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Teamicide Revisited

by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister

Adapted from Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd ed. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. See below for copyright notice.

The seven kinds of teamicide we described in the 1987 edition of Peopleware seemed to stretch from the alpha to the omega of the subject. But there are two important kinds of teamicide that we missed. Like the original seven, these two additions are practiced widely in our field. One of them has become so ubiquitous that a small growth industry has sprung up to support it. . . .

Those Damn Posters and Plaques

Pick up the airline magazine or on-board shoppers' catalog on your next flight and flip through the full-page advertisements. Somewhere in there you will come upon a colorful selection of inspirational posters and framed messages for display on corporate walls (lest someone use up the wall space with work products). Don't just glance at them, but force yourself to read through them all, turning over their texts in your mind and savoring their syrupy prose. If you're not angry by the time you're done, you may have been serving under lousy managers for much too much of your career.

Most forms of teamicide do their damage by effectively demeaning the work, or demeaning the people who do it. Teams are catalyzed by a common sense that the work is important and that doing it well is worthwhile. The word well in this last sentence is essential: The team assigns itself the task of setting and upholding a standard of prideful workmanship. All team members understand that the quality of the work is important to the organization, but the team adopts a still higher standard to distinguish itself. Without this distinguishing factor, the group is just a group, never a real team.

Into this complicated mix, now imagine dropping a $150 framed poster to advise people that ''Quality Is Job One.'' Oh. Gee, we never would have thought that. No sir, we sort of assumed—until this wonderful poster came along—that Quality was Job Twenty-Nine, or maybe Eleventy-Seven, or maybe even lower than that on the corporate value scale, maybe someplace after reducing ear wax or sorting the trash. But now we know. Thanks.

These motivational accessories, as they are called (including slogan coffee mugs, plaques, pins, key chains, and awards), are a triumph of form over substance. They seem to extol the importance of Quality, Leadership, Creativity, Teamwork, Loyalty, and a host of other organizational virtues. But they do so in such simplistic terms as to send an entirely different message: Management here believes that these virtues can be improved with posters rather than by hard work and managerial talent. Everyone quickly understands that the presence of the posters is a sure sign of the absence of hard work and talent.

That important matters like these should be the subject of motivational posters is already an insult. But the implementation makes it even worse. Consider one example marketed by a company: It shows a soft-focus image of sweating oarsmen, rowing in perfect unison through the misty morning. Underneath it reads, in part:

. . . The Fuel That Allows Common People To Attain Uncommon Results

The ''common people'' they're talking about here are you and your workmates. Common people. (Don't take it too hard.) At least they're consistent in attitude: The same company's Leadership poster tells us that ''the speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack.'' The pack. Yep, that's you again.

Motivational accessories are phony enough to make most people's skin crawl. They do harm in healthy organizations. The only place where they do no harm is where they are ignored—as in companies where the harm was done long, long ago and people have ceased to register any further decline.

The Side Effects of Overtime

Readers of the original edition of Peopleware may already have picked up a certain bias against the use of overtime. It has been our experience that the positive potential of working extra hours is far exaggerated, and that its negative impact is almost never considered. That negative impact can be substantial: error, burnout, accelerated turnover, and compensatory ''undertime.'' In this section, we examine yet another negative effect of overtime: its teamicidal repercussions on otherwise healthy work groups.

Imagine a project with a well-jelled team. You and your colleagues are producing good work at a rate that is frankly astonishing, even to you and your boss. You all understand this to be the beneficial effect of team jell, that the whole of your team production capacity is greater than the sum of your individual productivities. But it's still not enough. The powers that be have promised the product for June, and it's just not going to get done at the current rate.

Sounds like a case for a little overtime, right? You move the team into high gear, add a few hours to the workweek (still at the same high production rate), maybe work a few Saturdays. There is only one problem: One of your teammates-let's call him Allen-just doesn't have the flexibility that the rest of you enjoy. He is a widower and thus the primary care-giver for his little boy. Allen has to show up at the day-care facility at 5:15 each afternoon to pick the child up. As you might imagine, his Saturdays and Sundays, the only real quality time with his son, are inviolable.

Hey, that's okay, you think, we'll cover for Allen. We all understand. And you all do . . . in the beginning.

A few months later, however, the rest of you are starting to show the strain. All your Saturdays have been gobbled up, as have most of your Sundays. You've been working sixty-plus-hour weeks for longer than you thought possible, and your spouses and kids are grumbling. Your laundry is piling up, your bills are unpaid, your vacation plans have been scrapped. Allen, through all this, is still working a forty-hour week. Finally, somebody says what you are all thinking: ''I'm getting pretty sick of carrying Allen.''

What's happened here? A team that was positively humming with the good effects of jell has been pried apart by an overtime policy that could not be applied uniformly to the team members. But the members of good teams are never uniform in any respect, certainly not in their abilities to ''borrow'' time from their personal lives. In almost any team of four or five or six people, there are bound to be a few who can't be expected to put in the kind of overtime that might fit pretty well into some of the others' lives. All that can be shrugged off as unimportant if the overtime is only a matter of a few long evenings and maybe one extra weekend day. But if the overtime drags on over months and starts to exact a real toll on even the most willing team members, there is bound to be damage to team cohesion. The people who aren't sharing the pain will become, little by little, estranged from the others. And the team magic will be gone.

The Last Straw

Extended overtime is a productivity-reduction technique, anyway. The extra hours are almost always more than offset by the negative side effects. This is true even if you don't consider the disruption of the team. When you take into account the way that the team members' differing abilities to work overtime tends to destroy teams, the case against it becomes persuasive.

Most managers have at least a suspicion that overtime doesn't help, that projects that work a lot of overtime are not much of a credit to their managers' skills and talents. But they end up allowing or encouraging overtime, anyway. Why is this? Jerry Weinberg has an answer of sorts: He suggests that we don't work overtime so much as a way to get the work done on time as a way to shield ourselves from blame when the work inevitably doesn't get done on time.

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This excerpt from Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd ed. [ISBN:0-932633-43-9] appears by permission of Dorset House Publishing. Copyright © 1999 by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. All rights reserved. See http://www.dorsethouse.com/books/pw.html. The material contained in this file may be shared for noncommercial purposes only, nonexclusively, provided that this Copyright Notice always appears with it. This material may not be combined with advertisements, online or in print, without explicit permission from Dorset House Publishing. For copies of the printed book or for permissions, contact Dorset House Publishing, 1-800-342-6657, 212-620-4053, http://www.dorsethouse.com, info@dorsethouse.com, New: 3143 Broadway, Suite 2B, New York, NY 10027 USA. Additional rights limitations apply, as presented in the Legal Disclaimer posted at http://www.dorsethouse.com/legal.html.



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