A Requiem for a Team

I once asked an interviewee “Ever work on a high-performing team?” and he answered “Yeah…” and then went on to explain how his team profiled and optimized their code-base all the time to give it very high performance.

That’s not what I meant, but in his defence, I really don’t think many developers have had the opportunity to work on high-performing teams and so they don’t know what they don’t know.

I’ve been developing software professionally for around 15 years and I’ve only worked on a high-performing team once. It was a couple of years ago, and it was awesome. I haven’t been able to find another since, but now I’m a true-believer in the concept of a 10X team.

I suspect that there might be groups out there somewhere who have experience with even higher-performing teams, but I’m certain that I’ve been on enough teams now that high-performing teams are extremely few and far-between. I’m not sure I even know how to create one, but I know one when I see one. I’ve definitely been on teams since that have been close to being high-performing.

The high-performing team is the ultimate win-win in the software development industry because the developers on the team are thrilled to be going into work on a daily basis and the business is thrilled because they’re producing results much faster and more reliably than other teams. Those are really the two essential criteria, in my opinion:

  1. Is everybody happy to be part of the team?
  2. Is the team producing results quickly? The first criteria is absolutely necessary for the second to be sustainable. Any business that neglects developer enjoyment is taking a short-sighted path that will eventually negatively impact performance (due to burnout, employee turnover, etc).

So all of this sounds great, but the real mystery is in how to make it happen. I’m not 100% sure that I know. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of people talking about how to achieve it. This is my shot at describing the recipe though.

The Management

The craziest part of my experience is that the only time I’ve seen a high performance team happen was when the manager of the team had very little software development experience. That seems maddeningly counter-intuitive to me because from a developer’s perspective, one of the most frustrating aspects of software development is having a clueless person telling you what to do and how to do it. It turns out that being clueless in software development can be a huge benefit to being brilliant at software development management though, if the manager is already brilliant with management in general. This manager was definitely brilliant on the management side. Here’s why:

  • He hired for attitude over aptitude. He would hire based on peoples’ potential, their attitudes, and their willingness to work hard instead of whether their precise skillset filled a niche that we needed.
  • He would cull developers who weren’t team players. It’s not a job anyone wants to do, but it’s sometimes necessary to let people go when they’re not working out. Not doing this results in the rest of the team being miserable.
  • He kept the team small, and didn’t move people in or out of it very often. This gives the team the maximum opportunity to form into a cohesive unit.
  • He would set clear goals and priorities. No two things would share the same priority (even though I’m sure he was probably secretly flipping a coin when more than one thing was extremely important). That would give the team a clear direction and an ability to focus on what’s most important.
  • He never explained a requirement with “because I said so”. This encouraged a culture of questions and feedback which enhanced learning both on the manager’s part and on the team’s part.
  • Even when priorities would change, he’d let us complete our current work where possible, so that we wouldn’t have a mess of incomplete work lying around to try to come back to later. I’ve been on teams since where the team has been repeatedly interrupted to the point of not really delivering anything for months.
  • He assigned work to the team, and not to individuals, so the team would have to own it collectively. This kept the manager from being the choke-point for “what should I work on next?” questions.
  • He didn’t make decisions or solve problems for the team that the team was able to handle themselves (even when individuals on the team would ask).
  • He’d bring us the requirements, but leave the solutioning up to us. The result was that the team was largely autonomous and in control of how it accomplished its goals, so we immediately had a newfound sense of responsibility for our work and even pride in it.
  • He’d get estimates from us, and not the reverse (ie. deadlines). This way he could inform the business about what the estimated cost and schedule for a given feature was so they could make informed decisions about what features to pursue, rather than just delivering what was finished when the clock ran out.
  • He’d actively look for scenarios where the team was not “set up for success” and rectify them. Nothing is worse for team morale than a death march project, even a mini-one.
  • He held the team responsible for the performance of individuals. If someone on the team was struggling on a task (daily stand-up meetings make this pretty obvious) without any help from team, he’d ask the team what they were doing to help.
  • All of these things created the perfect climate for a high-performing team, but no one person alone (even a great manager) can create a high-performing team on their own.

