Tag Archives: teams

Lessons for Managers from Wisconsin and Duke Basketball

What can managers learn from Duke and Wisconsin’s basketball teams? Duke and Wisconsin are in the college basketball championship game tonight. They reached this stage through a great deal of hard work, skill, training and coaching.

Raw talent matters to mangers and even more to college basketball coaches. But raw talent alone won’t succeed (for college basketball teams a great system starved of raw talent would also fail).

The lesson many people miss is that college teams are mostly about developing a team that wins. Developing individual players is a part of that, but it is subordinate to developing a team. I think college coaches understand this reality much more than most managers do. But a management system that develops a team that succeeds is also critical to the success of business.

Managers can learn from successful college basketball programs the importance of creating a successful team. Part of doing that is developing individual skills of players. A huge part of it is developing an understanding of the system within which those players must operate.

Recruiting is an important part of developing an elite college basketball team. And it is critical to developing a world class business organization (though recruiting is less important to business, in my opinion). Recruiting is important in business, but it is easier to be very successful with good people, the skills needed in business are not often so rare as those needed in high level basketball.

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Take Advantage of the Strengths Each Person Brings to Work

The players have weaknesses. But it is our job as coaches to find the strengths in what our guys do. They all have strengths, and that’s what we highlight. What really helps is having Russell. He is so committed to improving on the littlest things every day. I try to find a word for this sometimes, but I can’t … it’s his refusal to fail. No detail is too small, and he makes sure to stress that every day.”

Darrell Bevell, offensive coordinator of the world champion Seattle Seahawks and former quarterback of the Wisconsin Badgers provides a good guide for managers. “Russell” in the quote is Seattle’s quarterback Russel Wilson; also a UW-Madison alumni.

Street art in Singapore 4 people sitting and a kid

Street art in Singapore. Photo by John Hunter.

Managers should be setting up the organization to take maximum advantage of the strengths of the people in the organization while minimizing the impact of weaknesses.

“Refusing to fail” by saying you refuse and yelling and stomping around if you fail doesn’t work. But if you commit to improve, not just the exciting stuff but every important detail you can create a climate of success. You create a system that works and builds on the skills, ability and desire to do great work that your employees bring to work.

Sure you fix what is broken. But you also improve what is working well. You figure out where the system isn’t optimized for the abilities of the people and you address that by changing the system to take advantage of everyone’s capabilities while limiting the impact of people’s weaknesses.

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Building a Great Software Development Team

twitter screen shot of the quoted conversation

Elliot: I worked with some of the best programmers I’ve ever known at the tiny, obscure ASEE

Adam Solove: Why do you think that happened? They hired for passion, rather than experience?

If I had to pick one thing, passion would likely be it but really it is a complex assortment of things. Passion for the right things, based on what we aimed to be, mattered a great deal. That took the form of being passionate about the user experience, being passionate about good software development practices, being passionate about good software itself, being passionate about treating each other with respect, being passionate about learning and improving.

I think there were several other important factors, such as: the skill to turn a passion for good software into actual good software. This required intelligence, interest and knowledge about software development but didn’t require specific experience (computer science degree, 2 years of Ruby on Rails development, certification or any such thing). Hiring based on experience is a big mistake. In my opinion hiring based on capability and potential (which is based partially on experience) is wise.

Another factor is that we had people (those first few hires were critical) that were really knowledgable about programing good software and that became a self reinforcing process. The gaps one person’s ability and knowledge could be filled by someone else helping them understand and get better.

The expectation was that we found great solutions. If we didn’t we kept looking and asked each other for help (another factor in creating a great team). We didn’t just accept that we were confident the solution wasn’t very good but couldn’t find any better options so I guess this is the best we can do.

We were interested enough in good results that we would push for better options instead of just accepting something that was kind of ok. This shouldn’t be such a big deal; but in practice it is huge. So many places just end up avoiding conflict to the extent that it is a huge detriment to results.

