Traits of a healthy team

I have been working in the software industry for more than 16 years. Based on my experience in observing the teams that I have been part of, I would like to share some of the common traits of a healthy team in this blog post.

Curious and Continuous Learning

Curiosity is one of the most important trait to possess, which pushes our mind to be active and always be open for new ideas and possibilities. When we look at our lives, it generally has a tendency to recede into a monotonous way of living but it is only through curiosity that we bring excitement into our life.

Curiosity is a good starting point, which lets us move into inquiry or probing mindset, but we should augment it with continuous learning, which will help us in figuring out the answers for our questions. A healthy team will be imbued with curiosity and continuous learning mindset, and they will feed off of each other’s positive energy in expanding their knowledge and skillset in their area of expertise.

Apply and Adapt

Application of what is being learnt is a very important step. In psychology, they say Use it or Lose it tendency, where in one must continuously engage in and practice an ability or risk losing it. The rubber meets the road through the application of what we have learnt. One of the famous aphorisms, Knowledge is power is very true, but Knowledge and the application of it is even more powerful. Healthy teams constantly put their knowledge to test, by applying what they have learnt into active use.

As we are living in this day and age of constant change happening all around us, people who are not willing to adapt and possess a growth mindset has a greater chance of becoming ineffective. Being flexible and be able to objectively look at facts and adapt to various unfolding situations is a paramount skill which is very commonly seen in healthy teams.

Curious – CONTINUOUS learning – Apply – Adapt

Healthy teams form what I call as the virtuous loop of “Curious – Continuous Learning – Apply – Adapt” which can be shown as below:

Progress over Perfection

The best is the enemy of the goodVoltaire

Healthy teams do not dream of being in an utopian state. They prefer action and focus on putting in the reps as opposed to always thinking about the perfect end state. They know that perfection is an eventual outcome of progress that we keep making day in and day out. Healthy teams, focus on getting the working version of a product (MVP - Most Viable Product) to production as early as possible so as to get feedback sooner rather than later and then refining and adding more features over time.

Clarity and Alignment

Healthy team has clarity for the following questions about the project that they are working on:

Once the team has sufficient clarity in terms of the project, then the most critical piece is alignment in terms of how the teams work contributes to the overall strategic initiatives of the company. Once the teams are aligned, it becomes all the more easier when it comes to execution especially when it involves cross team collaboration as we already have alignment across the organization for the project at hand. Alignment, in a nutshell, is to make sure an organization structure and resources are utilized so as to support its overall strategy. It is a simple concept to understand, but very difficult to implement and maintain, especially when the company grows too large. The most important work of managers and leaders in the organization is to provide clarity and alignment to the team and organization at large. Healthier teams have greater clarity and alignment in their work they do as they have solid managers and leaders in their organization who makes sure it happens.

No good or bad questions; There are only questions

Asking the right questions is a highly underrated skill, as they allow our curious mind to keep learning new skills. If we think about it, in a team environment, the quality of questions depends upon the person’s familiarity and understanding of the domain and the problem at hand. As the person’s knowledge increases in a given domain, the depth and quality of question increases, but it does not mean that a rudimentary question asked by a new member of the team is any way less relevant compared to a quality question asked by a senior member of the team. Healthy team treats all questions as being important and realize that the level of questioning from a team member in essence reflect the current state of the person’s journey within the given team. They don’t label questions with adjectives as being good or bad and treat them all one and the same.

Trust, Transparent, Diverse And Equitable

The most common dysfunction of a team happens due to lack of trust. If there is no trust between 2 people, then each person will not be bringing their true self 100%, which in effect makes them unwilling to be vulnerable within the group. Trust is the most important building block upon which anything meaningful can be built and healthy teams breed a high sense of trust among the team members. The natural benefit of a high trust environment is transparency, where people are more than willing to share and learn from each other. When there is less transparency, people want to be in all the discussions and wanting to know every little bit happening within their team, whereas in a highly transparent environment, people don’t fret in missing information as they know that as long as the information is contained within the team, it can be accessed anytime by talking to anyone within the team. As we are living in a complex world, it is extremely important to have a diverse team who can bring different perspectives to the table and feel that all team members are treated equally without any bias. Healthy teams favor diversity in their team composition and feel that they are working in a safe, equitable environment where all opinions are respected and valued.

