HPF - Good vs. Bad Teams

Since teams, or something parading around with that word, are the norm in most companies, let’s talk about some qualities of teams and contrast that to what exists instead. That way, we know the difference we’re aiming for and how to spot it.

Good: Teams Know Why They Exist

Surprising start here, but teams know what purpose they serve and what their aim is. A simple test is asking everyone on the team why that team is there, and you should get the same correct answer.

Teamwork can’t happen without a shared purpose, yet it’s a pre-requisite that sadly is often missing.

When I visit most groups and ask people why the team is there, most answers I get tend to fall into the camp of project assignment or who they report to in the company. While project assignment is adjacent to a purpose, it isn’t the same thing.

Assignment to a project is a menial and narrow calling for a team. Project execution is typically well specified, or at least it feels that way. So we move from being a part of a team to being on an assembly line.

As an aside, my father-in-law worked in a manufacturing plant, and his team ran a line together. Having a real team in this environment is possible, but it is abnormal. His team knew their purpose every day. They found ways to deal with the daily challenges together. They exceeded expectations consistently. Contrasting this to other folks whose understanding of their purpose was to operate a machine within specified guidelines, my father-in-law’s group had a higher calling. It worked well past such a narrow field of operation. That’s the point of a team.

Bad: Blaming Teammates For Problems

Look, bad things happen. Many of us have weaknesses and blind spots that create patterns of problems around us. That’s true of everyone. When there isn’t a team, individuals look at their peers as the source of problems in their work.

A typical example is an engineer who reworks an implementation out from underneath the rest of the people who built it. The engineer feels they had no choice and blames everyone for forcing them to act. The rest of the folks blame the engineer for going rogue and making them have to adapt.

As I said, bad things happen all the time, but a team doesn’t dwell on them. They solve it.

Let’s go back to the rogue engineer issue, and I’ll explain what a real team might have done. First, that engineer would have brought this to the team as an issue. Let’s say they didn’t, though. When the team noticed what was going on, they would stop the engineer and discuss what they are seeing. At that point, the team would tell the engineer to stop, or they would make sure the engineer was no longer alone, and their weaknesses were supported by the rest of the team.

That last bit is key in this. When you’re on a real team, you’re aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and the team’s approach is to work with that knowledge in mind. Your weakness is never a problem when you’re working with a supportive team. They will help with it.

Good: Teams Support Change Together

It is 2022, and offices everywhere are debating mandatory returns to offices. I use this as an example because it is popular now, but the situation could be anything from how you record work in an issue tracker to the linting rules you abide by.

When a change comes up, a team will respond as a single voice to the issue. They have numbers to support their case and quite regularly create exceptions for themselves.

That team that speaks together might be one of the only teams that do not go back to the office.

You see, that team has a number of things working in its favor: A whole group spoke together instead of an individual. That team will make a case from several angles and perspectives instead of one. The team will almost always ask if they can prove their point. Managers, when confronted with an experiment to improve performance or comply, will often choose the experiment.

Teams can make change happen.

Contrast this with the work-from-home mandate without a team. Each individual will hear the message and say their part. That part they bring to the table will be incomplete and one-sided, and an experiment is unlikely to exist. Furthermore, because it’s each individual, the others who did agree weaken the dissenting individual and help make them into an outcast. In other words, without a team, change can turn into a divide and conquer scenario where you are the one getting divided.

Bad: Difficulty With Decisions

This one is a bit tough to explain because there is such a fine line between unhealthy and healthy here. Without teams, individuals have a hard time gaining agreement and consent to a decision.

Some points are so contentious they may take months or years to resolve. Everyone has an opinion, and nobody can agree.

Ever seen a group of developers argue about branching strategies?

A real team, though has a different goal in mind. Yes, they will have a debate and get everyone’s voice heard. This debate might get quite vocal. At the end of the day, though, a team will consent to try an approach much sooner and with fewer hurt feelings than the sea of individuals.

The reason a team can do this is that as a group, they can manage the risk of failure, react quickly, and try something new. When it’s just individuals, decisions like this feel like they slip through the cracks and are hard to manage. Also, since teams can even out perspectives, strengths, and weaknesses, they can round out the solution to be better overall, whereas individuals advocating their idea turn into a contest.

I’ll be honest, this list could go on quite a ways, but I wanted to describe a few key differences between good and bad teams before moving on. I chose to highlight obvious, everyday things that make a big difference over time. You can probably extrapolate from these how pervasive the differences are, and by the end of this, you’ll know how to convert your group into a team as well.