In my first blog post I covered the motivational benefits of autonomy, mastery/competence, and purpose/relatedness resulting in improved performance, learning, creativity, and happiness. Bringing insights from motivation research into a software team was one of my keys to transition from researching the world of high-level sports performance to managing software products and teams. Fostering motivation has helped my teams with two key areas that are keys to success: focus and perseverance.
Now, over 7 years later, I still return to sports for inspiration. Having covered the motivational benefits in depth already, I will focus on sharing three key themes leading to teams achieving repeatable success at a high level.
Before we get to the themes, in order to talk about success, first we have to define it. Every team I’ve worked with has defined success a little bit differently — and that’s okay. For software teams, we want to continually deliver greater value to more customers and for sports teams it’s all about winning. Regardless of the context, I believe that two key attributes are essential in to a good definition of success: long-living and within our control. There are some strong connections here to motivational aspects of purpose, autonomy, and mastery; moreover, when combining this vision of success with motivation I think we have all the essential ingredients for high performing teams.
John Wooden is the greatest basketball coach of all time. At the root of his accomplishments was his definition: “success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction, in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming.” This serves as a great example of what we are talking about for each team to determine for themselves. Success was not defined as “win” and your team’s success is best not to be defined as “money”.
So with that working definition, let’s look at how we drive towards success. To help point the way I have pulled one key theme from each of three great coaches.
What was John Wooden’s maxim to solving all his teams’ problems? Love. What has Pete Caroll, a highly successful football coach for almost 50 years, learned through trial and error to call the central theme of his team? Always Compete. And, what does the media-curmudgeon Bill Belichick, the most successful American Football coach of all time, boil his instructions down to? Do Your Job.
John Wooden: Love
Love? I can’t help but feel uncomfortable talking about love in the workplace. But, we aren’t talking about romantic love here. We are talking about sharing love for each other and our mission together. Love is a powerful and renewable force that we would do well to harness.
This is not to say run our organization like a family. Netflix’s famous culture deck from 2009 made clear why we still want to work like a pro sports team (now called “dream team”). As many have striven for results or perhaps recently endeavoured to replicate aspects of Netflix’s pro team culture, I think we have “thrown the baby out with the bathwater” and lost love in our organizations. As exemplified by John Wooden, being an elite sports team requires love.
A lot of people say they have “passion” for their job or their profession. Passion is fleeting. Love is enduring. To accomplish the grand, to be successful in the long-term, we need to love each other, what we do, and what we are trying to accomplish.
Pete Caroll: Always Compete
It’s lucky-naming that “Pete” is all about compete. Pete Carroll has refined his theme “Always Compete” into a successful career and books. He believes that always competing is how to achieve and sustain success:
“I know that I’ll be evaluated in Seattle with wins and losses, as that is the nature of my profession for the last thirty-five years. But our record will not be what motivates me. Years ago I was asked, ‘Pete, which is better: winning or competing?’ My response was instantaneous: ‘Competing… because it lasts longer.’”
Pete Caroll has found a key for American Football and maybe most athletic endeavors where competition is essential. On the other hand, for software development or cognitive work as a whole, this theme requires some translation. In these team pursuits, the key place to always compete is in decision making. In everything we do, we should be optimizing for making better decisions. To paraphrase Pete Caroll, to make great products that people buy and love, to push the barriers forward means to exist in the eternal; and, to do that, we need to live in the moment and optimize for making every decision better.
We can’t make ourselves smarter (in terms of IQ), but we can succeed by continually learning how to make smarter decisions.
Side note: “how we improve decision making” is a topic for another day.
Bill Belichick: Do Your Job
A great story illustrating the power of Bill Belichick’s ethos “Do Your Job” is how quarterback Bryan Hoyer felt about his time with the New England Patriots. Quarterback is the single most important position in all of team sports. When Bryan Hoyer entered the league he was the backup quarterback to future Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady — Bryan rarely played. In his first 3 years Bryan attempted 43 passes total — to any outsider, he had a small and insignificant role. Leaving the Patriots, he went on to play for 5 other teams as a starter throwing over 1300 passes.
When he was later dealt back to the New England Patriots, he said he was excited to return to his backup role with the Patriots. Why, might you ask? Despite the demotion from starter to backup, he said he had never felt more a part of the team, never clearer in his role and purpose, never clearer on how he could be successful, than he did as a backup for the Patriots and Bill Belichick.
So how does Belichick’s theme, “Do Your Job” translate to software development? It’s pretty straightforward; we need to outline roles and then do our jobs — trusting others to do their jobs.
Of course, this role definition, like everything, should be continually reevaluated and tailored to individuals and teams.
“Do Your Job” also brings motivational benefits by providing clear opportunities for mastery (of your job), purpose, and relatedness.
Moreover, in order to be a successful team, this theme clearly requires that all parts need to work in harmony together. Although one player will be better than another (so may try to cover for their teammate), just as a manager may be a better individual contributor than their report, we all need to do our own jobs to be successful long-term. The requisite here is trust. With trust we can work well together.
In order to best serve our customers, we must define success as something that is long-term and within our control. Within that, each team can and should define success for themselves, likely in the realm of continual delivery of perceived value by the market they aim to serve.
Then to reach high levels of success we need to foster inspiring environments that go beyond fleeting passion and instead develop enduring love. With our definition of success, we can make competition a positive force that has us constantly competing to make ever better decisions. And, we can develop greater trust and focus by simply improving how we do our own jobs. These three simple themes will help teams reach high-performance.
Furthermore, when we combine these three themes with the focus and perseverance gained through motivation you are all but guaranteed a high-performing team. This will be a team that will relentlessly pursue reducing waste, have a deep caring for a clear mission, who will sacrifice to get there, who will support each other, who will make smarter decisions than any other team, who will work well together, and who will enjoy it.
As mentioned above, love is a powerful and renewable force. Creating these teams takes work; but, a high-performing team is also a powerful and renewable force worth creating and harnessing.