Beautiful Teams

Ok, On Three... Two... One... Be an Effective Team! (curtesy of Stellman & Greene)Last Tuesday, Andrew Stellman and Jenny Greene came to the Boston SPIN to talk about Beautiful Teams, the topic of a wonderful book they’ve just published. A book I believe Scott Berkun captured best when he said, "Stop complaining about your coworkers. Instead, get your team and your boss to read Beautiful Teams." And of course, once you hear Andrew & Jenny talk, or read their book, you just can’t help but think about the teams you’ve worked on… what makes the good ones great? What makes the awful ones so unbearable? Is there a recipe out there for creating those wonderful, beautiful teams that are so exhilarating to be a part of?

The best damn team I ever worked on was a startup. Right in the Internet hey day. It was exciting. It was fast paced. We worked 80+ hour work weeks, slept at the office, rarely had enough money for anything beyond the next couple of payrolls. But we were developing things no one had ever developed before and getting written up in magazines and had the ultimate brag factor over the cool things we were doing with audio and video. We had Microsoft begging us to tell them our secrets, AOL wanting to buy us (they eventually did). We took trips to the WinAmp and MTVi offices and went to RealNetworks parties hosted in museums. Man, we were HOT.

We were, in fact, certifiably bad-ass in the sheer amounts of innovation we were able to deliver. We had this amazing VP of Engineering who would come in and tell us we were going to do these absolutely insane things and we’d all look at her like she’d finally lost it. But then, the craziest thing would happen and we’d actually find a way to do them.

But then… one day, it became not so hot. We grew big enough to need a "real" CEO, and with him came a team of "real" business executives. And these business folks thought they knew all the answers and so before we knew what was happening they’d booted that VP of Engineering – the absolute heart and soul behind our software – right out the door. They brought in a new VP who told us that he thought perhaps our reputation "exceeded" us, and you can just imagine the developers couldn’t find the exit door fast enough. And, of course, nothing was ever the same after.

What happened?! How could we have created such greatness? And then, how could it be ripped away from us so easily?

In software development, we give a lot of weight to the practices we follow – is your project agile? Are you doing TDD? Continuous Integration? Daily Scrums? And it’s not that these things aren’t important. They’re extremely important. But, the thing is that they’re not most important. And, when you stand them up next to what is most important – the people and the teams – it really puts them in perspective. We weren’t doing any of these things in our hey day and yet it was by far the most productive team I have ever – and probably will ever – have the pleasure of working on.

On the flip side, how many of us have been on teams where we’ve been handed a whole laundry list of "best practices" we must follow and have found those to be the most miserable, ineffective teams we’ve ever worked on? How does this make sense when we’re talking proven practices that are considered the best our industry has to offer? And I would say they were doomed from the start when someone decided they had so little respect for the team that they felt the need to dictate those best practices to us rather than giving us goals and training and having enough respect for us, the team, to find our own best practices.

And when I think back to that great startup, that’s exactly how it was. Sure, the goals were out there – seemingly It's People!impossible pipe dreams. But we were given time and space to learn what we needed, and the autonomy to figure the best way to achieve those goals on our own. That, and a wonderful, brilliant set of people, and we were unstoppable.

There’s a lot of recipes for successful teams in Beautiful Teams. But for me, personally, I can’t help but think the #1 factor – the thing that trumps all else – is simple respect. And it is a wonder that we put so much time and energy into buying the right books, going to the right conferences, reading the right blogs if we’re going to ignore this most vital component of software development. Just like Soylent Green, that secret ingredient — It’s people!

What was the best team you ever worked on? What about the worst? What do you think made them so?

Update: Abbot of Unreason answers these with his own stories of beautiful teams in Coding Cats. Check it out.


30 responses to “Beautiful Teams”

  1. “And it is a wonder that we put so much time and energy into buying the right books, going to the right conferences, reading the right blogs if we’re going to ignore this most vital component of software development.”

