Building software teams is hard. Fostering culture, improvement, learning and community in a group of individuals that have other options is a difficult thing to do. Fortunately, it’s not all that different than building many other kind of groups. Yet too often, we fail to look around at other successful groups and learn from their example. There are two challenges in particular that hold back leaders in their quest to build a highly functioning group.
First, creating success is not about the composition of the group alone. Don’t get me wrong, you should look for A-Players, but in any environment where there are other groups people will be more or less evenly distributed by the draw of money, opportunity, ego-stroking, etc. And what will differentiate your group is what it can do with it’s B and C-players. Your A-Players are already good, and mostly know how to handle themselves. Leadership might provide them some marginal returns. But compare that to the return of turning a C player into a B player with proper support. Yet how many of us see leaders trying to run off everyone but A-Players in the naive belief that they can build a team of only A-Players. Those teams don’t exist, and if they do, they don’t need leadership.
This is why some really successful leaders are viewed as simplistic, or unintelligent. Let me cite some examples. Jim Tressel had great regular season success with the OSU Football team, but struggled at times to win the big game. This was often chalked up to inferior coaching strategy. Critics said he was too conservative with play-calling, and that he harped on the basics instead of explosive plays. He was playing the numbers. He made some flawed teams better by reducing mistakes. There may be some truth that he could have opened up the playbook more and found some new strategies for the big games, but ultimately I think the key differences in the conferences that have plagued most outside of the SEC showed up those games. Urban Meyer never had that reputation at Florida, but is now turning out mostly the same results.
Another example is the financial advisor Dave Ramsey. He is trying to lead financial change across huge groups of readers and people attending classes in their community. His system is very simple and is critiqued for that lack of sophistication. But he has succeeded in helping millions of people (who span across a wide range of intelligence and financial knowledge) out of debt. I challenge the best financial Wall Street consultant to do the same. He tuned the message to the B & C players. The folks who were the most capable were on there way to success when they picked up a book and started thinking about fixing their finances and doing some basic tracking and planning. That was the nudge they needed. And the folks who wouldn’t understand a financially complicated plan got something they could digest that was better than what they are doing today.
Second, creating success is not a set of linear steps that reaches a done phase. Leaders lay out short-term plans that are focused on fixing all the problems, and then thriving in some utopian state. Like creating a group is like a construction problem, when in fact, it’s more like owning the property. You have to maintain the building. You have to weed the garden. You have to pay the bills…
Leadership is a repetitive job, where you will fix the same problem more than once, and you can’t get impatient about that. You will tread over the same ground, sometimes with the same people. If this doesn’t make sense, go ask a minister when his or her church will be “done”. Ask them when the last time they will need to do a baptism is, or when the last time is they will need to comfort a grieving family. Ask a coach when his or her team will be finished and perfect.
Who Should Lead
Now we come to some of the biggest sources of confusion. The mistaken belief that the best welder should lead the welders. The best burger flipper should manage the restaurant. The best programmer should lead the team. How many times have you seen that tried and failed.
Leadership is a service job. It is taking responsibility and solving problems. It is building community and motivating growth. Leading is about understanding people, and more importantly group interaction. Understanding the domain is usually the easy part.