Without confidence, honest debate about ideas is suppressed as people are constantly taking things personally instead of trying to find the best ideas (and if doing so means my idea is criticized that is ok). Our group was great at this. It is something I find it a bit silly to say a workplace was “great” at but in most places I find the fear of someone being concerned stifles discussion to an unbelievable extent.

This is also one of many areas where the culture within the team was self reinforcing. As new people came on they understood this practice. They saw it in practice. They could see it was about finding good ideas and if their idea was attacked they didn’t take it nearly as personally as most people do in most places. I sought to understand if people we looked at hiring would be comfortable in such an environment.

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A Good Management System is Robust and Continually Improving

imagine various people working within it, somehow swapping out gears and cogs without the clock stopping or slowing down even a little.

This is a fairly good quote on a good management system. Some people might not like the mechanistic model – comparing an organization to a clock, and I agree that isn’t the right model, but even so it is a good quote.

The quote, from a story about the San Antonio Spurs captures what should happen with a good management system. Things just keep running well as inevitable changes take place (and keep getting better in the case of a management system).

A good management system doesn’t rely on heroic efforts to save the day. The organization is designed to success. It is robust. It will succeed with all the variation thrown at it by the outside world. A good management system takes advantage of the contributions people offer, but it is not perform poorly when others are relied on.

A well run organization has graceful degradation (when one component fails or one person is missing the performance doesn’t suffer, bad results are avoided).

With software for example, a decently created web sites may use javascript to enhance the user experience but if javascript is unavailable the site works fine (just missing some neat features that are nice but don’t prevent users from getting what they need). Poorly designed software has critical dependencies on conditions that cannot be guaranteed to be present for end users and the software just fails to work when those conditions are not met. Ungraceful degradation is too common in software. It is also too common in our management systems.

An organization succeeds because of the efforts of many great people. But the management system has to be created for an organization to prosper as what we all know will happen, happens: people will leave and need to be replaced. And the people that stay will need to adjust to new conditions inside the organization and in response to external forces. A good management system is constantly improving performance, innovating, increasing the robustness of systems and increasing the capability of people.

Related: Bad Weather is Part of the Transportation SystemHow to Sustain Long Term Enterprise ExcellencePerformance dependent on specific individuals is not robust and not capable of continuous high quality performanceEuropean Blackout: Human Error-Not

Peter Senge on Systems Thinking

People must be willing to challenge their mental models in order to find non-obvious areas of high leverage – which allow significant improvement.

System thinking is a term that is often confusing to people. From my perspective it is important to understand the importance of leverage. Understanding systems lets you find solutions that may not be direct, but provide powerful leverage. Another important point is looking at the organization as a system.

Understanding the interdependence of the aspects of the system/organization/process is also important (and part of seeing the organization as a system). We often don’t consider how changes will impact other areas of the system that are not immediately apparent. This weakness in how we often think today, results in great opportunities to improve by factoring in the impacts that are not as obvious.

As Peter Senge mentions in the video the concept of long term thinking plays a role. Often we are now neglecting or vastly under-appreciating long term impacts (focusing on only the results in the short term) and thus often their are opportunities to improve just by factoring in not just the short term impacts but also placing importance on longer term impacts.

Peter Senge: “Its not about the smartest guys in the room its about what we can do collectively. So the intelligence that matters is the concept of collective intelligence.”

Related: We are Being Ruined by the Best Efforts of People Who are Doing the Wrong ThingHow to Get a New Management Strategy, Tool or Concept AdoptedBuild an Environment Where Intrinsic Motivation Flourishes

Respect for People: Optimize for Developer Happiness at Etsy

The webcast above discusses the culture of software engineering at Etsy (a very popular site providing a marketplace and community for small businesses – artisan focus). Some of the key points of the talk. Etsy trusts employees. Etsy’s strategy is to optimize for developer happiness. Etsy has lunches twice a week where employees build community.

Etsy sees code as craft. The echos Etsy’s value on authorship: “the people behind what we buy make commerce meaningful.” It re-inforces the belief that work has meaning and is valued and should have intrinsic value to those doing the work, people should have the opportunity to take pride in their work.

