This article is part of a six-part series on software team dynamics. Did you miss the beginning? Read the Introduction to the series first.
Otherwise, thanks for returning to learn more about the origins of high-performing teams! In this article, we’ll delve into the composition of these teams, and the ways that individual members can mesh together to become greater than the sum of their parts. Think Synergy.
The best teams are cohesive, but heterogenous, and value social/emotional intelligence.
Hire Team Members, Not Job Descriptions
Recall from the previous article that researchers have found high-performing individuals to possess the right blend of technical fluency, problem-solving aptitude, interpersonal intelligence, and organizational savvy. After outlining these skills, they add a caveat:
Individuals who are strong on all four skill measures are few and far between. Make the most of the talent available, and take steps to neutralize weaknesses in your group. Look for people not just with valued skills but with the potential to learn new ones.
Another article classifies individuals into four work styles: Pioneers, Guardians, Drivers, and Integrators. The authors advocate for balanced representation of each on a healthy team. Many studies on team dynamics advocate a similar strategy for assembling capable, balanced, and versatile teams.
The strongest teams articulate a balance of stengths among the group that is rarely found in any individual. Members skillfully employ humility, listening, learning, and interdependence to augment each other’s strengths and shortcomings. They can engage with complex problems as a collaborative whole, harnessing the power of diverse ideas.
The Agile movement has popularized the idea of the “Generalizing Specialist” as the profile optimally suited to a small, nimble, and collaborative development team. Many people also use the term T-Shaped to refer to individuals who have developed deep technical knowledge in one or more areas, but still possess broad enough understanding of adjacent skills to collaborate effectively with experts in other areas.
In many Agile methodologies, there is a premium placed on team member’s ability to effectively pair on work tasks, or trade them back and forth, so progress through a development sprint is less likely to become blocked by the engagement of any one team member. Some software process experts even recommend privileging cross-functional aptitude over technical skill when assembling teams. Even outside of the agile context, individuals who develop a broad understanding of neighboring disciplines will have a collaborative advantage over those who focus solely on their chosen skillset.
Michael James speaks at length about the importance of cultural fit and group dynamics on successful development teams in his online Scrum resources. He points out that teams establish cultural norms together over time, and any disruption of group dynamics (including new hires) can impede a development team’s velocity. Similar anecdotes have been discussed in the book, The Mythical Man-Month. (Note: we’ll forgive the author’s gender selection as a reach for alliterative effect. I’ve been there.)
In an interview with First Round, Greg Brockman (Stripe) explains what he calls “The Sunday Test” as a way to evaluate the cultural compatibility of candidate engineers:
Stripe turns down candidates with outstanding engineering talent if they don’t fit with the team’s culture. Each candidate must pass the “Sunday test.” If this person were alone in the office on a Sunday, would that make you more likely to come in and want to work with them? If the answer is not a clear yes, then don’t make the hire.
(Beautiful. Next question for Greg: why are y’all working on Sunday?)
Cohesive, but Heterogenous
Of course, some cultural common ground is required to establish a cohesive team. Members must share enough common language to communicate effectively. They must share a common vision for their work, and the steps to take to achieve it. If a team is not cohesive, it cannot realize the benefits of collaborative work. But it’s a bad idea to create a homogenous or insular environment where members are not challenged by divergent viewpoints.
If the members of a team share uniform experiences among each other, and with other teams at other organizations, they’re at a disadvantage when searching for innovative approaches to novel challenges. Research affirms that diversity of culture, background, and values supports higher outcomes at work. When team members bring different background and experience to the table, they’re able to address challenges more creatively and effectively. Steve Jobs made a similar case to the Academy of Achievement in 1982 for seeking out unconventional experiences as a way to cultivate individual creativity.
Great Minds Work Alike
In a highly influential presentation on Netflix’s organizational culture, CEO Reed Hastings emphasizes that talented people want to be surrounded by “big challenges” and “stunning colleagues.” In particularly bold style, he encourages managers to routinely ask which employees, if the employee expressed intent to leave, the manager would fight hard to keep—and to immediately offer a severance package to the others; those roles should be opened up for other individuals who will share in the organization’s culture of excellence. Hastings goes on to explain that exceptional employees are at the core of their company’s ability to grant unconventional freedom and responsibility to workers.
Steve Jobs was quoted in Walter Isaacson’s biography expressing a similar senitment:
I’ve learned over the years that, when you have really good people, you don’t have to baby them. By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things. The original Mac team taught me that A-plus players like to work together, and they don’t like it if you tolerate B-grade work.
An interesting paper on the toxic effect of negative group members examines how disengaged employees can drag on a team’s performance by “withholding effort from the group, expressing negative affect, or violating important interpersonal norms.”
With that in mind, organizations ought to be as picky in their hiring as they can afford to be, and when faced with a decision between hiring an underperforming employee and not hiring at all, should err toward a leaner team of exceptional individuals.
Ta-Ta For Now
Thanks for reading! Are you curious to learn more about what drives great teams? If so, stay tuned for the next article in this series: Compassion.