    For the most part, I think the problem of respect (where it is lacking) is not peer-to-peer respect, though there are aspects of that that the craftsmanship movement is interested in. In general, as you said, it’s rare that a team is respected enough from above to be given an opportunity to forge its own best practices. So it’s little wonder to me that we turn to books, conferences and blogs, because these are activities that are about self-improvement, something I have control over, not about team freedom, something we often feel we have no control over, especially when the economy limits our options.

    Teams are vital, no doubt about it. I’d be interested in hearing about how to foster beautiful teams from within. I’m a big proponent of long-lived teams that share and communicate, but I often feel like you can’t shout at the rest of the team to “communicate with me, dang it!” You know?

  2. The solution to this is to stay mercenary. Play nice with others, but fucked if I’m gonna ride the death-spiral down with the rest of those poor assholes trying to salvage their equity while management does what they do best.

    I’ve worked too hard, too many times for the wrong people. Never Again. All jobs suck, just pick the one that pays best and has the shortest commute.

  3. Abby Fichtner Avatar
    Abby Fichtner


    For the most part, I think the problem of respect (where it is lacking) is not peer-to-peer respect…it’s rare that a team is respected enough from above to be given an opportunity to forge its own best practicesThis has also been my experience. And, I hate to say it, but I think that message from above influences not only what practices we follow but how much team members are going to collaborate with one another.

    How DO you foster beautiful teams from within when it’s clear that’s not something management rewards – may, in fact, even discourage it. Not, of course, so blatant as saying, “don’t work together!” But, there’s so many ways that management can create a culture that just shuts down collaboration.

    Say, for example, I’m working in a culture where it’s pretty clear that I’m only rewarded on individual effort. Maybe there are evil practices like public status meetings where each person ends up trying to 1-up the next so the more you do, the worse it makes me look. Well then, what’s my incentive to collaborate with you? Quite the opposite, I may even have to take some risk to do so.

    I don’t know, do you think people can create a culture from the ground up in an organization?

    Or… maybe our best shot is that we use that dissent from above as our common obstacle that we bond together in order to overcome (Andrew & Jenny talk a lot about the importance of obstacles to team bonding… think fraternity hazing)?

  4. Jayne Dickinson Avatar
    Jayne Dickinson

    I just loved your article… beautiful teams exists because every member is working for a common cause, all discussions are about what, how , why the goal is being achieved…there are no hidden agendas… mutual respect, mutual collaboration… no egos! It’s okay to fumble, because the team will help …that’s the point.
    I believe that a beautiful team is always built from the ground up…not the other way… sure we all would like to have a great leader guide us , mentor us…but is that viable day in and day out? No it’s viral, a beautiful team grows within a home, corporation, country… even global.
    We must remember to always look forward not back, since we grow because of our skills, relationships and experiences. If we never have new relationships how can we adapt?

    I could go on and on… thanks Abby!

  5. Abby, I answered your question about what the best team I worked on in a post on my blog, but it doesn’t seem to show up in your link-back area.

    As for whether a culture can be created on the ground, I have to say I’m a lot less optimistic about that than I was a year ago. I think a team can coalesce around the obstacles placed by management, but there is no reason for that to spread beyond the team to the organization. (Since I have to do a lot of team hopping, this is important to me.) And although I think a team can coalesce around an obstacle, I don’t think it has to. I don’t completely understand the chemistry around how it happens when it does.

    Even if it does coalesce (ha! used the word three times!), eventually the obstacles will smash the will of the team. I can immediately think of an example where a team gelled and grew together in a covert revolt, but after some time, the stress took so much away from producing that the whole house of cards fell apart.

    The best I can say is that I feel responsible on every team I’m on to do what I can to help communication and foster a sense of community, but I think there’s another catalyst needed. It’d be nice to know what exactly that is.

  6. Abby Fichtner Avatar
    Abby Fichtner

    Well, I think the secret to great teams is to have Jaynes on each of them, leading them to beauty! But, since, unfortunately there is only one of her to go around…

    Jayne, I feel encouraged to hear you say that beautiful teams are built from the ground up. So then maybe the question is how do we get the team members to care if it’s clear the company doesn’t foster or reward collaboration? And, in fact, when the company may be putting up obstacles that just get in the way of this – that, as Abbot says, can eventually smash the team apart.

