The need for real teams

Header image

In the business world, “teams” are everywhere. Co-workers and groups are not required to earn the label through achievement, performance or effort, but instead acquire it by default. Their focus on minimizing stress and maintaining polite interactions often stifles ambition and achievement. The potential for innovation and excellence is lost as individual performances converge to a lower, average level. Such “teams” are easily identified by their adequate results, half-hearted attempts to meet deadlines, lack of accountability and general underperformance.

Not everything can be attributed only to the internal dynamics of teams. In many cases, underperforming teams result from the environment they operate in, rather than inherent flaws in the individuals or their collaboration. These environments impose challenges that slow typical "teams," from unsuitable physical workspaces and constant interruptions to rigid processes and a lack of freedom to make choices. Collectively, these factors stifle teams that might otherwise perform reasonably well. If this continues long enough, a culture of low to modest performance becomes the norm.

Real teams are different

Teams that perform at a high level in any environment are those with strong teamwork fundamentals and appropriate training to handle real-world situations effectively. Real teams stand out in several ways. They have an uncanny ability to hit targets and accomplish tasks where others are delayed or blocked entirely. They deliver with remarkable consistency over time, without excuses, even within the most stultifying organizational constraints. Unpredictability and changes in direction are handled seamlessly by real teams. They go beyond their immediate remit, taking full responsibility for the end solution because they understand what’s at stake. They ensure their work aligns with broader goals and deliver results that matter to the mission. They communicate with others in a way that is clear and professional. In short, real teams consistently exceed normal expectations in all areas.

Unfortunately, a real team cannot be declared into existence. Co-workers that carry out work in close proximity of one another are not by default a team. Nor do they become one simply because they are assigned to the same project or task list. A team will not automatically emerge from a group just because the individuals are smart or talented. Teams do not form overnight or after a day of “team building”. They cannot be created by management frameworks or elaborate software.

Real teams only form when individuals with complementary skill sets come together to create genuine dependencies on one another; when high levels of internal trust exist between team members; when mission goals are clear and in focus; and when individuals care about the team more than their own personal objectives. These qualities are forged in the heat of battle and over long periods of time spent together. There are no shortcuts.

Identifying real software development teams

Longevity and Stability

A group needs time to gel before they can be considered a real team. Members of real teams work together for many months or years on several projects. They choose to remain together.

Optimal Size

Communication is most efficient in small teams. The most effective software development teams consist of three to five developers and one or two business analysts, depending on the project's complexity and size. Though supported by other teams, the “core” team is the real team.

High Standards for Selection

Real teams insist on choosing their own members based on skills and fit. They prioritize finding competent, reliable colleagues first and friendly faces second. New members are initially treated with healthy skepticism until they prove their worth and reliability.

Deal with Underperformance

Politely tolerating or working around a team member’s shortcomings is a trait of non-teams. Real teams address and eliminate persistent inadequacies. If they cannot be resolved, the underperforming members are removed from the team. High attrition coupled with poor performance signals dysfunction, but real teams removing substandard performers should not be confused with this.

Communication excellence

Real team members interact frequently and naturally, avoiding artificial constructs like planned meetings or time-boxed speaking sessions, which are often seen as unnecessary and inefficient. They maintain professionalism and clarity in their communications both within the team and with external stakeholders. For real teams, communication excellence is mandatory.

Mutual respect

In teams with established mutual respect, internal communication becomes concise and efficient. Outsiders may perceive interactions as impolite or unfriendly, but this is not the case. When respect is firmly established, polite interactions give way to efficient and honest ones.

Established way of working

“Agile” is not a way of working, nor is Scrum. Real teams do not rigidly adhere to popular management frameworks and methodologies. Instead, they cherry-pick ideas and processes that contribute to better performance, experimenting with what works best and discarding what doesn't. All members internalize standard operating procedures, allowing them to work together efficiently.

Resistance to Traditional Management

Real software development teams resist micro-management and most forms of traditional management. They operate under the trust that they can make decisions necessary to achieve the best outcomes. Instead of control, they thrive on guidance, facilitation, and support, which are necessary and appreciated by real teams. This trust empowers them to use their expertise and creativity to the fullest.

Flexibility Beyond Nine to Five

Real teams understand that creativity and innovation are unpredictable and unlikely to fit into a nine-to-five schedule. They do what’s necessary, when necessary, to maximize developer “flow” regardless of the time of day. However, success is measured by results, not long hours or hard work.

Anchored to the real world

Real teams seek to understand the real-world impact of their work, providing them with purpose, direction, and motivation. They are inquisitive about the context in which they operate, helping them avoid becoming overly focused on technical details that distract from their mission. Shielding developers from business pressures is counterproductive. Real teams must be fully exposed to these pressures so that they can make informed decisions, balancing engineering purity with pragmatic solutions.

Strong leadership

Every team needs a leader who sets the tone, standards, and norms for the group. The leader is not necessarily the "best" or most technically gifted member, nor the oldest or longest-standing. Leadership may rotate based on experience and situational needs, but all members should have the ability to lead and be led. Effective leadership ensures that the team remains cohesive, motivated, and aligned with its goals.

Value a sophisticated customer

Real teams pay attention to details and expect their customers to be equally discerning. They appreciate a highly engaged customer who can be challenged on all aspects of the build. Real teams push back on requirements that are unclear or detrimental to the system, pointing out when effort does not correspond to value. They do not appreciate working for indifferent customers or those who accept sub-standard work.

Unnerve weak managers

Command-and-control managers often find themselves unable to direct, plan, and track real teams, which unnerves them and makes them worry about their relevance. However, autonomy in teams is not something to be feared. Real teams still need guidance, information, and facilitation. Capable and confident managers love real teams.

Performance Driven

Performance is not about speed, velocity, or efficiency. It does not translate to more lines of code or feature proliferation. Real teams define performance by delivering customer satisfaction and business value. They build only what is needed, often delivering software faster and with higher quality than non-teams.

Thrive under pressure

The most rewarding challenges have something at stake. Real teams excel under pressure, whether due to the intrinsic difficulty of a problem, time constraints, or competition. These high-stakes experiences bond the team, making it real.

Join a team

Heb je een teamlid, collega of vriend met wie je het liefst blijft ontwikkelen, meld je dan samen aan!


Contact Mark

Geen recruiter maar een developer, net zoals jij.