Categories
Career Managing People Teambuilding

I believe in “A teams” over “A players”

By Jim Grey (about)

I’ve heard it again and again at work. “We need to hire a real A player for this job, a total rock star.”

crayolaqa
A test team I once belonged to, dressed as crayons for Halloween. I’m the gray crayon, natch. Our colorful dunce caps do not mean we weren’t A players!

This statement usually comes at a time some critical task or function isn’t being done well (or at all) and it’s causing projects to fail. “If we can just bring in a super-skilled specialist,” the thinking goes, “it would solve all of our problems!”

Sometimes this gets stretched into a one-size-fits-all approach to hiring. “Let’s hire only A players,” someone proclaims, “and then get out of their way and let them perform.”

No doubt about it: A players are extremely talented and deeply experienced. They are heavily self-motivated and especially hardworking. They are creative problem solvers who focus on getting the job done.

But don’t assume that putting A players on the job is like sprinkling magic fairy dust that makes problems go away. That’s setting them up to fail – and setting your company up to fail, too. Companies are much better served building high-performing teams.

A players are no substitute for leadership. The most important step in that leadership is to help your people form solid teams. I’ve been in software-company leadership roles for more than 15 years now. I’ve delivered many, many successful software projects with teams made mostly of B players. But those successes came after company leadership:

  • Created a shared, common vision that everybody rallied around and focused on
  • Built a process framework within which team members worked, which set standards for workflow, quality, and completion
  • Praised and rewarded team members for jobs well done
  • Hired for fit within the company culture, as well as for skill

A players are hard to find. A reason why I often hire B players is because most people aren’t A players. I’d say less than one in ten people I’ve ever worked with are that good. I make software in Indianapolis, which we sometimes call the Silicon Cornfield. Many of the truly outstanding geeks move to California, North Carolina, or Texas, where the opportunities are greater. But even in those places, there are only so many A players to go around. Sooner or later you have to hire B players too. Those B players will work best under strong leadership and in highly functioning teams.

A players often have the biggest egos. A little swagger is part of the A-player territory. If you don’t lead well and help them gel into a team, conflicting egos will put your projects at risk.

A long time ago I followed rec.music, a once-popular Internet forum about music. In a recurring discussion thread, members wrote about which musicians they’d put in the best supergroup ever. The debate raged – Eric Clapton on guitar, and Neil Peart on the drums, and Paul McCartney on bass, … no no, Phil Collins on drums and Jeff Beck on guitar! …no! It must be John Paul Jones on bass!

It was fun to fantasize about such things. But do you really think a band with some of the biggest egos in music would gel? I’m reminded of We Are the World, the 1985 charity song recorded by a supergroup of pretty much every popular musician of the time. The famous story goes that someone taped a sign that read, “Check Your Egos At the Door” on the recording-studio entrance – but that didn’t stop arguments over many of the recording’s details, with at least one musician walking out and not returning.

Don’t let that be your team.

Still, A players can be mighty useful. There are times when it’s right to hire A players. Here are the times when I’ve settled for no less than an A player:

  • Lead roles – I needed someone to figure out some thorny problems, and to set the pace and point the way for the team.
  • Lone wolves – I needed someone for a highly specialized job where I was unlikely to need more people in that role for a long time, especially a role where I lacked the skills to do it myself and therefore would have a hard time managing its details.

Really, I’ve never not hired an A player just because he or she was an A player. Who wouldn’t want their skill and determination on the team? I’ve only passed on A players when they would be a poor cultural fit in my company and in my team.

Categories
Process

Even a mediocre plan will work if everybody follows it

By Jim Grey (about)

I have been astonished in my life by how few problems are truly unsolvable. I have also noticed that, most of the time, when a problem ends up not being solved it is for one of two reasons: people deny the problem, or they won’t work together on the solution.

There are any number of ways to make software. All of them involve programming, of course; it’s the core activity. But there are other jobs to perform, and the bigger the software being developed, the more people you need to perform them. It becomes necessary to organize the people and form work processes. The ways to do that range from loose and chaotic to structured but flexible to ponderous and formal. They all have their strengths and weaknesses; they all can work. I’ve made software in all of these situations.

Perfect gravel road
Even a gravel road will get you there.

One of my past employers sequestered its programmers in a room to hack code together as fast as they could. When they were done, a couple people would play with the product for a week or two in hopes of finding some bugs, which the programmers might or might not fix. Then we shipped it to five customers, who upon installing it invariably found that it failed spectacularly. When we fixed all the problems they found, we chose five more customers. We repeated this process until the software stopped failing, and then announced to the rest of our customers that it was ready.

At the other end of the scale, another past employer had such a heavy software development process that following it felt like slipping into a straitjacket. There were reams of documentation to write and keep with layers of approval at each step. I led the test team. We had to take a screen shot of every test step, print it, and put it in a folder. At the end of a project, we had boxes and boxes and boxes of printouts, hundreds of pounds worth, that we would send to an offsite storage facility. This was in case our only customer, which happened to be the U.S. government, wanted to audit us.

Both companies are still in business.

A third past employer carefully hired smart people and trusted them to know what to do. Because they hired well, this worked for a long time. But as the company grew, this approach became more and more difficult to manage. Product quality became a problem. A big part of the software was an accounting package, and in one fateful release the general ledger simply would not balance. This affected every customer, and to make a long story short, it took the company almost a year to fix it. Several customers quit us.

Too often it takes great pain to drive important change. This pain made us face that we needed more structure to deliver successfully. So we hired a consultant to guide us toward a better software development process. He showed us a way with just enough checks and balances that we could have greater confidence in our work without being too bogged down. We also hired a consultant to help the management team (of which I was a part) work more collaboratively. She taught us how to lead the company through this transition.

It worked. In the very first product release under the new process, quality problems fell off dramatically and we delivered on time for the first time anybody could remember.

The more important hire was the second consultant. The new methodology was good, but it wasn’t magic, and it might not have worked for us if we had not done a good job helping the team through the changes. You see, a few people didn’t understand why the old way couldn’t still work and still others thought our new process wasn’t going far enough. Our task was to overcome the resistance and get everybody singing from the same sheet of music, and it was the hardest thing we did. But we pulled it off.

It’s a rare organization that faces its failings and works to change. It’s a rarer organization still that drives change collaboratively.