    I suggested in response to Abbot’s great post (thank you, Abbot!) that maybe a hint might come from the book Flow which talks about how we can achieve our own, individual “optimal experiences” (my, doesn’t that sound cold?) through goals and well built challenges. Maybe it’s taking some of that and expanding it out to the team… but then, here’s what I keep coming back to…

    How do you create the shared goal without strong leadership??

  7. Beautiful blog post!

    i //so// agree about “best” practices, and use “good practices” instead when i talk, teach, facilitate, think, coach, learn about such things. i too have seen prescriptions thrust upon people (often in the form of templates) which quickly loose their original intent.

    agile is a facilitator/collaboration crazy chick’s dream (i’m speaking personally here 😉 Yet you’re right: many agile teams focus so much on the rituals and practices – all necessary and useful mechanics – and forgot about the //heart// of it all…the people, the beautiful team, the joy of being on a collaborating team.

    and, well, i think you know how i feel about collaboration! one of my beautiful teams was also broken up after we delivered…it was insane. But what a delight to work with these colleagues — hard, hard work but also lots and lots of fun!

    collaboration is something that does not come naturally in most teams, not w/o a tad of “collaboration engineering” (all is takes is one person to start, too).

    oh, and i loved your concluding reference to Soylent Green is both (very) funny and tragic… 😉

    ~ ellen

  8. Abby Fichtner Avatar
    Abby Fichtner

    Ellen, thank you!! I’m so happy you stopped by and thrilled that you liked the post. I was on your site trying to remember if you had a blog or not, I think you should start The Collaboration Crazy Chick Club 🙂 (I was going to say blog but then I realized a club would really be more appropriate…)

  9. Soylent Green?! There are still people old enough to remember that?! My eyes are rolling back in my head at the thought of that movie.

    The best teams that I’ve worked on were the ones where, like yours, there was a community focus, mutual respect for each others’ strengths, a willingness to call it like it is and the ability to communicate. Not surprising, at least to me, it was in a communications department packed with creativity, pride, passionate purpose and a unified goal for personal and departmental achievement.

    That was a long time ago, way back before the first gray hair even thought about making an appearance. I’ve been in IT ever since, and the level of dysfunction and refusal to collaborate still amazes me. I’m sure many can contest to the fact that it’s not like that everywhere, and I’ve had my fair share of pleasant coworkers and teams. The majority though, most especially right where I’m at, are mired in turf wars, arrogant self-satisfaction and paralyzing superiority complex.
    What a shame it is to see tons of really smart people lack the ability to achieve together, help one another and divide themselves due to what you targeted in on….a lack of respect for what others bring to the table.

    My drive to be an agent of change and collaboration is met with derision everyday, but I continue to churn away, because I really want to be part of a successful result. Breaking down barriers can be a beating, but the rewards are SO worth it.

    Thanks so much for this article and to Ellen for pointing me here.


  10. Fantastic post and great letters. The best team I was ever on professionally was in the division of Xerox that was attempting to commercialize the PARC innovations that lead to a huge amount of what we see today in our computers, such as the ethernet, the idea of a personal computer (the Alto), WYSIWIG (Bravo), Icons, a Desktop, even to some extent windows and mice. I got there just after Steve Jobs made his legendary visit to PARC and took what he learned there to create the LISA and later the Mac (see the movie). But the team was still hot for years after that. Brilliant people. A culture where people contributed innovations on their own to internal unmoderated publishing sites that were often taken into the product and pushed out to customers. We worked hard, we played hard, and many of us are still in contact with each other decades after the fact.

    Yes, the corporate culture at Xerox didn’t fully support it, and the overall product failed, but for me it was still a beautiful team, even a beautiful division (as odd as that sounds).

