What are the qualities you look for in a “team player”? Respect? Experience? Competence? Levelheadedness? A great personality?
When I hear people use the phrase, I confess I don’t know what they really mean. That is, I know it is a common phrase, but I wonder if people give the jargon any thought.
Sometimes it seems people use the words when they really just wants someone elseto change… as in “he/she is not a very good team player”. Yet they offer no (or little) direction on precisely how to become one.
Have you ever met a “team player” you didn’t like to work with? Have you ever seen the term “team player” used in quotes, besides in this post? Ever?
Putting the jargon aside, who do you want on your teams?
Standardization, commonality and best practices
Every project includes some fundamental tasks. Sometimes they are repeatable, even mechanical, and you can train people to do them. You can often anticipate contingencies, and you can teach people to recognize them and act appropriately when they arise.
To that extent, you can train people and substitute them into teams as backups or replacements. So we cross-train on each others’ jobs to provide backup for people to go on vacations. We define standard practices and “best practices” and teach them to people to drop our costs of repeating the same tasks over and again.
Now, the last thing we need is somebody on the team who messes up our routines every day. The person who habitually “breaks the build” or who fails to write unit tests forces his teammates to bear added costs to keep everything running smoothly, until eventually we start to wonder how we can get those people off our team.
So the factors that help us work together in standard practices are one thing that makes us good “team players”.
But that is not the end of the story…
Marginal utility in the team
This post is the fourth in the principles of economics in software development series. We are pausing for a time on the third of Greg Mankiw’s principles, which says “rational people think at the margin“.
Last week I wrote about the implications of this principle on the value of our work (and our salaries). As an illustration, I suggested the difference between the professional basketball player’s income and the amateur’s income might come down to four extra baskets per game.
They’re paid all the extra money because of the incremental points they score.
Now, nobody asked them to score those points in high school or college. Nobody forced them to practice. Nobody read their job description to them.
They did the work. They built their abilities. They found ways to produce value for their teams… and they earned their rewards.
For that, they were not easily replaced. For that, they could compel a little VIP status. For that, they sometimes got out of hand, acted like prima donnasand started producing high costs for their employers (and themselves).
Thinking at the margin doesn’t discriminate
So while there are marginal utilities, which produce marginal value… there are also marginal costs.
“Rational people think at the margin” meansnobody worries about what is the same. All “team players” who follow standard practices and never step out of line, but never produce incremental value over their coworkers may feel “safe”… whatever that means to them. But they can never be valued any more than what is commonplace (…and there is nothing wrong with that).
On the other hand, rational people evaluate the costs associated with picking up those few extra points in a basketball game… with adding that expert to their team, along with any eccentricities they bring. The person who has that unique knowledge of a technology or who can make the database “sing”, but who may not perfectly fit in some other way, might be just what is missing.
They evaluate whether it’s “worth it” – worth the costs in terms of time, energy, money and lost opportunities. And then they willingly make investments to get access to all the difference in the world, if it will help them achieve their tactical, strategic or ultimate objectives.
So let me ask again… who do you want on your teams?