Think long term balancing short term commitments

There are 2 types of decisions that we constantly have to balance within a software engineering team. One is people oriented and the other is technology oriented. Healthy teams optimize every decision for both the facets thinking from long term perspective. For people to be able to operate at their peak for a long time, they should get sufficient balance between work time and personal time and should definitely not be burnt out. At the same time, architectural decisions taken around technology stack, is oriented keeping long term perspective in mind. In reality, companies do operate in a highly competitive environment, where we need to make course corrections along the way and teams should stay nimble and agile to do quick shifts. At the same time, context switching way too much is not good for the long term sustenance of a healthy team. Leaders play a pivotal role in making sure they set their team up for long term success and at the same time act as a facade to shield their team from constant distractions and context switching. They make sure short term directional changes are properly weighed in before getting the team to make course corrections and also makes sure it happens less frequently.

Multi faceted

Each and every one of us is unique and it is so wonderful that we are all unique because we can learn a lot from each other’s perspective. Because people are willing to learn and share in healthy teams, there is so much compounding of knowledge that happens. The best part is, learning not only happens within the field of operation, for eg, technology within software engineering teams, it is the learning that we derive from other facets which is extremely good. In the best of teams I have been fortunate to be part of, I have learnt so much around technology, leadership, improving productivity, finance, stock market, bitcoin :-), movies and tv series, food, diet, exercise, sports like cricket etc., The same virtuous loop of “Curious – Continuous Learning – Apply – Adapt” is applicable to all the other fields as well, we will start seeings connections between these disciplines which is truly fascinating.

Embrace Failure

Failure is an essential component of innovation, invention and in general, when we are trying to apply what we have learnt. Healthy teams embrace failure and build sufficient guard rails in place to be able to fail fast and also be able to recover from failures sooner. They place a very high emphasis on automated testing, turning ON/OFF features, experiment between control and variation, monitoring and alerting, documentation, efficient onboarding for new engineers, improve developer productivity etc., They will try to make sure whenever a failure happens, the blast radius is kept very small.

Core Values and Behavior thrive across the company

One of my favorite Warren Buffett quote is, When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact. An individual works in a team, which is part of a division, which in turn is part of a larger organization of a company. At the end of the day, the culture of a company which is governed by its values and behavior cuts across the entire company. In the best of companies, their positive culture which is a reflection of values and behavior truly reverberates across the company, and as a result creates better organization, divisions, teams, and individuals.

Conclusion

I have shared my subjective thoughts around the common traits of a healthy team in this post. Also, I have named this blog post as Traits of a healthy team as opposed to Traits of a successful team and it is intentional. Healthy teams treat success and failure as a part of their journey and see both of them in a similar fashion.

8 thoughts on “Traits of a healthy team

  1. Very Interesting and Impressive.

    usually, I never comment on any of blogposts and your article is so impressive and convincing that I never stop myself to say something about it.
    Thank you so much for sharing such a wonderful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great writeup Maya, it summarizes the ingredients for any successful team very well and very precisely. I always believe it is the Team which makes the difference in what is possible and what can be achieved with resources at hand. A healthy team can make the 1+1=11 idiom true anytime.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nicely written Maya!
    I like how you highlighted the importance of healthy team versus successful team. Successful teams might or might not last long but healthy ones will definitely make the cut sooner or later!
    Failure is kind of frowned upon in lot of environments not just in tech space, but in so many other domains, so it is nice that you actually highlighted the importance of experimentation, failure and learning!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great blog and an interesting take Maya! I always love your writing – it’s informative and to the point.

    > Healthy teams embrace failure and build sufficient guard rails in place

    This is so true.. I have personally seen this happen in our previous team and projects, and it’s critical to be okay with failures once in a while, but even more critical to learn from it and make sure it never happens again. Great example of “Live and learn”.

    Liked by 1 person

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