing rituals like retrospectives, one-on-ones, and team catch-ups to paint a comprehensive picture of what’s happening on the ground.

Gemba sessions, when leaders go to where the work is and observe, are fantastic ways to build trust and relationships and give leaders the feedback loops to understand the real impact of their decisions and the challenges teams are facing.

7. Advocate and Role Model

Leaders play a pivotal role in shaping engineering cultures. They need to be role models for their teams, embodying the highest standards of their craft. They must also represent their teams’ interests in decision-making forums, bridging the gap between the ground reality and strategic decisions. Ultimately, leaders are the human feedback loops that foster continuous improvement across organisational boundaries and help avoid sub-optimisation.

Nurturing a culture of engineering excellence is a holistic endeavor. It involves a team centric approach creating feedback loops, rather than reporting against targets. These feedback loops need to exist at multiple levels, connecting different aspects of your organization. By building these feedback loops at team level you empower them to improve and individuals to grow.

By embracing these principles, you can accelerate high-quality, data-driven decision-making and foster a culture of excellence that motivates your engineering teams to reach new heights.