Team players and MVPs

Team players (yes, these two are mine...)

What are the qualities you look for in a “team player”? Respect? Experience? Competence? Levelheadedness? A great personality?

When I hear people use the phrase, I confess I don’t know what they really mean. That is, I know it is a common phrase, but I wonder if people give the jargon any thought.

Sometimes it seems people use the words when they really just wants someone else to change… as in “he/she is not a very good team player”. Yet they offer no (or little) direction on precisely how to become one.

Have you ever met a “team player” you didn’t like to work with? Have you ever seen the term “team player” used in quotes, besides in this post? Ever?

Putting the jargon aside, who do you want on your teams?

Standardization, commonality and best practices

Every project includes some fundamental tasks. Sometimes they are repeatable, even mechanical, and you can train people to do them. You can often anticipate contingencies, and you can teach people to recognize them and act appropriately when they arise.

To that extent, you can train people and substitute them into teams as backups or replacements. So we cross-train on each others’ jobs to provide backup for people to go on vacations. We define standard practices and “best practices” and teach them to people to drop our costs of repeating the same tasks over and again.

Now, the last thing we need is somebody on the team who messes up our routines every day. The person who habitually “breaks the build” or who fails to write unit tests forces his teammates to bear added costs to keep everything running smoothly, until eventually we start to wonder how we can get those people off our team.

So the factors that help us work together in standard practices are one thing that makes us good “team players”.

But that is not the end of the story…

Marginal utility in the team

Not everybody takes the tiller

This post is the fourth in the principles of economics in software development series. We are pausing for a time on the third of Greg Mankiw’s principles, which says “rational people think at the margin“.

Last week I wrote about the implications of this principle on the value of our work (and our salaries). As an illustration, I suggested the difference between the professional basketball player’s income and the amateur’s income might come down to four extra baskets per game.

They’re paid all the extra money because of the incremental points they score.

Now, nobody asked them to score those points in high school or college. Nobody forced them to practice. Nobody read their job description to them.

They did the work. They built their abilities. They found ways to produce value for their teams… and they earned their rewards.

For that, they were not easily replaced. For that, they could compel a little VIP status. For that, they sometimes got out of hand, acted like prima donnas and started producing high costs for their employers (and themselves).

Thinking at the margin doesn’t discriminate

So while there are marginal utilities, which produce marginal value… there are also marginal costs.

“Rational people think at the margin” means nobody worries about what is the same. All “team players” who follow standard practices and never step out of line, but never produce incremental value over their coworkers may feel “safe”… whatever that means to them. But they can never be valued any more than what is commonplace (…and there is nothing wrong with that).

Hire this guy? The most interesting guy in the world...

On the other hand, rational people evaluate the costs associated with picking up those few extra points in a basketball game… with adding that expert to their team, along with any eccentricities they bring. The person who has that unique knowledge of a technology or who can make the database “sing”, but who may not perfectly fit in some other way, might be just what is missing.

They evaluate whether it’s “worth it” – worth the costs in terms of time, energy, money and lost opportunities. And then they willingly make investments to get access to all the difference in the world, if it will help them achieve their tactical, strategic or ultimate objectives.

So let me ask again… who do you want on your teams?

Building trust with your customer

Trust means we can depend on future action

It is common to speak of building trust within a project team.

We debate ways to build trust, how we break trust and to what extent this “trust notion” is important anyway.

I have written about trust building with regard to noticing the implicit promises we make each other, and how very “real” they are to us in terms of consequences even though we don’t know they exist.

I know some cynics who say that trust does not exist… but I also accept that is how a true cynic might see it, and I move on.

So in this post, I want to talk about the trust we build with our customers… something relevant to every technology leader. (Actually, the core reference for my post above had to do, in part, with a marketer’s perspective of software developers.)

Revisiting components of trust

I have introduced a distinction for trust as:

An assessment of sincerity, reliability and competence to hold our promises for long horizons of time

You might use a different distinction, but I offer this one as the basis for the rest of this post. It is a standard distinction produced and taught by The Aji Network, which you know if you follow me is an educational discourse of business professionals with whom I have learned and grown professionally.

Actually, when I say “long horizons of time”, it is more specific to say “as long as needed”. If you trust me with a promise not to tell about a surprise birthday party… I am off the hook for that promise after the event.

So what is our task?

You can't keep any promises you don't make

Given that distinction for trust, we only build trust with our customers when they assess we are:

  1. Sincere – we mean what we say
  2. Reliable – we recurrently do what we say
  3. Competent – we’re not claiming a skill we don’t have

AND… we have to hold our promises [for as long as needed].

The thing is, if we don’t make any promises, we can’t build trust.

Now, I’ve heard some people adopt this as an intentional strategy – if we don’t make promises, they can’t distrust us. Actually, the opposite is true — if we don’t make promises, our customers WILL grow to trust us — to NOT take care of them.

We can’t hide demand by ignoring it exists (or saying “no” to everything), and we can’t build trust by saying “yes” and failing to deliver. So what is left for us to do?

The natural human planning cycle: 90 days

Here are two examples from domains outside software projects:

These books have at least one thing in common – they both refer to the human psychological implications of 90 days as a powerful window for planning.

Things change a lot in our business lives, and in the business lives of our customers. That is one reason we gravitate toward agile, or at least to short-cycle projects. Here we have two examples of other domains that suggest a familiar theme – give yourself space for feedback and time to adapt… and don’t pretend to know everything.

So let me offer this natural human planning cycle as consistent with a powerful move to build trust with our customers. Don’t delay a release unless something drastic has happened. Communicate clearly and confidently about what will be “in” the release, but don’t miss the ship date.

Over time, your capacity to recurrently hit ship dates (reliability), with solid features (competence) as you have said you would (sincerity), you create the opening to change the moods and attitudes of customers who might have great reasons not to trust due to historical patterns.

One strategic purpose for building trust with customers

There are many reasons to build trust with customers, but I will leave that to another post.

Today, I just want to link back to a past article I wrote about the role of project managers to hold customers to their end of the bargain – that they take receipt of our products. Not every team has this problem because they have their customers’ trust.

Some teams don’t have the problem because they have psychologically strong coaches who can force acceptance on their customers regardless of trust. (I haven’t directly observed this, but I leave open the possibility that it might exist.)

For the rest of us, not having your customer’s trust means they may become over-demanding, asking for more because they know they won’t get it all. They may get beaten down and stop asking for your help. Or I don’t know if this is worse, but they may take their budgets and look elsewhere for help.

They are not “wrong” in acting that way… but you can get ahead of them by investing in building their trust. Find promises you CAN make, if you can’t do everything. (Who can?)

…and deliver on those promises, consistently, competently, sincerely and recurrently… for as long as needed.