General Omar Bradley was called the “Soldier’s General”.  He also, perhaps unwittingly, professed two great truths when it comes to leading technology teams.

“We need to learn to set our course by the stars, not by the lights of every passing ship.”

“I learned that good judgment comes from experience and that experience grows out of mistakes.”

Life is about balance.  Competition between opposites creates a “happy middle” that more times than not results in a better product than would have otherwise been possible had a design given in 100% to one design philosophy or another. Technology, if left with sufficient budget and schedule can grow and morph into temples of “Because We Can”.  Such is the case if a project is allowed to be solely ran by specialists of various backgrounds.  A product designed strictly by specialists tends to be a Frankenstein of discombobulated strings of thought with no clear interconnection.  But they do deliver.  As opposed to a project team composed of strict Generalists that will more times than not result in, well, nothing.  Generalists left to their own devices will be unable to turn idea into something “tangible” (hardware or software, thus the quotations marks).  As someone who see himself as more of a generalists than specialist i know I am constantly enamored by the next new shiny thing.  Sure having lots of great ideas s wonderful, but few people make a living solely on being an ideas person.  Most of us eventually have to deliver a product.  Thus a team carefully constructed team of specialists and few generalists is an ideal arrangement for the balance that is brings.  Now this is probably nothing Earth shattering new to most people who have made a living in the technology fields.  But as much as common sense it sounds when we put it down on “paper” I am always amazed how many times this doesn’t happen.  And even when it does happen, it doesn’t always result in a successful delivery.  So let’s take a deeper look and see if we can come up with some nuggets of knowledge when building a team.  But first let’s look at two falsehoods, at least in my opinion:

  1. Generalists makes better team leads because they have the “big picture”.  Sure, not having loyalty to a specific technology or discipline may result in a more open minded approach, but I find this notion of generalists making better team leads to not necessarily be true.  A great many of specialists can make great team leads.  Vice-versa,  a great many of generalists make horrible team leads.  A good team lead can make connections.  Specialists can fail at this because they are loyal and blinded by their specific speciality.  But generalists too can fail because they think so abstractly that they simply can’t make connections between ideas either.
  2. Specialists have a monopoly of technical knowledge.  True and false.  Your initial education in a technical background tends to shape our entire future perception of your career field.  You become locked at looking at everything through that lens this frozen in time.  Unfortunately, technology changes in an exponential rate.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, you will be very lucky if the knowledge you were taught as freshman still holds any value by the time you graduate.  Technology just moves too fast.  I have found that, unfortunately many specialists do not stay up with the changes in their discipline.  They tend to become the stereotypical “curmudgeon”, they started with a monopoly on technical knowledge but they let technology pass them by.  A generalist on the other hand can, due to their nature, can readily stay up on the latest advances in a field they are passionate about.  They may not know the details of how a new technology works but they can at least see the value.Their open mind may in fact give them a bigger appreciation of the newest technological advances.

So with that in mind, let’s discuss what you should look for in designing your ideal product team.  First, I recommend finding a single expert for each discipline.  Having more than one expert in a given field is likely to have a project devolve into a pissing match between competing theories than to delivering a product.  Second, sprinkle in a generalists or two that have competing points of view.  Creative tension is a good thing.  A good generalists is someone who is great at playing “Devil’s Advocate”.  They need to have enough knowledge of each of the disciplines to be able to know if the specialists argument is sound  And when it comes to designing something new than tension means people have to stop, think, and explain.  This process more times than not results in a better final product than the initial knee-jerk reaction.  With that said, rule number 3.  Ensure there is one and only one team leader.  Make sure everyone on the team understands and appreciates the authority and responsibility of the leader.  The team must agree that their is a time for debate, but once a decision is made, it is the course of action the team will take until necessity requires a course correction.  And as a team lead don’t be afraid of course corrections.  No ship steers to an exact course to reach a destination, currents and winds push them off course all the times.  The captain corrects course but the destination remains the same.  That’s okay.  My fourth and final rule is for whomever sponsors or empowers a product team.  Make sure the team has clear goals, freedom to fail (and correct), the necessary budget and schedule to be successful, and make yourself available as frequent as possible so the team can be agile in their design efforts.  You should want to see how the sausage is made, so to speak.  Waiting months between design reviews vice days or a week, means a longer delivery schedule and higher costs in the end.

Good luck building your team.  Hope that if nothing else, this sparks a discussion in your head about composing a winning product team.