What makes a software team gel?

A software team that has gelled continuously runs above expectations. Bugs are fixed before they are logged. There is a feeling that anything can and will be accomplished.

A team in gel state reflects well on the quality of the product, but more importantly on the bottom line. There are huge productivity gains to be had by creating a gelled team.

A gelled team makes people want to show up, work hard, and be a part of something more than themselves. People naturally gravitate towards this unique and elusive work environment but it is hard to come by.

“Great teamwork is the only way we create the breakthroughs that define our careers.”  – Pat Riley

So, what is the secret to making a team gel?

First, the organization’s culture has to provide an environment capable of fostering a gelled team. You can’t have a gelled software team in a company that doesn’t prize its developers. Open and clear executive leadership with hands off management certainly helps.  An interesting product or technical challenge should be part of the mix.

Everything about the software should flow from the business need being addressed.  The product may need to look very sharp, it may need to provide highly accurate data, it may need to run super fast. Whatever the key differentiator is, that should be clearly understood by all team members so it becomes the focus. That way, there is no confusing what the true objective is. That differentiator can change release to release, but it should always be positive – the kind of thing you would want to tell your friends about.

Everything I have mentioned so far is macro level. There is also a micro level effect in play.  A gelled team is the positive side effect of aligning autonomy, mastery, and purpose for every individual in that team.  Achieving that requires knowing each person’s skills, interests, and life goals in the context of the current project – usually from a technical perspective.  This is where listening skills and empathy come into play.

It is important to recognize team politics. There can’t be any hidden agendas or conflicting motivations between team members.  Get that stuff out in the open and out of the way as soon as possible.

“You’ve got to give great tools to small teams. Pick good people, use small teams, give them excellent tools…so that they are very productive in terms of what they are doing. Make it very clear what they can do to change the spec. Make them feel like they are very much in control of it.”Bill Gates

Is it just one person on a team that makes it gel?  

I’d say there is usually one person who everyone looks up to and sets the example, but it takes harmony and mutual respect between team members to pull it off.

The person who makes the team gel has charisma, domain understanding, humility, strong technical expertise, and assertiveness. That person also knows how to get other people on the team to think for themselves and feel comfortable communicating with one another.

Some developers can do it. A hands on architect can do it.  A white tower architect? I doubt it. A manager who sits isolated from his/her team, I doubt it. A committed, sincere, and passionate non-technical leader can do it.

Those people who put themselves above others because of a credential, a prior experience, a diva complex, or other form of narcissism – they have no chance (and they are in for a rude awakening if they try!).

It absolutely involves working with the team on a daily basis. That means rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty, sharing the responsibility, and the credit.  It can work for geographically distant teams in special cases but that is a lot harder.

When the gel factor is gone – you notice it hard.

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