Aug 072011
Cheerleading Squad

Team players

Is it enough just to show up to work every day to be valued?

How do you feel about people who drive all their action from their job description?

When I consider the array of skills people bring to teams, it seems to me that the basic technical and professional skills of “the job” don’t make a huge difference to the team.

In poker, the “ante” is the price you pay just to play the game. That’s like meeting the basic requirements of your job, and by itself doesn’t make you any more valuable to a team than someone else.

Now, that is not the kind of team member I actively look for, or who gets paid very well, though I accept that people who haven’t thought about being more valuable might be confused to be called “replaceable”.

The economic collapse in 2008 made many people think seriously, perhaps for the first time, about what made them “valuable enough” to join a team. The thing is, just showing up for work and doing your job makes you replaceable on a team and not as valuable as you might think you are.

A common interpretation of “team player”

Another term used from time to time is “team player”. One recent blog commenter said that in his experience the phrase “team player” is often used as…

simply management jargon for someone who will not challenge assumptions, will not challenge a process that produces demonstrably bad outcomes, will not object to micro-management, will silently lay down on the railroad tracks when the train is coming – S.K.

My response to him was that I have seen that use of the term as well… and while they might fit in and not really get noticed, they may be valued (but are not typically highly-valued) members of my teams.

Standard practices exist to drop the cost of communicating and coordinating action. It’s important to have them and it’s important to follow them where consistency and recurrent actions make sense… in some environments, that could be most of the time.

One role of operations management is to produce those standard practices, to make things consistent and recurrent, and to drop our costs for doing the same things over and again. Where an organization has well-refined processes and produces enterprise value without innovation, it makes sense that team members need to just follow the process all the time.

Such team members might be like automatons, human machines, whose labor as a machine directly translates into production. I make that comparison not as a moral judgement but simply a practical matter when labor is what is needed.

In such cases the organization can set up extensive training programs for new employees that produce new automatons… and again most team members are replaceable and not as highly valued as they might feel entitled.

Does everybody want to be valued?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that you need to be valued highly. I don’t imply that there is anything wrong with following processes, showing up to work on time or having the requisite technical and professional skills to be on the team. We are all in different places in our lives and our careers, and we may want different things for them.

By saying you may not be as highly valued, I am not saying you will not be valued. In my earlier post, “Does your IT salary depend on what makes you different?” I related personal income to the value you produce in your career. We value team members in general, but we value more highly the people who bring more positive skills or abilities that exceed what other team members bring.

So this writing is for those who are interested in being more valuable. The economics principle of marginal utility suggests that once we get past all the common interpretations of “team players” and job descriptions, it is those characteristics of greater help, greater value and higher production that are most highly valued to your team.

  17 Responses to “Increasing your value to your team”

  1. Great article, Ken. I agree, and also share something I learned in management positions over the years. Skill set and team value don’t correlate with each other. When building a team, I would always prefer to pass on the person who has a wealth of knowledge about doing the job yet does not demonstrate what I call the “X factors” of being a valued team member. I would much rather prefer to have the person who may be a little green in terms of skill set but demonstrates a willingness to learn, and who possesses other elements that will bring a long term higher value to a team: a good work ethic, the ability to work within a team structure, the aptitude to challenge the norm when appropriate. All of these factor into the people that will vault the group value to a new level of achievement.

    • Thanks for your comments, Moose. The tone and direction of this post is different from the one two weeks ago when I asked who you might want on your team. This is about increasing your value…

      What do you think about increasing your value to a team? I accept that we have criteria and standards for those we want working with us, but are you satisfied to be “a little green” in skill, but willing to learn and work in a team structure? Or is it not enough to you to “just show up”?

      How do you think about your value and how to increase it?

  2. Interesting article Ken. But have you thought about what skills, attributes or management style would make a CTO highly valuable to the team? That aspect might even be way more important to the successes of the team than ‘value’ of the individual contributors in the team?

    My experience is that way many CTOs were just showin up for work 9-5, are missing in action when things get tough, are not supporting the team when their team was ordered to work overtime for a long periods of time to make up the deadline, overly believe in the processes as ‘silver bullets’, etc, etc

    CTOs must set the example for their teams to have ‘personally earned authority’ to set high expectations of other team members.

    • Thank you, Milos. I have thought about what would make a CTO valuable to the team, and I am glad you brought that up. Given the experience you have had with CTOs in the past, I would think there are many ways they might have shown up as more valuable to you than yours did.

      As a CTO yourself, then, you have an opportunity to set a standard for your own work that differentiates you from others… it increases your “marginal utility” and your potential to be valuable in a competitive marketplace.