The Team Member

The individuals on the team were also really impressive to me and no doubt absolutely essential to making the team what it was. Here’s a loose laundry-list of the qualities I witnessed and tried to adhere to myself:

  • Members of the team were open, honest, and respectful. They would give each other feedback respectfully and truthfully and would never talk behind each others’ backs. On other teams that I’ve worked on where this wasn’t the practice, team-crushing sub-cliques would form.
  • Once a decision has been made by the team, every member of the team would support it (even if he/she was originally opposed) until new evidence is presented. This actually worked well because we would always first take the time to actually listen to and consider everyone’s opinions and ideas.
  • Members of the team were results-oriented. “Effort” was never involved in our measure of progress. Software actually delivered according to the team’s standards was our only measure of progress.
  • The team would continuously evaluate itself and its practices and try to continuously improve them. We’d have an hour-long meeting every week to talk about how we were doing, and how we could improve (and how we were doing implementing the previous week’s improvements).
  • The team would practice collective code ownership, and collective responsibility over all the team’s responsibilities. This is actually a pretty huge deal; if people working on a top priority needed help, they’d ask for it immediately and anyone that could help would. If someone was sick, someone else would take on their current responsibilities automatically. If a build was broken, everyone would drop everything until there was a clear plan to fix it. The morning stand-up meeting would happen at exactly 9 am regardless of whether the manager was there.
  • The team would foster cross-functionality as a means of achieving collective code ownership and collective responsibility. What that meant was that members would actively try to teach each other about any particular unique skill-sets they had so that they would be redundant and team members would be better able to take on any task in the work queue.
  • The team would be as collaborative as possible. We all sat in a bullpen-like environment where we’d torn down the dividers that were originally erected between us. We’d often pair-program, not only for skill-sharing and mentoring, but also for normal coding tasks, because the boring tasks are less mind-numbing that way and the complicated tasks get better solutions that way.
  • In the 5 or 6 teams in our organization at the time, I think our team was by far the fastest, and most capable of handling the more technically diverse and challenging work. No one on the team was a rock-star programmer, but somehow despite that, the team as a whole was really outstanding.

Eventually when this manager moved on, I took the management role and ultimately failed to maintain that environment (partially for a number of reasons that were out of my control, and partially because at the time I didn’t realize the necessary ingredients). I’ve only really learned them since then by watching dysfunctional teams.

It’s a cliche, but in the right environment, the collective can indeed be greater than the sum of its parts.

EDIT (June 2nd, 2014):

I just moved my blog over from wordpress, but I don’t want to lose the comments that I had there, because they’re great and they’re from the team that I was writing about. I’m just going to copy/paste them in here for posterity.


Todd said on May 8, 2013 at 8:12 am: Edit

You nailed it! I’m glad my simple ‘I miss working with you…’ email triggered you to write this thoughtful post. I admire your choice to spend time sharing your thoughts with the world.

I was trying to come up with some clever addition to your post but I keep typing and erasing. The one constant thought I whole heatedly believe had the most impact on our teams success is ‘Jaret’. I sure hope he doesn’t read this post, they’ll be no living with him! :)


Tom said on May 10, 2013 at 7:50 pm: Edit

Gregg and Todd, I also miss working with you guys. I do, however, have some pertinent hymns to add to the post. Though, I must first agree that a highly productive team is not formed from a cookie-cutter, but many ingredients do add to the potential success; kudos to Gregg for identifying most.

Management: I’d add that the “ideal” manager is an advocate for the team’s decisions, approach and methodology even if he does not fully understand them. Specifically, if the team can convince, through reason, that they were not smoking crack and that their solution would be suitable and economical (perhaps not in the short-run, but in the long-run), then he would go to bat for them. He’d do this no matter how much counter-pressure was exerted by upper management; clearly JW did this.

Secondly, a culture of experimentation, collaboration, and trust must trickle down from the upper echelons of management down to the lowest levels. Think of this as an approach to lowering entropy. Without this, all middle managers have their hands tied.

Team: Diversity in cultural and technological background is highly advantageous. The simple reason is that varied backgrounds allow differing opinions, analysis and approaches to a solution. I’d be bold enough to state that a homogeneous team is useless at being highly-productive because there is not enough diversity in the “knowledge gene pool” to forge great solutions. On the flip side, too much diversity may be a hindrance as agreement may be hard to come by for the final solution, but somebody should play devils advocate during the initial discussions; this only comes from varied experiences.