Chad Dickerson discussed the importance Peter Drucker placed on connecting people to the value provided to customer. Etsy takes steps to connect employees to the value provided to customers, including emphasizing the community of the company and the customers of Etsy.

Related: Respect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in WorkMistake Proofing Deployment of Software CodeBuild an Environment Where Intrinsic Motivation Flourishes

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Management Improvement Carnival #137

photo of Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by John Hunter. View from my hotel room.

The Curious Cat management blog carnival is published 3 times a month with select recent management blog posts. I also collect management improvement articles through Curious Cat Management Articles, you can subscribe via RSS to new article additions. Photo is the view I see as I post this issue of the carnival.

  • The importance of understanding variation or how to avoid treating all contractors as thieves by Benjamin Mitchell – “The fix for common cause variation (and most variation is common cause) is to go and study the situation, experiment and try and look for patterns or trends in the data before making a change to the system.”
  • Deming’s 14 Points by David Joyce – “The 14 points are not a menu you can pick and choose from. Deming intended you use all 14. They are one philosophy.”
  • Misconceptions about Self-Organizing Teams by Esther Derby – “Like all teams, they need a compelling goal, skills, information, and enough time to form and perform. And they still need managers to create a supportive context, set appropriate boundaries and constraints and connect the team to the organization.”
  • New York City Halts Teacher Bonus Program: Another Blow to Evidence-Resistant Ideology by Bob Sutton – “The decision was made in light of a study that found the bonuses had no positive effect on either student performance or teachers’ attitudes toward their jobs.”
  • Agile Prioritisation by Mike Griffiths – “There is no single best way to always prioritise; instead, try to diagnose issues arising in the prioritisation process, be it “lack of involvement” or “too many priority 1’s”, and then try approaches such as Monopoly money, MoSCoW or a pure list to assist if the problems cannot be resolved via dialogue. The goal is to understand where features lie in relation to others as opposed to assigning a category label.”
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Why Lean is Different


Why Lean is different by Operae_Partners

Short webcast by Michael Ballé discusses what makes lean manufacturing different: going to where the work is done, standardize processes (from the gemba view), practice respect for people and continually improve. Lean thinking focuses on achieving better results and through that process improves trust and teamwork internally, as well as better supplier and customer relationships.

Related: Non-technical Control Chart WebcastMihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Creativity, Fulfillment and Flowlean management, books, articles…

Stop Starting and Start Finishing – Jason Yip

Jason Yip explores the value of reducing work in process and reducing context switching costs to optimize throughput. By designing processes to work on projects serially instead of in parallel we reduce context switching, and other costs, of multitasking.

Related: Multi-Tasking: Why Projects Take so LongThe Importance of Making Problems VisibleOne piece flow (continuous flow)Kanban

The Power of Small Teams

The power of small teams by Avi Muchnick

Choose a project that is simple to implement. Don’t try to create a complex suite of applications… Focus on solving a single problem. Philip Kaplan made email more efficient to use by stalling it instead of managing it. Dead simple approach and a great idea.Take the easier approach when possible.

Choose people that can wear multiple hats. Can your designer code? Can your programmer manage a community? Can your marketing guru fund raise? Can one guy do it all?

All documentation should be available via a central location. A wiki can work really well for this purpose. Good documentation lessens the loss from communication failures.

Arrange your workspace in common areas. Segregating your team in different offices is a recipe for lost communication data and with it, a need for additional people. You’d be surprised at how many roles can be shared by multiple people, so long as they have the ability to communicate instantly and unimpeded with each other. Put people between walls, and those shared tasks will need to be managed by additional team members.

Amazon and Google do a lot with small teams and I think they have it right. I have worked on small IT teams for several years now and find it great. Combine with agile management methods small teams allow for great focus (you are naturally guided toward appropriate project sizes instead of huge monster projects), great results and joy in work. I have no desire to work in large teams.

Related: Team HandbookMeasuring and Managing Performance in OrganizationsKeeping Track of Improvement OpportunitiesCurious Cat Management Articles