Tech super heroes


Awesome Companies: Ingredients

March 14, 2014

Ingredients of an Awesome Company I was thinking recently about the effect teams and individuals can have on how a company performs. Now I’m no expert on building companies per se, but I do know what makes a great team, and I’ve been privileged enough to be involved with some companies at a sufficient level to get a real sense of how the business is performing. Do truly Awesome Companies exist in the “real world”? Perhaps not as I idealise them, but I think those that demonstrate excellence do have certain qualities in common.

So I did a little doodle to test out my new toy (fun!) which I hope will prove as entertaining to view as it was to draw:


Rule of Composition I would firstly like to propose that Awesome Companies are composed of Awesome People. Can you have a company that is Awesome if it contains some non-Awesome People? Sure, but perhaps not maximally Awesome.

However, Awesome People usually need to be part of Awesome Teams to unleash their Awesomeness. Organising people into teams isn’t just mindless bureaucracy, it’s a natural instinct because that’s how people work best.

Ingredients of the Awesome Individual Talent — the raw stuff which makes a person excellent at some or many things. Talent is the most fundamental of qualities required to perform, but talent alone is useless. Talent changes — it grows with experience and broadens with maturity. Responsibility — it’s impossible to collaborate without responsibility. Responsibility encapsulates a personal acknowledgement of some minimum standard of performance. Evading responsibility is seen as a negative quality, although it is possible to be responsible without excelling. An individual is usually either described as responsible or irresponsible. In this sense, the quality of responsibility does not “grow”, although the scope of it may change depending on circumstances. Empathy — the ultimate personal quality required to function as part of an Awesome Team. Empathy acknowledges that other people’s feelings are as important as their talents and responsibilities in determining their behaviours. To fail to treat team members with sufficient empathy is to dehumanise them. The capacity for empathy varies greatly in individuals. Although some level of it is necessary for Awesomeness, a little goes a long way and in practice the exact amount depends on the extent to which other team members depend on it. Ingredients of the Awesome Team Respect — if empathy is the ability to recognise the importance of those around you, then respect is the practice of treating them accordingly. Whilst an individual may respect another, it’s the reciprocity of respect between all team members that makes it a quality of Awesome Teams. We often talk about “mutual respect” with this is mind. I prefer to think of respect within a team as an holistic quality — does the team respect itself as a unit? Lack of team self-respect is hugely demotivating and is a blocker to the next quality: knit. Respect doesn’t change in nature, but is consolidated and deepens over time. Experience seems to suggest that respect is undermined more easily than it is established. Knit — once respect within a team is stable, the power of interpersonal interactions becomes orders of magnitude more effective. Familiarity is part of the equation here: working as part of the unit can become second-nature and fluent in the absence of the frictional forces of mistrust that respect has dispelled. The various team members start to behave less as individuals and more as a single entity. When the tipping-point at which the team is more team than individual has been reached, we might say the team has achieved “knit”, or has “gelled” or is exhibiting “cohesion”. The language here is suitably evocative. In DeMarco and Lister’s Peopleware there is rather a good discussion of team “gel” for those who seek more knowledge of this phenomenon. Once knit is achieved the team is capable of achieving great things — they just need a suitable framework… Success Engine — up until now, we have really been focussing on some “organic” qualities of individuals and teams. In theory, it should be possible to assemble the right bunch of people, bake for enough time and get a super-charged well-knit team out of it. But this is just raw power which needs to be suitably harnessed in order to be practically useful. The “engine” of the team feeds on the power of the team knit and translates this into a consistent output. The form of the engine is environment and process, but if we want the output of the team engine to be maximized then we want to make the process as lightweight as possible and the environment as optimal as possible. Fundamentally, this is why we choose Agile for software development — because it attempts to maximize net output (innovation == Success) from teams. The Success Engine for a team is a living, changing entity which should be constantly optimised and serviced by dedicated caretakers. In Scrum, the Scrum Master is the chief caretaker for the Engine. Ingredients of the Awesome Company Vision — any company needs a strong vision. Imagine a sailing vessel with all the very latest technological innovations and the best crew in the world, but without a proposed destination. Not much use. A vision can change, in fact it doesn’t matter if we don’t achieve our vision, but there has to be one. Remember that Colombus was looking for the East Indies when he discovered the Americas. Vision applies at multiple levels: there’s a strategic vision for a company, and also a number of tactical visions; there are technical visions; each product can have a vision of its own. Without a strong vision, a company may survive initially but ultimately the lack of direction will rot the heart of it and teams and then individuals will turn on each other in a bid to restore certainty and confidence. For a more in-depth of the importance of vision, Eric Ries devotes an entire part of The Lean Startup to it. Validity — ultimately a company has to do something valid. Let’s be a little careful here: validity is in the eye of the beholder. Fiscal security aside, I don’t necessarily mean validity in terms of profit, or even customer satisfaction. Simply put, Awesome employees should care about what the company does. Short-term gains may be made from employees who are “just here to do a job”, but ultimately the lack of meaning will prove insufficient motivation for individuals to stay Awesome, or even to stay employees for long. What people find to be valid is a personal preference. Many people will never be comfortable working in the defence industry, for example. That doesn’t mean the business can’t exist, but it does mean you can’t hire those people and expect them to perform maximally. Success! — is this an ingredient? Yes, it’s the final one. However you judge success, one thing is certain: success breeds success. Failures do and must occur in every venture, but chronic and uninterrupted failure is not stable in the long term and eventually will drive even the most die-hard individuals to look for success elsewhere. Success is the icing on the cake — it’s what we ultimately aspire to and we can wait a long time to catch even a sniff of it, but we can’t wait forever. Tell me something I don’t know So maybe the above seems a little trite. Just some meaningless abstract management-babble. You already knew this stuff anyway — there’s nothing really new here for anyone trying to build an Awesome Company, right?

Maybe so, but just think for a moment about the following questions:

When you hire new people, do you test their empathy as well as evaluating their talents and assuming they will be responsible? Are you really taking seriously the environment required to allow a team to knit, and for that team’s Success Engine to operate at maximum efficiency? Are you keeping your teams and individuals engaged and motivated by providing a strong vision, a valid reason for them to come into work and a realistic promise of success at the end of the road?

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