      One different direction I would go with your observation is the implication that the CTO is not part of the team, or that the distinction for individual contributor, team player or CTO gives anyone the opening to avoid meeting a standard for value.

      As a CTO, I see myself as part of my teams, and I speculate given your profile that you do too. Being missing in action just doesn’t occur to us, and if you are like me you might even wonder how it could be different anywhere else (though you know that it is). Nevertheless, this quality of membership and value exceeds the simple mechanisms of “doing your job”, even when it can be difficult to put into words.

      So one thing we can’t do is take for granted the obligations we have to our teams, our stakeholders and our customers… we have to avoid getting arrogant and claiming accomplishments that are not ours… and acknowledge all the powerful and valuable help we get from all directions around us, without which we would not have any accomplishments at all.

  3. The best marginal utility a team member may provide has a lot to do with the goals of the team.

    Additionally, a single team may have different goals during the life of a project, just as some professional sports teams have different goals and team members during the regular season and the playoffs.

    I think it’s important to consider that whatever margin utility I may have, I can’t sacrifice the ante, or perhaps shouldn’t. There are things that must be done and things that may be done. When my marginal utility leans more heavily toward may than must, I must still be sure to still cover the must before the may, as the may has little value, marginal or not, without the must.

    For instance, one of my super powers might be reasoned debate and attention to detail. However, there comes a point when debate must end and a decision made to move forward, or the UI is “done enough” to deliver and can’t wait for my inspiring re-work.

    As a CTO, I’m uncertain my staff cared whether I worked 9-5, or even eight hours a day. The best thing I could do for the department was a) stay out of their way, b) move other things and people out of their way, c) articulate the system design, strategy, and future, and d) be available to argue (debate, discuss with gusto, whatever you want to call it), and e) be both teacher and student.

    Come to think of it, if there’s a “lead” position on a team it is important for that leader to know when to push, when to pull, and when to step-aside and let the team score the runs.

    Hey, my code compiled. It’s time to go.

    • Hi Tom. I am glad your code took long enough to compile that you could read my post and draft such a thoughtful comment!

      Marginal utility is that incremental value above and beyond what is normal for a given situation, so I accept that any notion of marginal utility is dependent on your goals.

      If goal or objectives are intended outcomes, then the kind of help that takes us closer to those outcomes more effectively is more valuable to us. If our intentions change, it makes sense that what we might marginally value in a teammate varies along with it.

      To tie this back to Milos’ observation, it may be that getting out of the way is the best thing you can do at the time, in the situation. And whether or not you work 9-5 or ever even show up in the office could be either important or not depending on the situation.

      I like that you wondered about sacrificing the “ante”. If we went fully along with the poker analogy, you can’t even play the game without the ante. There is often a minimum standard of performance to which we have to comply just to be “on” the team.

      That makes one of the obligations of membership to be accepting the rules, with the possible consequence of being expelled if you don’t follow them – consistently breaking the build, being subversive or inflammatory, or not taking a shower for three weeks.

      What I wonder is whether individuals reflect on how they can increase their value as members or leaders of teams, and then act on that thinking… or whether this is an area that remains un-thought-of.

      We used to use a quote of W Stanley Jevons as it related to value that may apply here as well: Value is the most invincible and impalpable of ghosts, and comes and goes unthought of while the visible and dense matter remains as it was.


  4. On LinkedIn Group Agile Alliance, Bubu Tripathy wrote:

    One can add value in a team by
    – Being honest (both when providing help and asking for help)
    – Not only Believing in the “Mission Statement”, but “living” by it.
    – Displaying team-spirit i.e. We “win” together. We “loose” together, in thought, word, and action. [sic]

    • @Babu, I think exhibiting those qualities is important in supporting the direction of a team. I also think producing something of value ought to be in there somewhere. If as a team we “lose” together… I don’t want to lose because someone on the team is not producing.

      In that, I am not referring to core technical skills… I would prefer catching those in the interview process and in our initial work together. But as the team settles into work and a team member is not producing, all the honesty, believing in the mission and team spirit in the world does not increase their value to the team.

      Maybe it would help if we took apart your statement that you can “add” value to a team, versus my statement about how to “increase” your value to a team… if you already exhibit the basic qualities you suggest, how do you increase your value to the team?

  5. On LinkedIn Group project management in – depth study, Peter Humphreys wrote:

    Ken, this is certainly a wake-up call to those who think that they’re doing the best job possible if only they could just tick all the boxes. Adding value is more than being able to be a team player.