    It was hard living in the “normal” unbeautiful bureacracy at work. Almost worse to have experienced a great team than to have never experienced one. But I’d never trade it the pain of the loss for having been a few years a part of such a great group of people. And I’m not giving up hope that it can’t happen again.

    Something that has fueled that hope is the work of . Their Core Protocols offers a repeatable path to reproduce a beautiful and great team. I took one of their “bootcamps” in 2002, and got to experience that feeling again. Their protocols help team members be more fully present with their whole being, including their emotions. They help the team self-direct, not just self-organize. Feeling like you’re fully participating in the decisions and that you’re empowered to put in your best is critical for a great team. And very critically, their protocols help team members support each other. Each team member gets support from the whole team to get what they really want – in a way that is simple and makes sense. So you get a team where there is all-for-one and one-for-all.

    It worked, it has led to great teams each time. Beautiful teams form. And teams fall in love. Can you say that in the corporate world? Why not?

    Since the initial rush of experiencing it, I’ve more recently come to understand better why the Core Protocls work. The book Clear Leadership by Gervase Bushe helped me understand that since humans are sense making beings, the stories we create to describe our experience, when made poorly, can lead to what he calls “interpersonal mush” that gum up communications and trash collaboration. The idea of Appreciative Inquiry showed me that by focusing on Abraham Maslow style “Peak Experiences” in the stories told by individuals in an organization can help build better dreams, vision, and plans for change.

    From what I can tell, beauty isn’t just a matter of chance. There are things we can do. Thanks hackerchick for this blog post, and thanks to the great responses, and thanks to Andrew Stellman and Jenny Greene for their book. I can’t wait to read it. Will anyone who has any further hints on the trail towards great teams and beautiful teams send me a note. I seem to be having some success at my workplace, but help helps.

  11. I agree with just about everything in this blog post. I think the only addition I would make is that you can make a team beautiful or great on purpose with best practices: it just depends on the quality of the best practices you use. As Edward Tufte says, the quality of the content you provide is everything. Most of the time at work we are faced with poor quality of content or poorly designed content. As Harold said above, we’ve (Jim and I) run the experiment of creating beautiful teams enough times in simulation and in the real world, that we get repeatable results with The Core Protocols.

    And I do agree that a boss or board member can kill a great team. It is unfortunately true, and I have experienced it several times. The Core Protocols can be used by a team (for example) and that team begins to blossom and produce great stuff and one executive can stupidly kill it. Sometimes they are just stupid. Sometimes they are threatened. Sometimes they don’t like somebody involved. Sometimes they don’t like beautiful things. In almost every case, they don’t have a fully developed point of view on what leading teams means, and so they think they have to do “something” and that “something” involves telling people no or controlling what’s going on without understanding the consequences of trying to control groups of people.

    But the bottom line is that organizations reflect the people who are in charge of them. If that person does not intentionally want to create beauty in the organization that works for him or her, then it will not be beautiful.

    So, startups are a good chance at organic greatness because there is no handicapped boss killing beautiful things yet.

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    Hi Abby,

    Just stumbled here via Johanna Rothman’s MPD blog. Great post. It really resonated with me.

    It made me think about when friend of mine got promoted from developer/engineer to team leader. He asked me if I had any advice/suggestions. I thought about it for a while from my (developer) point of view … and I realised that all I really wanted from my manager was evidence that he cared about the team as people, as individuals. If I knew that he was looking out for my interests, not just his own and the company’s, then I would not hesitate to make personal sacrifices for him or the team.

    It also made me think of Ron Avitzur’s Graphing Calculator Story, which I love. I like to read it whenever I start feeling a bit jaded about being an engineer. I suppose I mentioned this because I was thinking about motivation.

    In his words: “I view the events as an experiment in subverting power structures. I had none of the traditional power over others that is inherent to the structure of corporations and bureaucracies. I had neither budget nor headcount. I answered to no one, and no one had to do anything I asked. Dozens of people collaborated spontaneously, motivated by loyalty, friendship, or the love of craftsmanship. We were hackers, creating something for the sheer joy of making it work.”


