High performing teams are about interperson chemistry that is built on a foundation of the “basics”.
Take sports for example.
Learning to play a sport require you to learn the rules and develop basic skills to play. For soccer, it would be passing, tackling, lobbing and shooting.
When you join a team, there’s drills, runs and short set plays. These are repeated over and over during practice. During a full game, these disconnected pieces mix together to form fluid play. Play together with your team for long enough and magic starts to happen — team members anticipate each others moves to outplay opposition.
Drills, runs and set plays allow you to improve and build on the basic skills: passing, tackling, lobbing and shooting. They improve player fitness and execution during gameplay.
The act of continually working on the basics seem to lead to continued advancement. This is an interesting idea as it would be easy to assume the opposite — to advance further, one has to work on increasingly complex drills. I think it comes down to the fact that most complex things are built up from very basic elements. The more confident and efficient we are with basics, the more opportunity we have to put them together to do complex things.
Therefore, I believe, basics and chemistry form important attributes for any team.
Chemistry can be a complex thing to establish, with time, environment and the individuals themselves. It’s a whole other discussion.
It is easy to establish basics when talking about soccer. What are the basics outside the context of sports? I’ve been trying to figure out what forms the basics for a software engineering team. Is it design patterns or code reviews? Is it practicing readiness to production issues? Or perhaps, it is our ability to document and capture tasks in Trello? These seem to be the essential building blocks in a life of an engineer; solving problems by applying technical concepts into code, that outputs a product to deliver value.
Software is more than just code. At the heart of it, it is empathy and collaboration. It is a bunch of people, observing and acknowledging pain felt by themselves or others, deciding to take upon themselves to resolve that pain. Solutions doesn’t just come from one individual. It is the work of many, fusing their minds, disciplines and skills together to make something truly valuable. For me, the basics for a team are contained in these core values.
Basics has to be more around the idea of problem solving. That is all we do as a team, every day. Even our individual disciplines themselves are various ways dimensions of problem solving — research, design, engineering, analysis etc.
This idea became clearer when I recently read the book “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle. The book investigates the elements of highly successful groups. There is a great case study around Danny Meyer’s wildly successful restaurants. In a restaurant, how should one go about preparing staff for both conveying the right feel to customers and be able to react to new and complex issues that come up? It is impossible to cover all the bases and situations.
Danny uses the idea of “heuristics”. He captures the behaviours and his ideology in short, catchy phrases that are used in high frequency. Staff learn to apply these heuristics in every day complex situations, leading to very delightful customer experiences. Applying these heuristics seem to be the basics Danny get his staff to focus on.
These “heuristics” aren’t the same as rules. They are shortcuts for understanding and applying “guiding principles”. They convey a behaviour that is core to situations that arise in a restaurant environment. They allow staff to be thoughtful and creative, while being aligned towards providing customers with a unique, delightful experience.
Heuristics based in problem solving… these can be our basics.
Here are some ideas for heuristics I’ve been collecting with the help of others:
- Just start.
- Try and try again.
- Optimise for fast recovery.
- Act like it is your company.
- Coaching over management.
- Challenge assumptions.
- Understanding the problem is half the solution.
- Ask why.
“Just start” — we can apply this heuristic over and over in many occasions, whether people are stuck on a decision or unsure of estimates. It embraces the culture of a “maker” in having a bias for action.
Whenever someone asks me why we allowed a bug to go to production, I like to say: “Making mistakes is part of the job. We’d be better off if our system was optimised for fast recovery instead.”
We do workshops to help everyone understand how to write a good problem statement. Because “understanding the problem is half the solution.”
I believe that practicing these basics of problem solving can lead to powerful teams. They can provide the fundamentals that enable magic to take place.
Keep practising. Keep doing basics well.
If my last 12 months have proven me anything, it is that being brave and working hard on your passions is the only way to be happy. Good things come to those who are proactive and willing to make it happen.
About a year ago, I decided to do something a little odd. I decided to take 20% pay cut from my already average graduate pay and spend 2 days a week working on my passions. Don't get me wrong, I'm already in the field I love and feel that I have most to contribute to. It's just that, I felt the calling -- the calling to give life to my own ideas that I am always telling people about! I really had the urge to learn more about running a business and being an entrepreneur.
So, I took Friday off and became a permanent part-timer at my day job, Vigil Systems.
It was odd at first. I felt like I was just giving money away. My friends were getting pay rises while my professional career seemingly stood still. To keep myself from feeling this way, I decided that my financials cannot suffer despite the dip in my pay. I used to save a large chunk of money from my pay. Now, I save the exact same amount as before. I've exchanged more savings with a downgrade in my lifestyle. I eat out less, plan more for things I have to spend.
Next I had a huge sense of urgency. I wanted to succeed right away! I often got into disagreements with Suneth on the direction we were taking. I was that over committed girlfriend who wanted to go where this was heading on day one. Oh dear.
We built 3 things in the past few months.
First was a music app that never saw light of day. I swear it was such a cool app that we couldn't figure out what to do with it. Shame shame shame. But I learned a significant amount about doing drawRect: operations in iOS UIViews. How to animate, do KVO and use layers to animate parts of a view. Lots of fun!
Next was Momento Jar. It is somewhat a failed product. What I learned out of it cannot even be summarised in this post. I managed to pick up an entire platform (Ruby on Rails), made huge leaps in app design work, learned to engineer bigger apps, learned more things about running a business than ever before! And best of all, Suneth and I made M2D2 Pty Ltd official!!
Next, tvQ 2. Sexiest app we ever made I reckon. It is very polished. I just started making a product video for it! iMovie... here I come!! tvQ 2.0 is still a work in progress.
It's difficult to go through everything learned over the year but what I walked away from all of this is a huge sense of accomplishment, despite not having much success financially. I have never learned so much in a course of 12 months! My ideas are more creative and most importantly, much more workable. After the initial change, Friday has been the day I look forward to the most. I have a huge sense of purpose every time I tackle my own ideas.
What's more interesting is that I feel happier than ever before! I feel like my decision to spend more time doing things I love has earned me more happiness credits! It has event brought me around to start taking care of my own health. I've started running again. Overall, life's taken on a better path.
I hope I have success sometime down the line.
Special mention to Vigil, which was very understanding when I decided to take a day off from an already a tiny technical team (4 people!). In hindsight, I think they managed to exchange old me to a happier, more driven and a far more technically competent employee!
When the right time comes, I hope you'll decide to take on all kinds of adventures in your life too. Not just your professional life but your personal life as well. Don't feel bound by what you have now. Exchange them to a greater future and write a new chapter in your story. You'll be better for it -- you would have earned your happiness.
(Image Credit: http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2010/04/features/work-smarter-happy)