There is this one developer in your team. She knows the code best. Everyone knows her and everyone asks for her opinion, even if not team or code-related. She is in the same agile team as you, also for quite some time now and she saved the day more than once. In team discussions, she sometimes won’t let you finish your sentence, but comes up with a better idea anyway. She sometimes even talks for your sake and you like it, because she does it well, and… it is so convenient to lean back a bit. She has the highest userstory-count, and most of the difficult or risky tasks get handled playfully by her. You sometimes wonder how she does it, but well… she is just good in what she does, right? Wrong!
She is a strong personality, an overachiever, a hero, a secret leader – even if not all of the above apply to your teammate, she still can be one. In this blog post, I will try to make you understand, why those (hereafter called) overachievers carry a huge risk for an agile team (and company) inside. It is easy to ignore, tolerate or just accept, but if you and no one does anything about a team-substance like this, it can react poisonous when combined with wrong elements. Dare to let it be as is, and you will suffer the consequences, just like the rest of your team. The way of least resistance is not always a good choice.
But what is so bad about it?
Depending on the overachiever and the team, the following things are possible to happen to some extent:
- Skill development, success, and outcome should be team achievements. If only one person gets all the credit or is the go-to-person for everything, the rest of the team starts feeling discouraged. Why try harder, when you can only do your job, hide behind her and work off the 9to5-duties? Falling into this behavior, makes your work ultimately seem meaningless. Friendly colleagues, a more or less appropriate salary or a nice environment will not motivate on a long run. If you lose the mission, why stand up in the early Monday mornings at all?
- You wonder how she does it? She might never let you know. Overachievers tend to take over the tasks, with the mentality of “If you don’t do it yourself, it won’t be done (properly)”. Like this, she thinks (or says): “By the time she explains it to you or someone else, she has it done by herself”. The latest, when you hear one of those two phrases, your alarm should go off! She eagerly maintains her knowledge island and makes it grow. So the team success depends on her, sometimes only on her. This puts the team and the organization into a bad place when she feels like she wants “more”, is on vacation, simply not there, or even leaves. In Agile Teams, this is worst case in action! Because…
- It is easy and seems intuitive to mismanage: teams and even companies die in the long run due to encouraging overachiever to save the day over and over again. This is what I saw going down at Goodgame Studios back in the days: They get the feeling that they must be held within the team, or it will fail. Bad/ inexperienced managers tend to think they need to give everything to keep them in the company. Suddenly, that overachiever finds herself as people-manager, not able to perform like in her original profession. As a result, the company traded a highly professional developer (or whatsoever) for a “bad”-leader. That’s a lose-lose-resolution. For a manager, it is easy to overlook the short-sightedness of the success of such an overachiever. Therefore, it is important that everyone understands: A mismanagement of such overachievers is a threat to sustainable success.
- Overachiever have their specific characteristics. Your teams’ approaches and results will lose it’s exploratory diversity when she is always “in the lead”. Remember: the Product Owner brings the “why”, the Scrum Master the “how” and the team the “what” (see https://www.boost.co.nz/blog/2018/04/successful-scrum-team-product-owner). By having the same approaches and doing the same type of work, you will lose the important ability of scrum teams: solving unknown and complex problems. Work starts to feel highly repetitive and – again – meaningless. The rest of the team starts mirroring her, by also over-/underthinking stories or spending too much/not enough time on general discussions. Moreover, the personal development of each team member will suffer, when no one breaks this pattern.
- Team member feel like they cannot contribute, so they start letting the overachiever make all the talk-work. This ultimately leads to letting her also do all the thought-work (because it’s convenient)… And even though it’s an overachiever in the lead, she might not be aware of the specifics of her “power” and influence. The team ends up with getting poorly directed. “People [working for an overachiever often] do not understand where they are going. They’re just following the walk of this turbocharged leader, who doesn’t direct the team but focuses on output. They get annoyed, exhausted, and feel that they need to second-guess what the leader wants because they’re not being told.”, Goleman, D. “Leadership That Gets Results,” Harvard Business Review, March-April 2000.
What to do?
The main objectives are:
- Let the overachiever share his knowledge (to reduce knowledge island risk),
- Give every person equal opportunities to provide their input (to live collaboration and achieve diverse approaches to master complex problems).
Be sure: The overachiever in your team is not a bad person! She aims for only the best for the company and product. Of course, to her, it seems that she does it very well! Remember, you are not enemies or opponents, but teammates who need to figure out how to work best together and achieve sustainable success (and fun)!
Step 1 – Out of your comfort zone!
Well… not (only) the overachiever is the reason why change needs to happen. What does Michael Jackson say again? Start with the man in the mirror! “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change!”