  13. I like the term “beautiful teams.” For about 30 years I have been focused almost exclusively on creating teams that are beautiful to me. I can think of no better descriptive phrase, at this stage. In general, the more love and accomplishment, the more beautiful.

    A few superlatives, additional terms/definitions or gradations might be useful:

    Beautiful teams:

    good teams (good=the attainment of the desirable)
    great teams (abundant goodness)
    magnificicent teams (abundant greatness)


  14. Abby Fichtner Avatar
    Abby Fichtner

    Thank you all so much for your wonderful comments! It is so awesome and inspiring to hear about other beautiful teams, and isn’t it amazing with how different everyone is that there are still so many similarities in our experiences?

    @Doug – I think that your “creativity, pride, passionate purpose and a unified goal for personal and departmental achievement” sprinkled with some of that elusive “mutual respect” sounds like the stuff of amazing teams.

    I’m sorry you haven’t had that experience lately. 🙁 I find myself feeling that way as well and wonder how we get it back. Is it that as we get older, our jobs stop being the center of our lives and we’re passionate about different things now? (I don’t think I believe that, but maybe?) Is it just that in this economy, we’re all bumped to the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy and so it’s hard to look beyond the basic needs of keeping our jobs? Sometimes I wonder…

  15. Abby Fichtner Avatar
    Abby Fichtner

    You all have me intrigued over the Core Protocols now, I’m taking a look at the Reading Materials for newbies on your wiki, is that the best place to start?

    And then a question, do you believe beautiful teams can be created from within? Or do they need a great leader above to guide them?

    @Jim I’m not seeing mention of Dynamics of Software Development on your site, but I read that book right about the time I was working on that beautiful team I described in my post. Before that, I’d been such a cowboy coder but the team and your book both made such an impact on me over the importance of teams. So, if the Core Protocols stem from any of that goodness then I definitely want to learn more. Thank you for the additional terms, I shall now strive for magnificent teams with abundant greatness.

    @harold I just want to bow down in an I’m not worthy right now. How amazing to have worked at PARC when PCs were just beginning (did you get to play with the Alto??). That sounds like an absolute dream. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into it – more inspiration for hacker goodness 🙂

    From what I can tell, beauty isn’t just a matter of chance. There are things we can do. I love it. AI sounds intriguing, looks like amazon has several books… is there one you’d recommend?

  16. Abby Fichtner Avatar
    Abby Fichtner

    @Michelle – thank you so much. There was an interesting comment in Andrew & Jenny’s presentation about how if you want to find passionate teams, look to the Open Source community. And then, look at the practices people who are passionate follow and see if you can’t adopt them on your own team. I thought this was a neat idea.

    organizations reflect the people who are in charge of themI think this is so true. Abbot and I have seen this first hand working at an organization led by one of the most beautiful people ever… and then seen what happened we lost that person and got bought by a new company, with a very very different outlook.

    @dd – I think your advice so nails it. Sometimes I wonder if we are all a little silly in that something seemingly so small can make such a difference. But it is so true. And thank you for the story.

  17. Abby, I haven’t read the book, but your post brought a couple of things to mind.

    You mentioned the role of the people in charge specifically in fostering a beautiful team, but that can really be generalized to management fostering any “good thing” in an organization – from beautiful teams that work well together to customer service in a retail organization. There are really three general scenarios with various hybrids: (1) management facilitates “good things” (2) management leaves a vacuum that allows “good things” or “bad things” to occur independent of management and (3) management provides obstacles to “good things”.

    On the customer service side of things, a couple of examples come to mind. Whenever I go to any Safeway supermarket, the customer service has always been top notch, and they are always very helpful. This happens no matter which Safeway store I go into. It’s clear that this is fostered from the top down. Ever eat at a Chick-fil-A (I have kids)? Same story.

    Over the years I have eaten at Friendlys restaurants. The customer experience can range from great to miserable. It is clear that management at the top levels has left a vacuum, and the experience will vary based on what people are doing at lower levels. You can get great customer service, but it is unpredictable.

