Dr. Eduardo Salas is the Trustee Chair and Pegasus Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida, and the author or coauthor of a slew of articles and books on teamwork performance. His findings seem entirely counterintuitive to what many people in software believe. Eschewing roles, they advocate keeping everything completely informal, with everyone cross-training to be able to do what everyone else does.
If you’ve ever seen a new team of software developers meeting for the first time, you know that while everyone hates management hierarchy they adore the development pecking order. Instead of something up-front with clearly defined roles, they get a shadow hierarchy that is based in a large part on dominance tactics.
Salas says this is how you keep performance down. If you want to get teams performing better, the “low hanging fruit” is tossing that arcane shadow system and start bringing a light onto things. In Salas’s 2013 interview with Sharlyn Lauby, he described it this way:
What would you say is the biggest team killer?
Simple. And easy to fix. It is the lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities – who does what, when, why and with whom. I’ve been amazed over the last 30 years at how this issue is so prevalent in all industries and teams. Team members must know their precise role and responsibilities.
If you think the Agile Development method of “let everyone choose what he or she should do” is going to work, good luck with that. You’re fighting years of intense research by the US Navy into how to move teams from minimally performing to high-performance. The US Army’s research into teams for Special Forces is similar. When you want your team to get things done that are impossible, make sure that everyone knows their role and how they can request work or help from others.
When you leave these things to chance, or to “it will work itself out” without deliberatively guiding the Power issues in play, you will end up wasting time on Monkey Politics. Pretty much all the males start charging at each other and displaying their shiny rear ends to prove dominance. It’s fun to watch but perhaps it rarely leads to efficient complex human structures. Because it’s all about monkey brain, and monkeys weren’t the ones who developed digital watches.