This article is part of a six-part series on software team dynamics. Did you miss the beginning? Read the Introduction to the series, the first article on Composition, the second article on Compassion, and the third article on Communication first.
Otherwise, thanks for returning to learn more about the origins of high-performing teams! In this article, we’ll look at management practices and collaboration patterns that reinforce cohesion and enhance performance.
Establish clear roles and expectations, then get out of the way.
Organize Around Components
When teams are organized around the work they’re responsible for and given all the resources they need to complete their task, many common management maladies can be bypassed entirely. In recent years, several alternatives to traditional organizational structure have arisen with this in mind.
In the Scrum model, work is organized around small, versatile “feature teams” that can independently implement product components from end to end—rather than specialized “functional teams” that implement isolated facets of every component. In industries that reward learning and agility more than pure throughput, this approach enables teams to remain small and nimble, but still take complete responsibility for seeing work through to completion.
Organize Around Roles
The Holocratic model, popularized by Zappos and Medium, attempts to organize work around the tasks required to complete it and the roles and groups that will support these tasks; there’s no assumption that these will be the same from project to project, or that any given individual(s) will fill the same role every time.
These types of models require that organizations create exceptionally clear expectations around the structure and standards of their work, and the roles and groups that will support them. They require that this information be distributed freely to all team members, and re-examined often. That’s a tall order for large and complex organizations, but it pays dividends in employee productivity and engagement.
These types of models require that organizations create exceptionally clear expectations around the structure and standards of their work, and the roles and groups that will support them.
The more effectively teams are organized around the work they do, the easier it is for workers to share responsibility for the work, and the less hierarchy is required to manage the team’s accountability. Flatter teams can free members to check their title and status at the front door, and focus on effective collaboration that transcends organizational strata.
Recent research also suggests that historical methods of managing and motivating teams through extrinsic means are less than effective; strategies such as micro-management and even performance appraisal can be counter-productive in the long run.
Of course, accepting this information leaves organizations with a new problem: how to reward high-performing employees without promoting them to management positions? Please see the internet for miscellaneous rants from angsty developers on this topic.
The RSA produced a fascinating video on intrinsic motivation in the workplace that is creatively produced, beautifully informative, and absolutely worth the time to watch. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you care deeply about this topic, so take a pause and go watch it now. (I’ll still be here when you get back.)
Apparently, self-direction and autonomy are two of the most powerful determinants of employee engagement. The previously cited cultural manifesto from Netflix repeats the mantra of “freedom and responsibility” for their workers, and “context, not control” for their managers. From an academic standpoint, these are groundbreaking notions… but how surprised are you, really?
One caution here: please don’t confuse “self-management” with “no management.” We’re talking here about treating employees like adults—not abiding a leadership vacuum. Self-managing teams will still need to allocate time and attention for many of the classic management responsibilities; they simply share the work among the members.
Please don’t confuse “self-management” with “no management.” We’re talking here about treating employees like adults—not abiding a leadership vacuum.
Establish Working Agreements
Among Netflix’s mythology surrounding the fountain of their cultural success, one tongue-in-cheek attribution stands out:
No stupid rules.
What makes a rule stupid? If we unpack this a little, I think they’re alluding to the tendency of organizations to amass ambiguous, restrictive, and often top-down stipulations on work processes and employee conduct as they grow. These rules accumulate like scar tissue around a growing organization’s traumatic experiences—but like scar tissue, they tend to outlive their own relevance.
In a wonderful book on Agile Retrospectives, authors Derby and Larsen propose an alternative: teams create their own “working agreements” to guide their collaboration, and revisit them on a regular basis. These 5-7 agreements lay the foundation for a healthy and productive work environment. To ensure buy-in, it’s critical that they be authored and upheld democratically by all who will observe them.
With that in mind, let’s take a skeptical look at historical assumptions about how organizations ought to be structured and teams managed to support the kind of productive, engaging workplace that we all aspire to.
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 and final article in this series: Cultivation.