Speak up, take action, demand change, to improve communication and vary methodologies, and don’t fall into the dangerous pit of self-pity and
But how, you ask? Expect and demand baby steps! There will not be a “big bang”-change and everything is “good”: One step after another. Even small changes can have a big impact.
Step 2 – The (Scrum Master) Talk
I know, the Scrum Master is not holding any leadership position and yet, she is the one who should facilitate and host team gatherings and meetings. She is supposed to take care that exactly this does not happen. Her influence is limited by the willingness of the team, so give her reason and solid ground to work on equalization within the team. Maybe she is not very experienced yet, or she also just accepted things how they are (aware or unaware of what it means). You should find the talk with her about what she thinks about the situation, and what you can do to lift up the team spirit and sustainability! There are many things she can do, to give everyone the change to commit their ideas, opinions, and qualities.
Ah… and by the way: Even if it is only you, who feels a bit outside of the system (and everyone else is kind-of ok), you still should make your point to her. A Scrum Master should also be the go-to-person, for a team members issues, and help to get all the potential on the street!
Step 3 – Remind and demand Agile Principles
Do I really have to say this? Agile teamwork is about dialogues and collaboration. Embrace every individual in your team as equally important and qualified, as a potential if not experienced (yet). Collaborate, interact, and get the best out of every single member! See the first freaking line of the goddamn Agile Manifesto: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” ( http://agilemanifesto.org/ ). Such simple and undiluted wisdom… It makes me cry every time I have to remind people to think about it. It should be burned in your and everyone’s (developer) brain. It is not negotiable or relocatable. This should be surer than day follows night. Before you try to enable the potential of your team with methods or tricks, consider talking about the issue openly with the whole team. Make them understand why embracing and supporting overachiever-ness means to risks sustainable success. A retrospective meeting is a very proper time to place your concerns! Agile teamwork is based on trust. Give your team (including the overachiever) the benefit of trust and honesty.
Step 4 – Bring in opportunities for good behavior
Train your instinct and get a sense for the right moments to embrace collaboration. In discussions and talks, notice who is silent and doesn’t commit to active collaboration. Encourage them to speak (up), i.e. by actively asking them about their opinion. If you know your team members well, another more sneaky way is, to bring up a topic they are passionate about, make a connection and/or take an opposition-position, so you tease them out of their lethargy (you can also (later) be honest about your evil-genuine plan to get them into the conversation). Continuously place suggestions to collaborate or to do pair programming, because sometimes a little push in the right direction is all that’s needed. Yes, also you as a teammate can do this – no need for a Teamlead, Scrum Master or Product Owner to make those moves.
Step 5 – Remove opportunities for bad behavior
There are several methodologies to give everyone the opportunity to provide their own input and to also let them talk without being interrupted, discouraged, or subdued. Usually, your Scrum Master comes up with those ideas, yet sometimes they also need a little inspiration. Don’t worry. It doesn’t always need to be a big thing. Actually, mostly it can already be enough to request a democratic vote, to let everyone think about something themselves and/ or add their thoughts. But for some bigger topics, you might think of the following two approaches: A neat little allrounder method is the silent brainstorming, with a followed presentation-time. Everyone has around 5 to 10 minutes to make up their mind and write it on sticky notes. Afterward, when everyone is ready and done, each participant gets a limited time to present the sticky notes, and do something with them, according to whatever purpose the brainstorming was about. Like this, everything is limited to a specific timeframe and as you can see everyone provides in the same manner. You will find your team in situations where brainstorming can be of value. Instead of just throwing in ideas (and get overwhelmed by the overachiever), you can suggest silent brainstorming. Something that helped me a lot to manage bigger teams, with a multi-dimensional problem, was the following: Split the team into two- or three-people-groups. Each group targets one part of the topic and presents it to the rest of the team members. If you want more people to provide input to each aspect do the following: Instead of only dividing the team into smaller groups, you also divide the room/ location into different subject-islands. Each island has one subject-host (preferably the overachiever is also a subject-host). Every person/ group spends around 5 to 15 minutes on each island, while the host notes the important parts of the talks/ discussions. After every group talked about every subject, the hosts present the results of the island. This was most helpful at retrospective meetings or to get solutions for highly complex features or goals.
Always remember: You are not enemies, but teammates!
I hope I could give you a little sense of how you can handle the overachiever in your team. Of course, there is no such thing as a clear path to teamwork-city, but if you take my words as a starting point for orientation, you maybe find the right way. Don’t hesitate to comment or write a direct mail to me, when you have any further questions or feedback.
Enjoy, collaborate and succeed!