!(/images/blog/WindowsLiveWriter/SoftwareDevelopmentTeamsandSports_D04B/2837161341_3.jpg) For a long time I’ve made the analogy that the best software development teams are like basketball or hockey teams, and lately I’ve been thinking more about how you can recognize what kind of a team you have by continuing this analogy and looking for similarities and differences.
In sports there are a few different kinds of teams. There are teams like gymnastics or bowling where the final result of a match is a result of the combined individual efforts of the team members, but the efforts of the team members aren’t combinatorial. In other words, on an Olympic gymnastics team, the team medal is awarded to the team who’s combined individual scores are the highest. On a bowling team, each player’s score is added together and the team with the highest total wins.
Another kind of sports team is the kind you see in American Pro Football. Here we have one team that is subdivided into two or three parts. The offense is a sub-team that works together to score points. The defense is another sub-team that works together to prevent the opposition from scoring points. There are other sub-teams for special activities like punt returns, field goals, etc.
Basketball, hockey, soccer and rugby are examples of yet another kind of team. On these teams the whole team is working together for the entire game to accomplish their task. There may be specialists on the team like goalies, defenders and wings who have focus areas, but if the time came for an offensive player to block a goal or even a goalie to shoot and score, they would do it.
The best functioning agile teams that I’ve worked with have been like that last kind of team. We have specialists who are good at certain things, but when the time comes to do some work, anyone and everyone does what needs to be done. We can talk all day about elimination of roles on agile teams, but we know from experience that the best testers are people with a natural bent for it. There are also people who are instinctive toolsmiths and will take small taxes that affect the team and mitigate them by adding script or a tool that benefits the whole team. But when it is time to signup for a task, or pair with someone, or fix the build server, or write a new test harness, everyone on the team is prepared and empowered to do that work.
I have also seen agile teams that are more like American Football teams. The most prominent indicator of this is a separation of developers (offense) from testers (defense). This can work, and a large number of teams work this way, but as with football, sometimes the defense finds itself with the ball and if they may not really know what to do with it. Or even worse, they may not feel empowered to do something with it.
You will also find that there are development teams that are more like gymnastic teams. Indicators of this are things like “class ownership” or “module ownership”. When you find architects who must design all the details before a developer can “code it up” you are likely seeing a gymnastics team. Almost any time you find architectural, design or process siloing, you are probably seeing one of these teams. As with gymnastics, these teams can be successful, but it creates a different culture than the one I’m a fan of.
One of the key differences between these types of teams is the attitude about work and dependencies between people. On a hockey or basketball team, the team must work together to win. You can put an amazing group of individuals together, but if they don’t play well together, they won’t win. Done well, the work is combinatorial, where the effort of one person improves the people around them and thereby improves the team. If someone falls down on the front line in a hockey game, you will be unsurprised when the defenseman continues forward and attacks the goal.
Each subteam on a football team behaves this way, but they can’t cross the boundaries very well. The people on the field are interdependent, but they are still siloed into certain responsibilities and expectations. Some might say that this is a result of the way the game is played, with each side taking turns, but in some college and most high-school football teams, the players play “both ways”, meaning that the same people play on both offense and defense. On those teams, when the ball is intercepted, you are much more likely to see the person with the ball being someone who knows how to run and/or throw.
On teams like gymnastics teams, though, you see something different. The person doing floor exercise goes and puts up a score, then the person doing parallel bars goes next, etc. One person can’t really help the next person other than by making a strong enough score to boost the overall team.
The next time you’re thinking about your team, about roles, about siloing and ownership, take a look around and think about what kind of team it is. Think about what kind of team you want. And think about what the forces are that are driving your team to be one way or another. You might be surprised what kind of team you’re on.
(Photo by jimmybop)