Do you really have a team when someone keeps messing with the membership?

One summer, long ago and far away, I was on a softball team.  It would be an exaggeration to say I played softball, but I did participate in practices, showed up for games and imbibed of the general post-game joie de vivre (beer).  There were a lot of team members like me. It didn’t matter so much if everyone turned out, or if some people didn’t show. Friends of friends showed up. They might play half the season and then disappear.  It didn’t matter because it wasn’t about reaching a goal, it was about socializing.  

Too many teams have boundaries like that softball team. It’s never clear who will show up, and who the team can count on to play. If you want productive teams, don’t mess with team membership.

Stable Team Membership

The fundamental criteria for a team is stable membership.  To be a team, people need to know who the team members are. Weak membership boundaries make it hard for any team to do it’s work. Unstable team membership leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding.  And that adds up to time and money. Team members can’t be mutually accountable if they don’t know who is makes up “we” when they commit to deliver.

Downhill Invention, Uphill Analysis

There’s an added hurdle for software teams. The people who write an app build up their mental model of the code as they build the code. It starts simple and grows in complexity. For someone facing an unfamiliar code base, it is a different challenge. They start with something complex. They often build understanding in a piece-meal fashion, as they encounter and work on different parts of the code base. This extends the process of becoming proficient and productive–no matter the level of skill in a particular programming language. When the code base changes during the learning process it takes even longer. With out a robust process to support learning, a newcomer may never become proficient. Which leads to turnover, and starting the learning process a new. (See Downhill Invention, Uphill Analysis in Jessica Kerr’s Origin of Opera post.)

Some organizations assign people who in between projects (or managers) to what ever team seems (operative word “seems”) to need more staff.  This is the warm-body theory of staffing, that holds that you can plug a person with roughly the right skills into a team and achieve productivity right away.  (There’s a related fantasy, that full utilization is desirable and efficient).  The reality is that plugging people into a team creates a revolving door effect and the effort to bring people up to speed slows down productive work (see Brook’s law).

In terms of getting work done (and keeping people engaged) its more effective when people between teams or projects work on their own special projects, attend training, or just take a breather.

The belief that a group can start working at full potential the first week they are together is a fantasy. It’s also a fantasy that teams can function with who ever shows up.

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