    In my organization, there is a bit of a hybrid. There is predominantly a vacuum, with an occasional obstacle. For example, I had to fight to get a whiteboard in a common area for collaboration because there were concerns about the aesthetics of the office. The initial response was to have people use the whiteboards in the closed offices, but most team members are in cubes. The final resolution was to allow small whiteboards that were hung low enough so that they could not be seen over the cubicles (not very easy to write on). But on the flip side, no one from the top is dictating any coding standards.

    The nice thing about the vacuum is having the ability to define how an organization should be. In my role, I have ultimate responsibility for the group, and it can be a challenge at times to guide the team toward consistent and reliable results. I’m hoping that this book might provide some food for thought.

    With regard to best practices and rules, I’m interested in hearing some of the best practices that have been thrust upon you that you found to be cumbersome. How far up the chain did these originate?

    I’m a firm believer in the benefits of standardization to some degree, with the ability to change that standardization if it makes sense. I think having standard frameworks can help provide developers a common understanding of modules that they are not familiar with.

    Standardization can mean a lot of things, so let me expand with an example. If you think back to your C++ days (before you had Java and JDBC), I was involved in creating a set of C++ classes to manage database connections and database calls (I’m sure we all were back in those days). The classes had special features for transaction management and handling deadlocks. It made no sense for someone not to use those classes in their C++ programs for database access. We also had a standard application framework where all C++ applications had an application class that was inherited from a common application class, and the classes allowed for some common application initialization. These bits of framework were helpful because everyone had a basic understanding of all of the programs – how the programs initialized, how they performed logging and how they accessed the database. We even had a standard GUI framework where all forms were inherited from a common form. I thought it was great, but new people on the team had trouble initially understanding the benefit.

    On the other hand, I had an architect that tried to dictate that the open brace should be on a line by itself, and not on the same line as the “if” statement. I didn’t find a whole lot of value with that.

    Some of the comments above discuss having management allow a team to determine their own best prac

  18. Wow, the conversation continues beautifully.

    @abby Interesting, I often felt unworthy around some of the wizards and gurus in and around PARC, but they weren’t the beautiful part. The beautiful part, for me, were the very bright people who were passionate about making the computer work for humans, rather than making humans work for the computer. It taught me some good religion. I still detest computer elitism from my early exposure to the beanbag playground culture at PARC.

    For books about Appreciative Inquiry, I’ve been given a lot of recommendations from the person who turned me onto it. I ended up starting with a short book by David Cooperrider & Diana Whitney. It was a good introduction, but it didn’t give a “how to”. For that I went to the Appreciative Inquiry Handbook.

    @abby I would have responded to your questions sooner, but I was at Leadership in a Self-Organizing World. We weren’t a product team, but I definitely experienced a lot of beauty there, and I can tell there were a lot of beautiful teams represented. A lot of what I really enjoyed being in Jim & Michele’s The Core Protocols is partially recreated when I use the Open Space Technology unconference methodology that was used at the conference I was at over the weekend.

    Harrison Owen spoke at the conference. He was the one who discovered Open Space Technology, described in his book. Something he said at the conference clicked for me why the Core Protocols work so well. They both support the freedom people need to follow their passion and what they love. Slaves are not going to be artists, not when they are working as slaves anyway. And that means wage slaves too.

  19. Tobias Mayer Avatar
    Tobias Mayer

    Beautiful teams… beautiful post. I have just discovered your blog and I really like it. Great. thought-provoking writing. The best team I ever worked on had respect in spades. I hadn’t really thought about that as being a key ingredient, but I think it was. The other key for me (and you described it exactly) is passion. We have to love what we do, and we have to love the people e work with. Then we create beauty.

  20. Abby Fichtner Avatar
    Abby Fichtner


    Thank you so much! Nothing is better then creating that beauty.

    Your Unearthing Impediments by Doing Less really resonated with me as well. I think I’m starting to dig this twitter thing for finding like souls after all…

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