Enablers Are the Glue That Holds Teams Together —Recognizing These People Is Critical to the Success of Every Team

Sharlene McKinnon
Feb 10 · 4 min read
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Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst

You could put a brilliant developer in a room with any number of equally brilliant developers and it’s likely that no code would get written.

Over the years I’ve learned that brilliant people will argue, fight, and discuss forever but in the process, they get caught in the weeds and without help will struggle to find their way out and spin endlessly until the brightness burns out.

When developers get to the point of endless complaining, they’ve entered the world of frustration and are well on their way to becoming passively helpless. This is when a team might look apathetic and disengaged, but in actuality, this is an outcome of team disharmony.

Who are Enablers?

Enablers are critical to the success of any team and company. They are like project glue; those people that bring everyone else together. They are the foundation on which the rest of the team succeeds.

Enablers contextualize ideas and bring them back to earth. They incite people to move forward, drive important conversations, and motivate everyone on the journey.

I’ve seen enablers as designers, as project managers, as developers, and as quality engineers. Enablers don’t fit into any particular role, but they do inspire people to work together.

I’ve seen a junior developer straight out of college change the dynamic of a crunchy, brilliant, established team in ways that the entire team thought previously impossible. Her secret sauce was her unique, bubbly personality, which provided the spark needed to get things done.

What’s ironic is that most of the time enablers don’t know what they’re doing. It just magically happens.

How about some examples?

Meet Data-Company-X. This is a small American company that sells data bytes. Their core business model is providing clients with predictive data intelligence. In order to build and train their models, there needs to be a number of AI developers and data scientists on the ground.

Data-Company-X is filled with extremely bright people: they question, they talk, they dig deep, and they do their own thing very brilliantly. But, Data-Company-X has a collaboration problem: members of the team seem unable to work together.

So, every simple decision needs to go through a series of invisible communication hurdles before it can happen. One developer commented that “it seems like everyone is running in circles at high speed in different directions only to get to the same place.”

When building this team, no thought was put into harmonious pairings; rather, a group of extremely bright people were mashed together because it was thought that all this brain power could achieve great things quickly.

But in reality, this team had no glue to hold it together.

Meet Data-Company-Y. This company also works with data and data intelligence and have a mix of developers and scientists with varying levels of skill and experience.

Data-Company-Y says they hire only the best and the brightest, but they don’t. They hire a balanced mix of people who fit well into their culture. These people often display wonderful characteristics like empathy, patience, curiosity, passion, and seem to have the humble ability to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them.

While at Data-Company-Y, I witnessed something really incredible.

The company put together a team that contained a handful of ESL folks that were new to the United States, one of whom I will call Pram. Initially, this team struggled to gain a foothold within the rest of the program. There was a lot of doubt, uncertainty, and emotion as the team struggled with day to day progress.

But everyone was patient because they understood that it takes some teams time to gain forward momentum. No one tried to suppress individuals or hold people back; no one threatened to disband or shake up the team.

As Pram began to learn and grasp the nuances of English, little sparks would suddenly appear as she began to evolve into an enabler. It was a little bit like watching a butterfly erupt from a cocoon.

When Pram completed her transformation, the team skyrocketed forward and a hidden enabler made harmony and magic happen. She was an enabler all along, just held back by language. And, because Pram was working in a safe space and was given the time needed to adjust, she was able to fully emerge.

The Impact of Culture

Building harmonious teams is not easy. It’s not as simple as mashing a group of intelligent people together. In forming teams, support is needed from everyone involved, including leadership.

Data-Company-X had hidden enablers on the team but these enablers had been pushed to the side by other team members who believed they were more “intelligent” and more “experienced” than the rest of the team. The result was enablers who felt overlooked and individual team members who felt overworked.

A working session helped the people at Data-Company-X discover each other’s strengths and subsequently evolve the teams to play on these strengths; ongoing feedback helped people learn how to connect and work with each other.

In the grand scheme of things, this was a relatively simple problem to solve because they’d hired the right people; they just needed to learn how to work with each other. More importantly, Data-Company-X had a culture that empowered individuals… so the problem was resolved fairly quickly. Within weeks their software output had tripled.

This illustrates the power of enablers.

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