Skip to content

Dream teams, team dreams

Published by Martin Kleppmann on 25 Nov 2007.

About a year ago I went through a phase of wondering whether I might make a good management consultant. My thought at the time was that such experience might help me when I eventually set up my own business: I was very much a scientist and not at all a businessman, so that seemed a good way to build up the business side of things.

I made some contacts at McKinsey and BCG, applied and went for a day of interviews with BCG. By the end of that day I was boiling with desire to get out very quickly and never go anywhere near a management consultancy again. I found something fundamentally and instinctively repulsive about the way they worked, although I found it hard to put my finger on it.

Book cover of “Peopleware”

Fast forward to the present: I started my business anyway, without the consultancy background (I gained some business awareness through the excellent Ignite programme instead), and at the moment I’m reading the book Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. It is an excellent manifesto on how to build a company (such as a software company) which relies on the intelligence and creativity of its people. The one-sentence summary might be: People in your organisation are human beings, not parts of a machine; with a good working and social environment, they will enjoy what they do and do an excellent job.

One of the key phenomena which the authors identify with success are what they call “jelled teams”. They define this as: ”[…] a group of people so strongly knit that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (p. 123) and “Jelled teams are marked by a strong sense of identity. […] There is a sense of eliteness on a good team. Team members feel they’re part of something unique. […] There is invariably a feeling of joint ownership of the product built by the jelled team. […] The individual is eager for peer review. […] The final sign of a jelled team is the obvious enjoyment that people take in their work. Jelled teams just feel healthy. The interactions are easy and confident and warm.” (p. 127)

I have had the privilege of being part of a jelled team before, particularly with Johannes Hauser and Alex Heß, so I immediately knew what they were talking about. And it is probably one of my main ambitions in life to work in jelled teams again and again – the positive inter-personal experience is worth so much more than money or any other benefit.

And this is where my thoughts return to the management consultancies mentioned at the start. One thing which struck me about them is how they try so very hard to prevent any team jell from occurring. They constantly talk about teams, but for them, this week’s team is a completely different one from last week’s; the tasks and goals change abruptly; any social bonds which might have formed between people during a project are deliberately broken up; and there is just no way, no way ever, that an exciting and genuinely enjoyable team can form. Their definition of team seems to be “several randomly selected, competitive individuals, working under high pressure on a common project”, whereas my definition of team is more like “a group of friends who want to accomplish something together and have fun in the process”. And my definition is very much what I’m aiming for in our company.

Finally an interesting and inspiring quote on the subject of trust in teams – an extremely important matter, presented here with a philosophical slant:

“Once you’ve decided to go with a given group, your best tactic is to trust them. Any defensive measure taken to guarantee success in spite of them will only make things worse. It may give you some relief from worry in the short term, but it won’t help in the long run, and it will poison any chance for the team to jell. […]

Most managers give themselves excellent grades on knowing when to trust their people and when not to. But in our experience, too many managers err on the side of mistrust. They follow the basic premise that their people may operate completely autonomously, as long as they operate correctly. This amounts to no autonomy at all. The only freedom that has any meaning is the freedom to proceed differently from the way your manager would have proceeded. This is true in a broader sense, too: The right to be right (in your manager’s eyes or your government’s eyes) is irrelevant; it’s only the right to be wrong that makes you free.”

– Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister: Peopleware, p. 133-134