It seems that several coaches/gurus/consultants/experts use the term “the team” frequently in discussing their work. AS IF there was one, and only one, team: “let the team decide“, “meet the team’s needs“, etc. In complex orgs, there is NOT solely one team. There are many diverse teams and team types. Thus, as expected, their needs can, and do, clash.
To simplify the ensuing, one-way, BD00-to-you discussion, assume the existence of only three different team types:
Just like an individual must sometimes relinquish/suppress a personal need(s) for the greater good of the team, a particular team type must sometimes eschew one or more of its needs for the greater good of a different team type. In darker times, sometimes ALL teams must sacrifice some of their needs for the greater good of the “whole“. After all, if the “whole” goes bust, then all the teams being sustained by it go bust too. In a robust org, the converse is not true: if one team fails, the org will live on.
Is it possible to simultaneously satisfy every single need of each individual, each team, each team type, and the meta-physical “whole“? Since some idealistic people seem to think so, I suppose so – but I’m highly skeptical. The universe has always been, and always will be, gloriously messy. Because of the unavoidable human diversity residing within and across team types, a delicate give-and-take balancing act is necessary to keep the whole intact. Sometimes I gotta give to you and sometimes I gotta take from you. Sometimes you gotta give to me and sometimes you gotta take from me.
Fresh from Tom Gilb’s “Advanced Agile Practices” presentation, I give you Dave Rico’s 14 pitfalls of agile methods:
If you look closely at the list, the entries don’t just apply to attempts at agilization. They are daunting challenges for any aspiring corpo change agent who wishes to make a sweeping change to “the way we develop products“.
Because they may be called to account for their hypocritical behavior, you may find people in authority saying things like these, but you most likely won’t find them written into the Employee Handbook:
“Providing the freedom to fail is an important trait of the company— we couldn’t expect so much of individuals if we also penalized people for errors. Even expensive mistakes, or ones which result in a very public failure, are genuinely looked at as opportunities to learn. We can always repair the mistake or make up for it.”
“But problems show up when hierarchy or codified divisions of labor either haven’t been created by the group’s members or when those structures persist for long periods of time. We believe those structures inevitably begin to serve their own needs rather than those of Valve’s customers. The hierarchy will begin to reinforce its own structure by hiring people who fit its shape, adding people to fill subordinate support roles. Its members are also incented to engage in rent-seeking behaviors that take advantage of the power structure rather than focusing on simply delivering value to customers.”
“…for the most part working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication. If this happens at Valve, it’s a sign that something needs to be reevaluated and corrected. If you’re looking around wondering why people aren’t in “crunch mode,” the answer’s pretty simple. The thing we work hardest at is hiring good people, so we want them to stick around and have a good balance between work and family and the rest of the important stuff in life.”
“Our profitability per employee is higher than that of Google or Amazon or Microsoft, and we believe strongly that the right thing to do in that case is to put a maximum amount of money back into each employee’s pocket. Valve does not win if you’re paid less than the value you create. Over time, compensation gets adjusted to fit an employee’s internal peer-driven valuation.
the company talks about “T” people:
We value “T-shaped” people. That is, people who are both generalists (highly skilled at a broad set of valuable things—the top of the T) and also experts (among the best in their field within a narrow discipline—the vertical leg of the T). We often have to pass on people who are very strong generalists without expertise, or vice versa. An expert who is too narrow has difficulty collaborating. A generalist who doesn’t go deep enough in a single area ends up on the margins, not really contributing as an individual.
That’s too bad for the typical borg. These beasts actively recruit and develop horizontal “hypen” (mgrs, execs) people and vertical “I” (induhvidual contributors) people. Of course, the stewards of these dinosaurs get what they wish for. On top of that, anybody who tries to self-improve towards a “T” person is silently ignored. It would screw up the nice and tidy employee-in-a-box process of emasculation.
I recently listened to a fascinating podcast interview of Valve Inc‘s “economist-in-residence“, Yanis Varoufakis. According to Yanis, the company is still organizationally flat after 17 years of existence.
The thought early on at Valve was that the maximum limit to flatness would be around 50-60 people. Above that, in order to keep the wheels from falling off, some form of hierarchy would be required for concerted coordination. However, currently at 300+ employees, Valve has managed to blow through that artificial barrier and remain flat. Mind you, this is not a company solely made up of like-thinking engineers. There are also artists, animators, writers, and accountants running around like a herd of cats inefficiently doing the shit that brings in $1B in revenue each year.
According to Yanis, in order to maintain their egalitarian culture, Valve can’t afford to grow too quickly. That’s because they have to deprogram people who are hired in from hierarchical borgs as former bosses who expect others to work for them, and former workers who expect to be “directed” by a boss. If Valve didn’t do this, their culture would get eaten alive by the pervasive and mighty command-and-control mindset. The spontaneity, creativity, and togetherness that power their revenue machine would be lost forever.
Nevertheless, Valve is pragmatic with respect to hierarchy:
“Valve is not averse to all organizational structure—it crops up in many forms all the time, temporarily. But problems show up when hierarchy or codified divisions of labor either haven’t been created by the group’s members or when those structures persist for long periods of time. We believe those structures inevitably begin to serve their own needs rather than those of Valve’s customers. The hierarchy will begin to reinforce its own structure by hiring people who fit its shape, adding people to fill subordinate support roles. Its members are also incented to engage in rent-seeking behaviors that take advantage of the power structure rather than focusing on simply delivering value to customers.” – The Valve employee handbook
Whether Valve knows it or not, their success is due to their respect of some of Gall’s system laws:
- Systems develop goals of their own as soon as they come into existence – and intra-system goals come first.
- Loose systems last longer and work better. Efficient systems are dangerous to themselves and others.
On the left-hand side of the diagram below, we have a static system design structure where four “workers” and their manager have their hearts set on producing a world class product. On the right, we have an alternate system design where only one worker has his/her heart set on creating a world class product. The other team members are too busy posing, competing, and jockeying for positional stature in the mind of the manager for their next upward career move. It’s not shown on the diagram, but that manager is also jousting with his peers to advance his/her career.
In orgs where the policies/procedures/incentives/rewards promote individual performance over (and at the expense of) team performance, you’ll most likely find the design structure on the right in operation. Which archetype does your system design map onto?
I don’t know where I read it, but I remember someone giving great advice about using “I-Speak” to present your case on a sensitive issue. Don’t go blasting away and saying stuff like “everyone thinks the system is a freakin’ disaster“. Instead, say “I have a hard time using the system as it’s designed“.
In really uptight and unresponsive groups, preface your concern with “I can only speak for myself, but…“. But don’t forget, in zero tolerance bureaucracies, keep your “I” trap totally shut tight and keep toiling along in quiet desperation.