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Posted on: Sunday, 11 October 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Team Contributions.

In an insanely huge meeting room; at a client who for the purposes of this post I shall refer to as Multiplitaxion Inc; a 'Yearly Status' meeting begins. As an external consultant who has been around for more than six months and has given more than one successful implementations; I am also invited to the meeting.

I look from one end of the table to another; my brain doing some serious soul searching and asking some rather philosophical questions to myself:

  1. Why am I here?
  2. Why are we all here?
  3. What are we trying to achieve?

A vice-president opens the meeting with pep-talk on how team-work is essential for overall synergy and growth of the organization. He then talks about how personal contributions are nothing compared to team contributions and how we are all a big happy family.

I cringe.

Three of us have been working for sixteen hours a day for the last one month.

We are; probably the selected few who have shipped anything; in the last six months.

Something tells me I should talk.

Challenge the concept of team contributions being something larger and divine than our very own personal contributions.

Then I realize; I am not even a permanent employee of this organization.

I keep my gob shut. It is a short temporary hibernation or more of an End-Of-Yes-But-Discussion-Hash-Tag applied mentally.

My eyes reflect clear and open disagreement.

I look from one end of the table to another; looking into the eyes of the team members I've been working with; they are rolling their eyes in disagreement too.

The rolling pair of eyes tell me one thing: right here; in this meeting room of professionals there is a small tribe of selfish individuals who build stuff.

I feel happy.

It tells me that this room has a selected few who; thank god; are not working for the best interest of the organization. Just their very own personal selfish interest of being involved in genuinely successful implementation.

I feel safe.

Individual Contributions

I'm going to spare you the pain of having to go through a thousand words and over a dozen examples pulled out of history; that prove one thing: Almost any innovation worth its salt has been an idea and implementation that emerged out of one single mind.

Remember the Google's proprietary ranking algorithm that set them apart from a dozen other search engines out there? We call it 'Page' rank. Not because it ranks the pages but because it was the brain child of Larry Page.

Linux? Linus Torvalds.

You name a successful website; service or application out there and chances are; that if you look deep down into it's history you will find the single mind that conceived and executed the idea till the point where other builders started joining in.

What Drives Builders To Start Stuff.

Anyone who tells you that he is working for the best interest of the organization; is probably a whiner of the first order.

Anyone who tells you that he is sacrificing his own interests and is building stuff for the team or is doing so to make the world a better place is also a whiner of the first order who knows nothing about building stuff.

Any manager who tells you that teams comes before individuals and gives you a pep-talk on how the-we-comes-before-me is not a manager. Just a whiner who lugged on to the we-wagon and kept taking credit for stuff other builders around him were busy building. Someone who could neither master the art of build nor contribute through genuine story-telling about the product.

Veteran blogger; Jeff Atwood; usually ships one magnificent gem of a post every weekday. Now; if you have never owned a blog; try owning one; and try writing anything meaningful just once a week. I can tell you first hand how hard it is. If you wonder why Jeff spends countless hours writing; it is not to change the world or to help the human race move forward. He explains:

We may kid ourselves into thinking we're writing out of some sense of public good, or to create connections, or contribute some small bit of knowledge to the world. But let's face it. Most of us blog because we're raving egomaniacs. We not only love to hear ourselves talk, we're incredibly eager to hear other people talk about us, and the more the better. I think Dale Carnegie put it best.

Nothing is sweeter to someone's ears than their own name.

So it should come as no surprise that I have an automatic Google ego search set up for my name. Nothing special about that. It is considered neighborly to have your ear to the ground (within reason), and to politely comment on relevant articles mentioning you and your "stuff". All very standard, banal, ego-fluffing stuff.

Ask any genuine builder out there why he does what he does and you will get his reasons: 'because I love doing it'; 'because it is fun'; 'because it makes me happy'; the reasons will continue. Long story short; most genuine builders are aware that they build stuff for their very own selfish reasons.

Most ideas that survive as a platform start as a personal problem.

The story invariably begins like this: someone with an eye for spotting problems has a problem in his real life; spots it; figures out an answer to the problem and starts working on it; for a very long time.

Half way through other builders join in; create what marketing guys and traditional managers like to call synergy and you have a remarkable product that ultimately ends up making small or big dents in the universe.

But Then Why Would Other Builders Join In?

I can almost see a young and budding manager knitting his brows already. 'Great! Now you are suggesting that team work means nothing. That we all focus on individual contributions and forget the whole idea of contributing towards a team' - he says.

Yes; Mr. Manager. That is precisely what I am suggesting.

As someone who has himself makes contributions as patches to open source projects out there; I can tell you that I do not do it for the good of mankind or some other noble agenda of that sort.

I do it purely because I want the patch in the project SVN so that I do not have to worry about making the change every time I upgrade the version of the framework.

The folks who receive the patches are happy to apply them because it makes their product stable gets more people to use their product and gets them more popularity and in some cases an ego-boost.

None of us are working for the divine-goal-of-the-team.

None of us are giving or taking a truckload of crap about keeping 'the-we-before-the-me'.

We have common selfish interest which are aligned; which bring us together.

The teamwork; helping each other or even the so-called-management-buzz-word called synergy results out of these commonly aligned and totally selfish interests.

In fact; these are precisely the cases where the teamwork is the highest; where people from completely different countries, cultures, time-zones and people who do not even know each other; come together and make things work.

Now here is the funny part - you don't hear words like synergy and we-is-more-important-than-me in these environments.

When builders see amazing stuff being made; they will join in. They will join in because they want to be in the flow; they want to be a part of something huge that eventually leaves a mark on lives of people; they want to learn something new; they want to find and create meaning out of their very own lives; they enjoy being a part of it or for countless other reasons all of which are totally selfish.

Make no mistakes about it.

Lets Stop It. Now. Seriously.

Lets work on a project shall we?

Hypothetically; that is.

For reasons that are purely selfish; I will give in complete individual contribution to get my module up and running in time. I will bend over my back to help you integrate with it. As a matter of fact; I will even go out of my way to help you with your module; purely because; one: it makes me feel good about doing that; two: because it establishes me as a really smart person in the team and three: because I don't want a failure against my name.

I expect you do the same; for similarly selfish reasons.

If our interests are aligned; we win.

If they are not; we fail.

It is really that simple.

Can we please stop talking about team-work, synergy and exchanging truck load of crap regarding how the we-is-more-important-than-the-me or how the team-comes-before-individuals. It's boring; hugely artificial and not even funny.

If you run a team; may I suggest; dear reader; that instead of giving your team long winded lectures and speeches on how the-we-is-more-important-than-me; give them a platform where every person in your team can genuinely and truly contribute individually.

Build an environment where they get credit and recognition for their individual contributions.

Find folks who have interests that do not align with yours and get them on projects where their interests have a higher chance of aligning with yours.

Do that and all the pep-talk on teamwork and synergy that you always gave in your meetings; will not even be necessary.

Recognize the important of individual contribution and all of those organization-changing ideas that you had about team work and 'synergy' will start turning into reality; faster than you can think.

I wish you good luck.

Note: This article is a part of a Work In Progress Book. To Read connected articles read the Builders At Work category of this blog.