Building Teams…just like making Granola?

granola_moundAh Granola.

That wonderful treat consisting of oats, nuts, honey and other assorted goodies like berries, bananas, chocolate chips, raisins etc etc. Additionally, granola can be a snack, a meal or a dessert…it truly is a force to be reckoned with.

To make granola, you don’t need any special ‘tools’ or appliances. You just need to the ingredients and a simple recipe. Take Oats. Roast them. Add ‘stuff’. Enjoy.

Each person’s recipe is going to be different and everyone has their own idea of what ‘good’ granola is but at the end of the day, it starts with the same basic ingredients. The process might be different and the final outcome may be slightly different but everyone starts with oats and everyone ends with granola. It may be great granola or it may be just so-so…the outcome depends on a lot of things; ingredients, preparation, cooking/baking skills, recipe development, storage, intended use, etc. The outcome also depends a lot on the cook themselves. Each cook is different and has a different skill set in the kitchen..some people can cook really well while others can burn water on the stove.

Can the same be said for building teams? Can you use a ‘recipe’ to build good teams and have it come out ‘right’ every time?

The ingredients are the same everywhere. You start with people. But you don’t always end up with teams. Sometimes, you end up with people who work together and sometimes you end up with extremely high performing teams.

What’s the difference between the teams that work well and those that don’t? Is it as simple as hiring the best people? Or can you pick average people and turn them into great teams? Or…is there a little bit of ‘magic’ involved in making good teams?

Building and developing a good team is part science and part art and maybe even part luck. You can hire the best people and follow the ‘recipe’ for building high performance teams and still end up with an average team…or worse…a team that doesn’t perform at all.

In my experience with building and managing teams, the ‘recipe’ works just fine…as long as you know how to tweak it for your team and your organization. Recipes are great starting points, but they aren’t always meant to be the only way to do things. Building great teams required hard work, good people, a general sense of purpose within the team, an understanding of the overall strategy of the team/organization and a little luck.

As I said before, To make granola you start with oats, nuts and honey…follow the recipe and you’ll get granola. It may not be that great, but it is granola by definition. You can buy the world’s best oats and nuts and use the ‘world champion’ recipe, but if you can’t cook worth a darn, you might just end up with granola that tastes like dirt. might end up with the best tasting snack you’ve ever had.

To build great teams, hire great people. Give them challenges. Treat them right and lead them well. Help them understand the drivers for your business and team and make sure they understand their place within the organizational strategy. Learn to change things up when needed while building and leading your team and with some hard work and some luck, you might just be able to build a great team.

Listen. Or…the one where Eric washes his car at 3AM

listen closely By twenty_questions on flickrBack in my college days, I was quite the party animal.

Well…that’s actually a bit misleading…I was a physics major…so partying was really more like sitting around with the other Physics and Chemistry majors, having a few drinks and talking about wormholes, time travel, music and just generally hanging out.

I met some great people in college…and I have some really great stories…many of which aren’t really appropriate on this blog  – but if I ever have a beer with you…I’ll share a few 🙂

I do have one story that I’d like to share.  The story is hilarious (at least to me and the two other people involved) but also provides a nice moment of learning and has stayed with me ever since.

Ready? Here we go.  Warning – if you get sick easily, you may want to skip this post.

This story involves me and two good friends from college – I’ll call them W and S to protect their innocence (or guilt!).

In case you don’t know, college was Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Oklahoma…and there was zilch going on in that town. So, to get into any trouble, we’d have to drive to Oklahoma City (about an hour drive) (aka ‘the city’).

One night we decided to drive to the city to hang out and do some bar hopping.  We all climbed into my Geo Storm (yes…I had one of those 90HP beasts) and headed to the city.

We hit a few bars and quite a lot of beer was consumed by W and S. I was driving so I didn’t drink too much and I spent the evening making sure W and S had a good time and didn’t get into too much trouble.

After a long evening of drinking and carousing, we all loaded back up into my Storm and headed back to Weatherford. I was driving, W was in the front seat sleeping and S was in the back seat stretched out snoozing.

Me – I was rocking out with the stereo turned up pretty loudly so I wouldn’t fall asleep and was enjoying the drive back.   Out of the corner of my eye, I notice W moving around so I glance over at him and see him looking at me and trying to say something.

