Finding out how to select the right people for a team is a third and critical essential condition for team effectiveness. This is also the million dollar question for most hiring managers. For me and most others the first selection criteria was to select the best in class. Good developers are 10 times more productive than average. But having 7 senior prima dona’s in a team can turn productivity into endless debates on frameworks or other hobby horses. Soon you will head will spin and you will think; “What did I miss….?”
Skills and Diversity
Hackman (1) and his colleagues did a couple of experiments on selecting the right people for teams navigating through a city. He created duo’s based on spatial ability and the ability to process objects. These distinct ablities explain why some people are great navigating through a city and simply forget to notice landmarks. They found out teams with the right mix abilities outperformed teams who had the right person for the right role. The latter team simply lacked the spontaneous collaboration.
Bases on this Hackman stated: having people with two important elements: skills and diversity. Next to having the right technical skills or competence to do the job, team member also need the right teamwork skills. This means people have the ability and personality to have productive conflics.
The no asshole rule
Not everyone can work in a team. I learned this in high school and University doing project assignments. We had free-riders or students simply derailing a team. They simply lacked the ability to understand the other members perspective. Teams can be simply run down to the ground by these derailers. Robert Sutton argued in his book The no asshole rule (2) derealers should simply be removed from the team.
In my more recent teams I worked in R&D with brilliant guys who were also gifted with asperger syndrome or ADHD. In retrospective in some cases I should have applied The no asshole rule. In other cases simply using situational leadership can help: giving room for brilliant experiments, just laughing your ass off combined with creating a focus to finish a delivery.
Most Agile / Scrum experts know the 7 plus or minus 2 rule. Team should have a minimum of 5 or a maximum of 9 persons. Having bigger teams will increase the number of connnections people have to maintain exponantially. People just hide in a big group and wil start (social loafing) or ceremonies will take hours to complete.
Rally or CA Agile(3) did some interesting research on team size, team performance, team productivity and team responsiveness. The ideal size is between 5 and 15.
Next to size also the mix is important for team performance. Sometimes diverse teams are more required than homogene team. Very diverse can also create interpersonal conflicts because of cultural differences. I will write more on a separate story.
Team work and personality
Research on team performance and team maturity also use the big five personality test. The big five personality traits are the best accepted and most commonly used model of personality in academic psychology (4). The big five come from the statistical study of responses to personality items. Using a technique called factor analysis researchers can look at the responses of people to hundreds of personality items and ask the question “what is the best was to summarize an individual?”. This has been done with many samples from all over the world and the general result is that, while there seem to be unlimited personality variables, five stand out from the pack in terms of explaining a lot of a persons answers to questions about their personality: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience (4).
In the last 4 years I have used the big five personality test in team assessments. Up till now I only see a relationship between team members who are derailing a team because they score low on agreeableness. They simply lack the ability to agree to disagree and continue or have a productive conflict. I assessed a ‘high performing team’. the team assessment made some below the surface issues clearly visible. 3 team members scoring low on agreeableness derailed the team. I other team assessments I found a team scoring low on conscientiousness and can have tendency to don’t finish their work.
Scrum.org and McKinsey&Company (5) did research on selecting and developing agile teams. Based on interviews and surveys they came to a practical guide. They also used the big five personality test. To my surprise they introduced a 6th factor called ambiguity. To my knowledge this factor is part of openness. This survey came to the same conclusion: 54 Professional Scrum Trainers ranked agreeableness over openness and consciousness.
The ideal team player
Recently I read Patrick Lencioni’s book The Ideal Team Player(6). Based on his many years of corporate and consulting experience, Lencioni has boiled the characteristics of an ideal team player down to three virtues as he calls them. Lencioni makes it clear that these are skills that can be learned and cultivated in everyone’s life. Here they are with definitions from his website (www.tablegroup.com):
- Humble: Ideal team players are humble. They lack excessive ego (high on agreeableness) or concerns about status. Humble people are quick to point out the contributions of others and slow to seek attention for their own. They share credit, emphasize team over self and define success collectively rather than individually.
- Hungry: Ideal team players are hungry. They are always looking for more. More things to do. More to learn. More responsibility to take on. Hungry people almost never have to be pushed by a manager to work harder because they are self-motivated and diligent. They are constantly thinking about the next step and the next opportunity.
- (People) Smart: Ideal team players are smart. They have common sense about people. Smart people tend to know what is happening in a group situation and how to deal with others in the most effective way. They have good judgment and intuition around the subtleties of group dynamics and the impact of their words and actions.
What makes humble, hungry and smart powerful and unique is not the individual attributes themselves, but rather the required combination of all three. If even one is missing in a team member, teamwork becomes significantly more difficult, and sometimes not possible.
Selecting the right people for a team involves selecting the right mix of members with technical skills, team work skills, personality and virtues. In the next article I will focus on Team enabling condition 4: clear norms.
Feel free to contact if you want more info on this series. Just sent me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Writing this serie on teams also makes me reflect on the teams and team members I worked with. This story I dedicate to Joost Wolters. In 2016 I worked with Joost on a high performing team. Joost was the ideal or right team member. He was very intelligent, technically and socialy gifted. Humble, hungry and people smart. A combination of talents and virtues I have rarely witnessed. Sadly he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time getting killed by a very disturbed person.
(1) Collaborative Intelligence — Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems, J. Richard Hackman, 2011.
(2) The no asshole rule. Robert I Sutton, 2007.
(3) The Impact of Lean and Agile Quantified: 2014.
(5) How to select and develop individuals for successful agile teams: A practical guide, Wouter Aghina, Christopher Handscomb, Jesper Ludolph, Dave West, and Abby Yip, 2019.
(6) The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate The Three Essential Virtues. Patrick Lencioni, 2016.