Confession: I spent last weekend at a bachelor party, “off the grid”, about 140 miles northeast of Seattle, WA. Ten savages (yours truly among them) left to their own devises, without a care in the world, honoring a very close friend before he descends into the inevitable abyss of domestic life like the rest of us. At almost 40 years old, it’s about time, my friend 😉
As you would expect when 10 savages who happen to be extremely successful in their respective fields (ranging from technology to medicine, and everything in between) party together, there are precious moments of enlightenment here and there – like enjoying a 5 star restaurant quality dinner that my sommelier friend designed and executed, with the finest prime cuts of aged American, Australian, and Japanese Wagyu beef on hand, paired with an amazing 2010 Cabernet that he bottled himself. As an aside, the (not too strict) vegetarian among the group was set to eat even the plates the beef was served on after all was said and done. Choice quote of the night was “I didn’t know butter could taste like beef”. If you’ve never tried Wagyu beef, please make the investment at least once – you won’t regret it. Even at retail, it’s still worth it!
Behavior in the Context of a Team
Perhaps even more memorable than that dinner was a brilliant two hour conversation I had with the guest of honor’s older brother who specializes in child psychology and consults the state of Washington as an expert in the field. We were cooking up collard greens to accompany the steaks later in the evening as we discussed behavior patterns. I maintain that as a leader psychology is perhaps the most important tool at your disposal. If you don’t understand nor care why human beings do the things they do, then choose instead to follow rather than lead. The main takeaway from the conversation was that behavior is important only in the context of relationships. This is two-fold. There is the person actually exhibiting behavior, and there is the person either enabling it or causing it. You cannot consider one without the other. In his (correct) estimation, almost all bad behavior in children can be traced back to parenting, whether malicious or not. Correcting a troubled child is about teaching the parents how to conduct themselves more than it is about anything else.
Not surprisingly, this applies to any other situation, including the “behavior” of a software development team. Of course we are dealing with educated, independent adults in this context rather than children, but the concept is the same. Sustainable “Good behavior” (on-time delivery, accurate implementation, etc.) of developers is directly dependent on team chemistry and team leadership, period.
Do you Have the Best Development Team?
Flashing back to a debate I had about 9 months ago as to whether or not I had the best team, I’ll put it in further context. My answer was of course yes. If there was any issue with team chemistry or execution, I dealt with it in stride, even going as far as replacing resources if necessary. But the question really being asked was if I had an “A” team of talent, meaning the absolute best developers I could find. The answer again was of course yes. And this is where the disconnect started. It’s true there is always better talent out there, no matter how good what you have is. But it really doesn’t matter unless you actually have problems (that you should no doubt correct). Every single one of my developers had passed tough technical scrutiny and was capable of delivering what I was asking of them. Considering that only a small percentage of developers really “get it”, I felt I had the upper 90th percentile in house. Did I have the upper 99th across the board? Probably not. But again, it doesn’t matter. Applying Malcolm Gladwell’s take on the inverted “U” curve, trying to achieve 99th percentile would have either paid diminishing returns or failed outright. I already had the team I wanted, and in fact it was the best team out there. Never mind the risk and effort of finding better talent (you know how difficult it is), never mind the disruption to schedules while onboarding new resources, and never mind the budget strain of upgrading at that stage… it just wasn’t necessary since I already had the best team.
What Really Matters in a Development Team
Here’s what really matters: trust, mutual respect, and accountability. All things being equal, this distinguishes “A” teams from teams that fail. Your responsibility as a leader is to maintain legitimacy (e.g. lead by example), hold your team accountable for its commitments, and ensure that talent is applied correctly to the problems being solved. In an Agile model, this is fairly inherent, and as obvious as the fact that the sky is blue. But to an outsider who is perhaps more accustomed to judging sales professionals, it can seem like a foreign concept. How can more talent not mean a better team? Here’s how: trust and mutual respect take time to establish, and accountability is something that many very talented developers are not comfortable with. To me, a top performer is someone who I can trust, respect, and delivers what he/she commits to. Raw talent is not in that equation, because again, I already recruited the top 90th percentile. Just as important is that other team members trust, respect and hold the top performer accountable as well. When you look at this through the lens of psychology, what you have is behavior in the context of a healthy relationship, plain and simple.
How do you value a Development team? Setting aside that you’ve already recruited strong talent, if the team members (yourself included) trust, respect, and hold each other accountable, it’s an “A” team. Upgrading individuals won’t necessarily increase production, and in fact may have very detrimental effects. Fixing problems with chemistry is far more important, and is something you should be doing constantly to maintain that “A” team.