    Yes, it is about putting a bit extra in when required, and stepping in to help fellow team members, when this is appropriate. And, as your blog suggested, doing just your job (and not challenging directives) is a sure way to becoming an automaton. Doing your job makes you dependable, and preferable over an incompetant, but in a battle with a dependable operator that can also think independently, a sure-fire loser.

    But I guess it’s important to know when to offer suggestions and critique management direction. There are times, when the options have been evaluated and senior management has decided, that it is time to deliver. The time when Project Managers (PMs) have to focus on delivering what has been determined, and to not get side-tracked on other options. It’s important for PMs to offer critical input, but it’s because this may distract them from delivering at crucial times, that the process-focused mindset has so many disciples.

    • Thanks, Peter. I hope it is received as a wake-up call, in a positive way. That is how I intended it.

      I recently heard a “king-of-the-hill” analogy used… not the TV show, the old game we played as kids where other kids tried to get you off the top of the hill. The constant pushing and pulling requires you to adapt quickly in order to stay on top.

      So there are always situational tradeoffs to make… I think that should also be counted as something that increases your value to a team… being able to make decisions and adapt as appropriate.

  6. Also on LinkedIn Group project management in – depth study, Merlin DuVall wrote:

    Ken, I have an a few occasions when the project seemed to have problems because of the involvement of a group, impressed on them by picking out neutral grounds, then giving them a polite speech about the empathetic reasons to certain parts of the project to satisfy strict psychological reasoning. It seemed to work and although it took extra work and time on my part, it also was of great value to the overall project. [sic]

    • @Merlin, that sounds like an important skill to know the right thing to say at the right time… it is both political and empathetic, and though companies might want that kind of skill in any project manager, in my career I have not found a lot of people who do it really well. That sounds like a great example of the kind of marginal utility that increases your value to a team… I know I would have loved it if all my project managers in the past had it!

      • …And Peter replied:

        Ken and Merlin, the thing I like do with staff on my projects is understand what motivates them. This can only be done by taking an interest in them as people (not just resources), and to ensure that occasionally work conversations seamlessly slide into more personal ones. When I understand that one valuable team member has immovable family commitments, and another puts in great work in the background that hasn’t always been appreciated in the past, you know how to treat these valuable team members as individuals to optimise their wellbeing – and ultimately, their productivity and value to the team.

        It sure beats platitudes such as “my door is always open” or “I will consider the best interests of each of you in my decisions” that are not really followed up with real commitment from the Project Manager.

        Does my job description say I should do this? No, except in vague terms like “manage the personal development of team members”. I think they call these the “one percenters” in sport in Australia – situations where small actions (such as tapping a ball on, or legalling impeding an opposing player at the right time) can make a big difference. Given that a poor culture can kill any endeavour, “one percenters” are probably even more important on projects.

        • You know, @Peter, I read a comment on another group in which the author said we should avoid organized teams because greater things are accomplished by individuals or teams of only two or three. While I accept that communication can break down the larger a team gets, the level of closeness you are describing not only improves the moods of the team, but it helps to unify intentions in a way that no individual or small team could overtake.

          There is also a difference between the teams in which team members are like machine extensions of the leader and those in which team members are autonomous and amplify the capacity of the group. In the first sense, there is a cost to all the command and control that diminishes the value of the team. In the second case, the cost of leadership can be lower and the production capacity of the team goes up as each person is free to pursue the shared intention.

  7. One way to increase your value is to demonstrate that you can increase the value of everyone else in the team.

    For example, sometimes a process that once served a good purpose can become an impediment when circumstances change over time. If you can present a rational argument how the process can be changed to improve team efficiency and get it implemented, you may have provided more value than the automatons who diligently follow the process.

    For me true agility means that you are always looking for ways to improve team productivity. Even if you had the perfect team and the perfect process one day (has anyone ever had it?), it is unlikely to remain perfect very long. So keep your eyes open.

    • I think that is a great observation and example, SK. Of all the qualities and characteristics of team members people have written in response to this and my previous post, increasing your value by helping others increase their capacities may be the most powerful by far.

      Being ready to make that offer of help to your teammates means that you have to have the competence and capacity in yourself before you can make use of it… so knowing what to learn, what to notice and how to interpret it effectively is a critical investment to make in yourself first.

      But if that is ultimately your offer to your teammates, SK, then it would be great to be on your team. Thank you for sharing this insight!


  8. […] And within all of that, we look for ways to encourage creativity. We allow room for self-expression and we find ways to tap into sources of intrinsic motivation that will result in the best outcomes for everyone. […]

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