Teamwork is hard; it demands perspective, talent, and commitment

Another elusive challenge in managing software teams is that outstanding economic value derives from the effectiveness with which software developers themselves work together. For the manager, this requires managing the collection of direct reports such that the whole actually is greater than the sum of its parts. Teamwork brings superior performance and a bigger picture.

Collaboration is more often said than done. Teamwork requires teams, which are often more apparent than real. At its heart, this means the manager must manage the collaboration around the work -- who is doing which tasks, but not directly manage the people. This is especially elusive for inexperienced managers whose minds are more on “being boss” instead of “getting things done”. No good can come from such a situation.

Effective software teams are uncommon; high-performance ones rarer still. When it comes to exemplary teamwork, the fundamental problem for developers isn’t that they can’t or that they won’t; instead, it’s that they haven’t learned how. And more often than not, they’re managed in a manner that precludes effective teamwork.

To perform as a team, developers require common purpose and must act in concert with teammates, adapting to a singular and interdependent focus. Teamwork requires that their actions are coordinated in time, that they are attentive- and responsive- to the work of their teammates, that workloads amongst them are fairly balanced, and that their actions have purpose. Teamwork requires that people’s minds are on the task at hand and that they’re not distracted by worries or gambits.

Excellence requires attention, focus, and discipline. Working together requires clear purpose, accurate and timely communication, and intended, coordinated activity. An effective mechanism to bring a group of individuals into performing together as an outstanding team is via a choreography of occasional meetings and regular activities. Outstanding team work comes from a focus on the temporal matters of “what to do now” coupled with performance matters of “how to do this thing.”

Operationally, this means implementing a small set of activities and a smaller number of meetings, executed like clockwork in a most deliberate manner. It means that priorities of action always the drive workflow, that the idea of “sustainable system” is always at the forefront of activity, and that clear historical records of “who” did “what” and “when” -- especially project or product managers -- is kept current for all to see. Project and product managers are renown for their too-prescriptive approaches or their too short-sighted shifts of focus. Outstanding team performance requires that all these problems be tallied and regularly revealed to everyone who is watching. Visibility is the natural enemy of mischievous shenanigans. As US Supreme Court Justice Brandeis wrote: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

As a cautionary tale, these approaches may be unfamiliar. They shape attention, and can be politically disadvantageous in the short term for those managers whose ambition supersedes their duty. In some situations, the organization itself operates to thwart all teamwork, irrespective of company propaganda. Teams deliver superior economic advantages. Team effectiveness requires astute and attentive management. It is a milieu where “we” trumps “me” and rewards openly endorse such. So. Now what?

Stay tuned; soon we’ll discuss backlogs, retrospectives, and cycles -- the elements of the choreography that yield a sustainable pace for today, tomorrow, and the days forthcoming.