Collaboration versus Competition part 2

November 21, 2014

In my previous post I discussed the problem of expecting a candidate with a competitive mindset to work in a collaborative environment. This time I would like to focus on the experiences that have led to a successful integration. I ended with a few notes on Team-Think.

The goal of Team-Think is to alter the competitive, individual focused, mindset to that of a collaborative, team-focused, mindset.

Allow Failure

The easiest way that I have found to encourage Team-Think is to allow them to fail. Prior to the Team-Think transition, individuals are frightened of failure. Failure is not always a bad thing. Candidates have been conditioned to fear failure rather than embrace it as a learning or growth opportunity. Controlled failure can be a very effective teaching mechanism so long as it is set up correctly.

To setup controlled failure you must:

  1. Create a safe area for failure in the small
  2. Make it clear that failure in the small is expected
  3. Take no action on failure other than to ask what was learned

When a team fails in a particular area I often say the following:

“I do not care who did it. Have we learned why it happened? Have we taken steps to see that it does not happen again?”

By always leading with the “I do not care who did it” you establish a safe failure zone. The individual knows that he will not “get in trouble” for his failure. The team knows that they are supported.

Celebrate the failure as a learning opportunity.

Celebrate Success

I have found that celebrating small team successes are almost as important as large project successes. These celebrations lend a sense of comradery and belonging to a group. At times, I have been on teams where herculean efforts are performed by individuals who deserve recognition. This recognition should be recognized but it should not overshadow the success of the team. (Ideally, herculean efforts should be frowned upon as it indicates a planning failure)

Success is a tricky thing to define for a team. Often, the fall back is on successful deliveries or iteration boundaries. Focusing only on project deliverables/state has, in my experience, proven to be a mistake. Meeting project deliverable is certainly a time to celebrate although an even better celebration has been around the fact that the team found a better way to deliver those artifacts.

A quick list of things that I have seen celebrated, aside from project deliverables, has been:

  1. Learning a new way to do something
  2. Learning a new way to not do something (This can be a sensitive subject but any learning is better than no learning and may save someone time in the future. Making the team OK with handling this type of feedback has proven to be hard.)
  3. The first time that a new team member leads a pair (This is a very important time. The new team member has now stepped into the deep end of the pool.)
  4. Moments of greatness for the team (When the team pulls together to get something done. Succeed or not, it is notable and should be recognized.)

Teach the Teacher

The transition from a competition to collaboration mindset is often a difficult one. It is often peppered with the need of the transitioning individual to prove himself. Coming from a learning environment where he competed against his peers, the individual wants to show others that he can do it and that he is “that good”. Pairing has been my go-to mechanism to allow the individual to both learn collaboration first hand as well as be able to show off a little.

Pairing is an extremely beneficial activity. When done right, it can be an incredible team building, knowledge sharing activity, mentoring tool, and QA check. Many of our SEPeers have been pairing for years on various projects. A few of our more senior developers have explained that each pairing role (driver or navigator) has ample opportunity and the obligation to teach and mentor the other party during pairing. By turning the process of making software into small teaching and mentoring sessions, we establish team rapport as well as give the individual the ability to “show off” his knowledge.

Trust the Team

I am honored to be able to work with amazing people. SEP is full of people that astound me on a daily basis. I have learned, over the years that the following is always true:

  1. Your team will do the right thing, trust them
  2. They will take care of their own
  3. Give them a sense of autonomy and they will succeed

When it comes to bringing a new hire “into the fold”, a team is the best group to do that. They have all been in the new hires place at one time and remember what it was like. They will nurture and protect, but will not coddle. The team will help establish the working norms, collaboration expectations, and teach the individual how to be a part of something bigger than himself.

When I look back at the projects that I consider successful the teams involved immediately come to mind. Watching the teams pull together, collaborate, communicate, and grow is the true sign of success. This is why we, as invested leaders, need to expend as much effort as it takes to assist candidates in adopting a collaborative mindset. It is the entire team that helps projects succeed, not just the individuals inside it.