You take a deep breath as you join the monthly board meeting, laptop and notes in hand. You’ve been dreading this day for weeks. Ever since you stumbled through an explanation about missed sprints last month and saw the dismayed looks in Zoom, you knew they’d want hard answers today.
As the meeting loads, you sip some bitter coffee to steady your nerves. You always feel out of place at these calls — like you’re back in college defending your senior thesis. But they’re all smiling at you eagerly — no doubt expecting tales of renewed productivity and new features shipped ahead of schedule. If only you had good news.
As the CEO clicks through last month’s charts, you scan familiar headlines — user signups are up, engagement is improving, but new feature deployments are way behind plan. The celebratory tone changes quickly.
“This is concerning,” the CEO sighs, turning to you. “Weren’t we supposed to be delivering faster with more devs onboard? What’s the bottleneck here?”
You clear your throat, avoiding the piercing gazes. The real problem isn’t bottlenecks or burnout — it’s variance. Why does output seem randomly distributed between teams? Why are a handful of developers carrying the load while others lag behind? If only you could decode and replicate the secret sauce of your top performers.
“I don’t have all the answers right now,” you stammer, “but I’m digging into data on individual productivity. I think there may be wider team issues at play here that I need to diagnose.”
You sense the silent skepticism. They want decisive action and clear solutions, not excuses. The meeting ends, but questions circulate in your mind as you close the laptop. Why does it take 10 months for one team to complete a simple API while two developers build a multi-tenant cloud architecture in weeks? Where do you start debugging variability like that?
Streamlining for High Performers
The first intention is to look at the data to decode why certain people consistently outperform others. What’s their secret sauce? Late-night binges? A magic productivity amulet? I was never able to figure this out. Some people are just good at what they do.
It’s hard to tell what makes one more efficient, but chances are you can clearly say who are your top performance looking at the data. It’s time to give them the star treatment they deserve and help them shine.
First, schedule some quality one-on-one time with each high performer. Instead of just small talk around deadlines, dig deeper into their experiences and friction points. Don’t let job titles limit authentic conversations — speak to them as humans, not resources.
Listen intently to personal stories around draining meetings, needless admin work, and endless Slack pings stealing away focus. Chances are your most passionate and productive teammates need unbroken chunks of maker time to do their work even better.
Since you know your top performers, form an “A-team” of rapid development squad around them — no matter how good they are, they need to delegate parts of the work that are less critical or creative. Build a perfect workflow utopia for them and then make it a reality. Give them agency to rethink processes around sacred maker time, strictly minimizing meetings and admin.
Give your best people a team of testers, UX designers, managers, and engineers so that they can focus on what they do best. Doesn’t mean that your best software developer now has to become a manager, but since he’s good and moving fast, he needs someone who’s on par to work with.
Supporting Growth: Managing Underperformers
You squeeze your stress ball as you review the latest sprint reports, noticing a few familiar names lagging on story point completion and quality metrics — again. Your first instinct is frustration. Don’t they realize how much their lack of output drags down the team?
Unfortunately, not everyone progresses evenly. Price’s Law states that half of the work in a given domain is done by the square root of the total number of people. If you have 36 engineers on the team, six would be responsible for most of the output on average.
Our productivity is uneven compared to each other and falls somewhere on the spectrum from utterly clueless to a rockstar. Usually, you can identify the top performers and underperformers, and everyone else falls somewhere in the middle. What matters isn’t just the output but how you choose to lead people — especially during their difficult stretches.
Set up 1:1s, gently probing around the root issues of those needing improvement. Learn about their personal or professional challenges. Ask how you can better support them in the way they truly need. Assign mentors to pair up for ongoing support, outlining improvement areas and training options.
Being empathetic and helpful is important, but you must also track their progress and communicate your expectations. Improvements can be gradual — two steps forward, one step back. But if nothing changes after a few months, you might have to start having tough conversations.
Motivate Your Team: Incentivizing Productivity
How do you keep the flywheel of motivation and progress spinning for everyone on the team? You’ll need some well-deserved incentives beyond high fives to reinforce the extraordinary effort.
Start publicly posting tiered productivity targets for reference, along with recognizing those who are performing the best. This contradicts the “everyone’s a winner” approach but works well when pushing people forward is necessary. Send out emails highlighting new milestones achieved and being transparent about associated rewards.
When Matt, one of your best engineers, messages you astonished at the bonus deposited for breaking his target, assure him that’s just the start if his coding streak continues. A formal incentive scheme rewarding such attitude and creativity suddenly makes all the effort truly worth it — even if he would outperform everyone else regardless.
Keep in touch with struggling developers missing marks sprint after sprint. Offer them patient support, not shame, and explain what’s missing to get the rewards.
Building a clear and fair reward system takes work. You must balance rewarding baseline work and failing to recognize the effort when the reward is due. But it pays off in the end because it gives people a reason for improvement and makes the extra effort worth it.
You set down your morning coffee, settling into yet another capacity planning session — the new secret weapon for efficient work. Pouring over tickets and engineer scorecards, you review upcoming features like a coach reviewing playbooks before the big game. Who are your MVPs for each initiative, and how will you slot their strengths across sprints?
No more months wasted being overwhelmed by ticket backlogs and features delayed awaiting resources. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your team, you can deliberately shape workflows so nobody becomes an idling bottleneck while others burn out.
Leveraging Price’s Law, you can optimize processes, resources, tools, and incentives around the vital few developers. This focus helps deliver features faster without overburdening people, boosting productivity within months. Analyzing your team’s output and structuring systems around high performers works wonders!
Originally published on Medium.com