I can’t hear him over the music but I assume that he’s telling me how great the Metallica song is and to turn it up…so I throw him ‘the horns’ , nod and say something like ‘rock on’ then commence to turn the music up louder and continue driving.

Seconds later I notice the window rolling down and the cold air rushing in (it was winter…and starting to snow a bit).  I then see W hang his head out the window and I realize that my assumption was way off…he wasn’t talking about the music…he was telling me to pull over. Now…he was hanging his head out the window and ‘releasing the evil’ to say it politely 🙂

I was doing 80 miles/hour down the highway at 2:30 in the morning…so there wasn’t much traffic to worry about so I quickly pull over to the side of the road and slam on my brakes. W continues with his business while i sit there feeling like a moron for not listening and realizing what W really needed from me.

While sitting there with the car door open and W hanging out the car, I hear some rustling in the back seat and I hear S say “Do you have a napkin”. I’m a 21 year old college student…you think I carry napkins in my car? No.

So…what do I do?  I scrounge around and find a piece of plastic that came off the CD that I’d bought earlier that week.  I turn to S and say – here’s a piece of plastic.

He takes it and I hear plastic rustling and ask him ‘what are you doing back there?’.

His response, which has become a classic in the annals of Eric’s Life , was: “I’ve got caca in my hair!”

Apparently, the ‘evil’ from W was affected by the 80 mph wind and made its way back onto S.   eeeeeeeewwwwwww!    🙂

After a few minutes of me laughing, W finishing his business and S trying to clean up with a piece of plastic, we were back on the road.

I drop them both off at their respective dorms and W tells me that I should think about washing off my car.  I take a look and sure enough..I need to go to the car wash.

So…the night ends with me at the car wash at 3AM in 30 degree weather with it snowing and me washing my car.  And it wasn’t one of those automatic car washes either…it was a good old-fashioned hand wash.   Man it was cold.

It got better (or worse…depending on your outlook). About halfway through washing my car, a police officer pulled up.  He sat there and looked at me. And looked at me.  And looked at me.  He rolled his window down with a stern look on his face.   Then…he said ‘you missed a spot on the back’, laughed and drove off.  Whew!

So…other than just sharing a story from my wild college days, what’s the purpose of this post?

Its pretty a simple one – but one that we often get wrong.  The moral – pay attention when people talk. Listen to what they say.  Don’t assume you know what their trying to say.

I assumed that I knew what W was saying and I ended up washing puke off my car at 3AM while staring down a police officer.

If you assume that you know what your team or coworkers are doing or trying to say, you may end up cleaning up a pretty nasty mess.

Open up your ears and listen.  Or…don’t…and wait for the mess that will inevitably come your way.

Image Credit: listen closely By twenty_questions on flickr

Links for July 26 2011

Guest Post: Personality Assessments by Jurgen Appelo

Management 3.0 by Jurgen AppeloThis article is an adaptation from a text out of the book “Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders,” by Jurgen Appelo. The book will be published by Addison-Wesley, in Mike Cohn’s Signature Series, and will be available in book stores near the end of 2010.

As a manager you need diversity in your teams. A diversity of personalities stimulates stability, resilience, flexibility, and innovation. On the other hand, there must be sufficient common ground among team members to ensure cohesiveness, and for them to be able to resolve conflicts. But how do you know if a team is both diverse and cohesive enough? Enter personality tests. There are several ways to assess people’s personalities:

The Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire is a tool developed by psychologist Raymond B. Cattell. Empirical research has confirmed that this model, which distinguishes between 16 personal traits, is useful in predicting a person’s behavior in many settings. It provides an integrated picture of an individual’s whole personality. My suggestion is to have a look at the 16PF model when you are most serious about personality tests, and when people have sufficient time available to do the tests.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment is the most widely used personality assessment tool in the world, though its effectiveness has been disputed in scientific circles. The MBTI model sorts a number of psychological differences into four opposite pairs (Extraversion vs. Introversion, Sensing vs. Intuition, Thinking vs. Feeling, and Judging vs. Perceiving.) The model is sometimes accused of suffering from the Forer Effect (people believing that statements reflect their personality, while in reality they apply to almost everyone). I would advise you to consider this test if you care more about people’s enthusiasm than scientific justification. The results are fun to discuss, and they enable easy comparisons, if you don’t take the results too seriously.

