A high quality team

A high quality team

If your ambition is to produce high quality software systems, you will most likely need a high quality team to do it. When you succeed in building such a team, remember that organizations that do not have the ambition to constantly grow the talent of their teams will be overrun by those who do, and key talent will move away.

I have a feeling that project manager driven scrum teams have a tendency to strive for averages. Since a project manager do want to mitigate risk from his projects it is of high value to him or her, that all members of a team is replaceable. This will manifest in a mentality of “anyone should be able to work on any task”.
To me, this is focusing on the wrong kind of risk. It is more important to reduce risks that can limit the teams peak performance, rather than aiming towards always having a group of people “working” on tasks. Growing excellence takes time, accept that and work towards it.

It seems they have not realized that if you are a professional, you will make sure that your back is covered. You know that there is at least one other member on the team that could keep your tasks alive if you were to be ill for a few days. You will also design in a way where you do not become a block in a few days of absence.

Let’s do a thought experiment in this domain. Let’s pretend that you were assigned the task of assembling the best band in the world, the best medical team or the best sports team, how would that process look like?

Would you strive for a team where every individual could take the place of any other, so that if the goal keeper is injured you could have one of your forwards take his place. This would certainly mitigate the risk of not having eleven players standing on the field at any given time. But would this team win any games? They would probably start winning once the opponents are of a quality equal to the average of your team. And I do not want to come near the medical team where a plastic surgeon perform brain surgery because of them being in the same “scrum” team.

For me it is quite obvious that building a team without specialist in each position will lower the bar of performance.

Project managers also have a big fear with regards to specialized individuals, in that they would not be allocated 100% of the time, if work happen to come in areas outside their expertise. For me, I think it is OK, goal scoring players are catching their breath when play moves to defense so that they can perform at maximum capacity the next time the play moves to offense. As queuing theory teach us, being fully utilized are a bad thing since your team will not have any room for unforeseen events, resulting in longer cycle times. Equally important to me is that high performing individuals need time off from projects to be able to keep improving their craft and their areas of responsibility.

Besides lowering the overall quality, another big pain point of this reasoning is that it will lead to a diminishing of the individual and turn them into disposable resources. Fulfilling the short term management dream of being replaceable. The same theme can be found in the recruitment process where familiarity with the currently used tools are preferred over the passion of learning and adaptability of an individual, which are key areas for a future specialist.

If we switch viewpoint for a moment, how would you as a consumer of these teams services want the team to be assembled? Do you want to schedule your surgery with the medical team built with surgeons that can do any operation on any part of the body, or do you go for the specialist of solving your type of problems?

Do we really want our software teams built any differently? I do not think so.

Research have shown us that mastery, purpose and autonomy are key to have highly motivated individuals. See Dan Pinks work for a good summary of this.

Do not forget the importance of balance when you build your team. A team of only specialist will do you no good if the overall composition is not balanced. If a band leader builds a band out of four drummers and one guy with a trumpet it will most likely not be a success in most genres.

If quality is our goal, we should strive for the best players to fill each position and together they should be well composed. If you have players that do not want to put in the effort to play in the starting lineup, that is OK, but then it should come as no surprise that they will be placed in the reserves. And of course we are not talking about staying late and working long hours, the effort is placed in the will to improve and learn and the ability to perform, being a professional.

Use the scientific method, make a hypothesis of how teams should be built in your organization, go with it and evaluate. Did you achieve new levels of performance? If not try something else.

So to summarize, here are some of my pointers for hiring and team composition:
1. Look for T-shaped individuals, highly skilled in one area but with a wide base, that makes them able to collaborate with other “T:s”.
2. Team composition should be focused on performance risk mitigation not on “100% utilization” risks.
3. Realize that each person is an individual and is not, and should not, be easy to replace.
4. Focus on Autonomy, Mastery and purpose since science have shown that to be an important part in building highly motivated, creative teams.

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