As well, team members should feel as if they are creating something of value. Perhaps this is more of a company or management issue, but I believe if people, regardless of their position in a company, feel like they are contributing to a greater good will naturally help their teammates and this will improve the productivity of the team as well as the firm’s bottom line.

I’m sure there are more comments to add, but I need to go have another glass of wine and reminisce :)


Gregg Caines said on May 11, 2013 at 8:12 am: Edit

Ha Good to hear from you Sykora :) I agree with your points. I think JW was set up for success when the “upper echelons” were supportive, and we were all destined for failure once those winds changed and upper management suddenly cared very deeply about the team’s every move on a day-to-day basis. Something makes me think that even if they had a reasonable ratio of right/wrong in their technical decisions, we’d still be irritated to be completely out of control of our own destinies, especially given our history of self-organization. Once the team gets a taste of autonomy, it’s hard for them to go back to command-and-control management. I suspect you of all people would agree. ;)

I agree with you on diversity too. We had a pretty diverse team but I think it worked well because we were respectful and trusted each other. I’ve seen teams since that were much less diverse and would argue disrespectfully about tiny things compared to some of the things that we would (calmly) discuss and (quickly) resolve. I’ll tell you one thing that I know for certain now: egos don’t make good team-mates. ;)

I agree with the “creating something of value” point as well, but I’m less about the value to the customer and more about the engineering craftsmanship. It’s the only way I’ve found myself able to reconcile product decisions I can’t agree with. Maybe one day I’ll have my greasy hands in the product side as well and get a chance to care all the way through though. ;)


tibi said on May 11, 2013 at 9:11 am: Edit

Well that was a nice post. And now I miss the team even more. I think you hit it right on the head (I can’t correctly remember the nail euphemism :–) )…

I’ve been looking for the same dynamics in a team ever since, and I think I’m getting close, but there is always something missing. Perhaps it’s the Tim Horton’s cup arch…


Jeff said on May 11, 2013 at 3:53 pm: Edit

Some great thoughts here Gregg – on the money pretty much across the board. A team is definitely only as good as it’s leadership allows. I’ve been in situations where the core team was incredible and worked together well but ultimately failed for the various reasons you any Tom both mention.

p.s. Hiya boys – hope everyone’s doing well. Did someone say Tim’s?


Gregg Caines said on May 13, 2013 at 9:01 am: Edit

Tibz and Jonesy! Good to see you two are still alive. :)


Chris said on May 14, 2013 at 7:06 am: Edit

It was something special to watch and interact with.

You do not really know what you’ve got until it’s gone, eh? There was a sense of what was happening but probably also a sense that it would fairly easily be recreated.

My current co-workers are tired of hearing how “we would have did it at my last place.” ;) Somehow it is not fair to hold other teams to that yardstick.


JW said on June 10, 2013 at 8:56 am: Edit

So many great things have been said above – and I have to agree with all of it. From my perspective, it really was a dream team. The trust, collaboration and commitment levels in the entire office were exceptional.

I have read numerous books on leadership and when I reflect on that team, we had all the characteristics of a high performing team.

For me, I loved the level of achievement, craftsmanship, and fun that we had. It wasn’t work – even a few of those late nights weren’t too bad because we were doing it together.

Is there a secret sauce to recreate that environment? Not that I have found. However, I have been lucky enough to be part of 4 different high performing teams over my career, and I believe there are things we can all do to help create an environment that could support a high performing team. From there – it is up to the team to choose to be high performing.

I identify well with the Patrick Lencioni’s book “The 5 Dysfunctions of Team”. Although I will not rewrite each of the characteristics from the book, I feel that we need to provide special mention to trust. It is the foundation of a high performing team. Nothing can be built without it. That means we need to know our team mates and their goals. How can we help each other? The more we help and recognize each other, the quicker the team will want to collaborate and achieve greater things.

We are all lucky to have been part of something great. I learned a ton from everyone there and I share those insights in my classes everyday.

Gregg – many thanks for starting this thread.


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