Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Kindergarten Synergy

Just when I think I'm doing a decent job at blogging and do something relatively creative like hosting a crossword puzzle contest, Jeff Atwood makes another brilliant observation that shows me why he has over 75K subscribers.

Last week, Jeff posted an article entitled, "No Matter What They Tell You, It's a People Problem" he made a great argument for why synergy in a team is so important. Here's the meat of it:

Let's say I was tasked with determining whether your software project will fail. With the responses to these three questions in hand, I can tell you with almost utter certainty whether your project will fail:

  1. How many lines of code will your team write?
  2. What kind of software are you building?
  3. Do you like your coworkers?

That last question isn't a joke. I'm not kidding. Do you like the company of your teammates on a personal level? Do you respect your teammates professionally? If you were starting at another company, would you invite your coworkers along? Do you have spirited team discussions or knock-down, drag-out, last man standing filibuster team arguments? Are there any people on your team you'd "vote off the island" if you could?


Even if you aren't a software engineer by trade, this makes a great point about how solid working relationships with your teammates can build a synergy that improves your collective productivity.

The most productive team I ever worked on consisted of 11 people who worked at 8 different physical locations. We all knew the names of each other's spouses, kids, and pets. Everyone shared vacation photos with each other and we delivered more than a dozen and a half on time or early software development projects in 3 years.

How did my brilliant manager at the time (who also invented The Lego Exercise) achieve this level of interaction?

Show and tell.

Because we were almost all remote from each other, a regular part of our 90 minute Friday staff meeting conference call and NetMeeting session was for one member of the team to talk about something they'd recently done in their non-work life. Straight from Kindergarten, some people talked about the sports teams they followed, others about activities they did with their kids, and eventually just about everybody talked about vacations they had gone on.

It was slow at first and not everybody was comfortable sharing, but eventually everybody wanted to get in on the act. He talked me into doing the second one (he did the first one on his annual Christmas light extravaganza) and I did a presentation about how Star Tours works. It was his attempt to simulate the "water cooler time" we missed because we were so spread out across the country.

It sounds hokey, but it paid dividends big time.

I'd love to hear about experiences other people have had. What technique have you been a part of for achieving team synergy?

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