The Enneagram of Personality proposes nine personality types, represented with a nine-pointed diagram in a circle. It is said that the tool is an effective method for self-development, though it is sometimes criticized for not being falsifiable (meaning it is unscientific), and accused of having its roots in mysticism. Nevertheless, such a test can be fun to do with a team. And if team members are reluctant to have their personalities assessed scientifically, then this unscientific Enneagram can be a welcome compromise. A bit of relativism and a good laugh are worth sharing with team members, even if it’s only to stimulate team growing and awareness of differences.

The last model in this list is the Big Five Factors of personality. It’s a model that consists of five personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability), and it is considered to be the most comprehensive model available, providing a conceptual framework that integrates all earlier findings and theory in personality psychology. However, a common complaint about the Big Five model is that it is too high level to be useful. Several studies have confirmed that models of lower-level traits, like 16PF, Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram, can be more powerful in predicting actual behavior of people. But they are also more controversial than the Big Five, which is seen as the first (and only) scientific consensus in personality psychology. The Big Five model is a great choice if you want a personality assessment that is scientific in its approach, like the 16PF model, but that doesn’t dig too deep. This could draw in some people who would otherwise feel uncomfortable about such a test, or who lack the time to do a full 16PF assessment.

Four Steps Toward Team Personality Assessment

There are four things you can do when assessing diversity and coherence of personalities in software development teams.

First of all, take the tests yourself. Get to know yourself. When you understand your own personality, you will better understand what kind of manager you are, and how you are likely to be perceived by your teams. For example: the tests showed me that I’m very interested in high-level analysis of ideas, patterns, and designs, and usually not very concerned with pragmatic little rules and details. This means I could be a weak manager when a team is uncaring of daily discipline, orderliness, and cleanliness. And I might have too little patience for (and too much criticism of) other people’s solutions.

Second, share your own test results with your teams. Show them what they can expect from you as a person. When you are secretive about yourself, you can expect team members to be secretive towards you. And you don’t want that, I’m sure. So don’t be coy, and show them your strengths and your weaknesses. Yes, this takes some courage. You harden yourself by exposing your vulnerability. You want people to respect and trust you. Openness and honesty will achieve exactly that (and much more besides).

Third, ask team members to do a personality test, privately. There are plenty of free tests to choose from on the Internet, but you can get more elaborate and professional test reports when you are prepared to pay for them. It is not unreasonable to require that team members understand themselves. When they know their own strengths and weaknesses, they are in a better position to behave accordingly. And as a manager you earn some extra points when you show them that you’re willing to invest in their self-development.

Now, you can stop here. It’s great when you know yourself, the team members know you, and the team members know themselves. You will have solved 75% of the team personality issue, which may be enough for your situation. On the other hand, you might want to go for the full 100%…

Fourth, you can suggest that the team members share their results with each other. This can only be done voluntarily, and only when there’s a high level of trust in the team. Naturally, you will have preceded this question by giving them your own test scores, so they know what to expect, and might be more willing to follow your lead. Arrange a meeting in a warm, relaxed, non-threatening atmosphere, and have team members talk freely about their test results. Emphasize that scores are not meant to be good or bad. One cannot be both left- and right-handed at the same time, and neither can someone be both shy and bold, or grounded and abstracted. And even if people don’t really care for the personality models, which, it must be stressed, are not without controversy and dispute, the exercise itself can be a great way to do some team growing.

When team members better understand each other’s personalities, they (and you) will be able to identify any deficiencies in diversity or cohesiveness in the team. And you can discuss what to do about that.

One final note: Some states and countries restrict the use of personality tests by employers, though the legal restrictions are usually directed at employers requiring such tests in the process of hiring new employees. You may want to check this first for your situation and legal environment.

This article is an adaptation from a text out of the book “Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders,” by Jurgen Appelo. The book will be published by Addison-Wesley, in Mike Cohn’s Signature Series, and will be available in book stores near the end of 2010.

If you'd like to receive updates when new posts are published, signup for my mailing list. I won't sell or share your email.