Andy Dunbar, Chief Operating Officer, Mirum
Sooner or later there will come a point when you realise that as brilliant as you are, you need people around you. Building a team can be one of the most daunting, challenging and yet rewarding activities a manager can go through. It is your chance to build a living, breathing entity that has a lifespan beyond a project and is bigger than the people it is comprised of. Done well, it is possible to achieve greatness. Done badly and it’s the best possible way to waste money, energy and reputation.
The immediate go-to artefact hiring managers rely on is the job description. At its heart this is typically a list of hard skills with some soft skills tacked on the end. One of the hardest things to do is to balance the need for expertise and proven capability with a personality that is suited to learning and growing. as part of a bigger group.
One of the first key learnings is that it takes a mix of personality types to build a top tier team. Its tempting to draw on the brilliance of experts, particularly those who blow their own trumpets but these type A people often don’t play well together. There are too many projects which fall into difficulties because an ego on the team has drawn them down a dark path – perhaps using a technology set that is cutting edge and exciting to engage with, but not proven or tested.
Another example, is where a creative ego aligns the team to a concept based on their opinion, flying in the face of user feedback. Both of these are risky territory that can be pulled off, with the right strength of character and ability but make no mistake – this is an individual taking huge risks – in the hope of big rewards – but done for their own sake, rather than the good of the team.
Encouraging your team to take risks is an important part of team management but, critical to risk management, is an acceptance and understanding of these risks as a team. When one lone wolf drags the team in a certain direction, you have no choice but to go along and that’s when you stop managing, and start picking up the pieces as it falls apart.
The other danger is when you get multiple headstrong individuals and they don’t play well together. A fractured team is one which cannot deliver but the problem lies not only with delivery and productivity, but also with morale.
Generally people are happier when they are productive and aligned, without conflict. Introducing strong opinions and single-mindedness, whilst opening the way to greatness, also brings with it a greater chance of conflict. Self-managed teams are an efficient vehicle to deliver projects – removing the hierarchy and bureaucracy that can hamper decision making and closure of project phases. However, depending on the team dynamic, a self-managed team at its worst can find itself heading down deeper and deeper rabbit holes of tangent scope or worse, getting bogged down on unimportant details.
The manager’s role in this is to find ways that allow the team to express its creativity, manage conflict effectively and keep them aligned towards a single goal. Acting as a facilitator, obstacle-remover and a guide to bring them back to the objectives and prioritised requirements, the manager is there to remind the team of what they originally set out to achieve.So, as with most things, a successful team is made up of a balance of personality types : the driven individuals who fight for their vision to become reality, the expert crafters who know their field inside and out, and the adaptive team players who work to fill the gaps that continuously come up.
Building a team around a single group of these is never successful but a balance of the three is the basis of successful delivery.
A recurring hot topic relating to team dynamic is that of distributed teams. Notably when Marrisa Mayer banned remote working from Yahoo in 2013, it caused a backlash from people and seemed contrary to the current zeitgeist of supporting flexible working arrangements. There is, however, a solid point at the heart of that strategy – people are more collaborative, more creative and more productive when they work together. When you take someone out of the team environment, no matter how good your collaboration tools, you push them further down the scale of working individually, away from the sense of team.
A strong, motivated individual can compensate for this and with tools like Slack, Skype and Hangouts (but not email) it is easier than ever to do so. There is no doubt that without distraction, you can get more done when left to your own devices. The reality is that there is a time and place for this – and on any project, in any skillset, there are times when you just need to focus and get something done. That said, for the sake of the team, it is critically important to bring people back together and ensure that the majority of time is spent working together, not apart.
Beyond the people
A core part of that is creating an environment that supports collaborative working and provides the stimulus and ability to build that a team needs. Be it from creative space where they can sketch out ideas on whiteboards or digital screens, to quiet areas allowing focus, to tools and digital space supporting collaboration and allowing maximum connectivity when one or more members are remote. The right environment is as much a part of the team as the people, personalities and skillsets.
Building a killer team is ultimately about balance – no one individual is alike, and the glue that holds a team of talented creative humans together is more about understanding than about ticking hard skill boxes.