Many people who've never seen high-performing teams in action (I mean genuinely high-performing, not just the ones who self-claim they are ...), assume that all that you need to form such a team is:

  • assign them a mission (they could identify with)
  • grant them a sufficient level of autonomy
  • make sure that everyone has a correct mindset (e.g., high bias for action)
  • assure a necessary level of diversity of viewpoints and ...

... well, just wait - magic is going to happen just by itself.

But real life is not a fairy tale. For a bunch of reasons, this approach does not work. Consistently. Smart people & autonomy are not enough without real accountability - why so?

First of all, good intentions do not work. And no one has made it more clear than Jeff Bezos himself:

"When you are asking for good intentions, you are not asking for a change, because people already had good intentions. But if good intentions don't work, what does? Mechanisms work."

Mechanisms > intentions

One has to amplify good intentions (& the moments of occasional inspiration) with mechanisms that turn them into habits. The mechanism doesn't necessarily mean 100% automation or opinionated software to impose a full-blown workflow on you. It may be as simple as a checkbox, an additional step in a process, a new information radiator, or a weekly review meeting. What makes it a "mechanism" is the iron discipline of execution. It doesn't happen because someone has to remember about it - it's there because of ruthless automation, adjusted configuration/template, or an updated calendar invite.

But wait, more than just a bunch of mechanisms is needed (to build a high-performing team).

Have you heard about a phenomenon called the Hawthorne Effect? You can read about it here in detail, but the short story is:

People do adjust their behavior if they are aware there's someone else observing them.

It's nothing new; there's even a very old Polish adage - "pańskie oko konia tuczy" (in Eng.: "the eye of the master makes the horse fat"), which basically says the very same thing. But wait, isn't that contradictory to common truths that have become very popular in the IT industry? For instance:

"Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done." (ref.: Agile Manifesto)

Isn't inspection yet another form of micro-management? An attempt by poor managers to justify the existence of their job positions? Nope. Well, you know what they say - every good idea can be twisted if bad intentions are present, but ...

On motivation

There are tons of learning materials (both online & offline) on motivation. For some reason, authors tend to focus on positive motivation (what encourages us, drives us, and gives us energy to push forward). But there's also the other side of the equation - the negative motivation: what discourages us, sucks the energy out of us, and adds friction that gradually slows us down to a halt.

IM(NS)HO, there are very few demotivators that are more destructive than indifference. It doesn't really matter that the product vision resonates with you personally, that you're at the perfect equilibrium between the comfort (of knowing) & the discomfort (of learning), and that there are no technical obstacles to make your life miserable, if ... no-one cares for what you're building (and/or how you're building it):

  • No one inspects the outcome and shares feedback (on different levels, from tech intricacies to UX).
  • No one recognizes where you've gone beyond and added something extra, but also, no one candidly points out shortages & shortcomings.
  • There's no one to transparently & honestly verify your commitments - did you deliver what you were accountable for?
  • No folks are interested in your learnings - stuff that you grasped on the way, that may also be relevant to them (as individuals, a team, or an organization).
  • Last but not least - there's no one to remind you vividly of the real outcome of what you've built: did it make any difference? Moved any needle? Helped someone achieve anything?

The Hawthorne effect is out there, and it's REAL. We, humans, have an inner compass that drives us towards the highest ROI (for ourselves) - if we see that something doesn't matter (in practice, as declarations may differ ...), we intuitively stop caring about it, even if we instinctively feel it SHOULD matter.

We like to know someone cares (for real) for what we do. Not because they want to catch us red-handed (when we've screwed up something), but because it means that what we do TRULY MATTERS. Yes, it adds some stress. Yes, it triggers (constructive) conflicts. And yes, there may be critical feedback that could be hard to swallow. But in the end, that's necessary to make us stronger, better, and more determined.

And without that inconvenience, you can't build a high-performing team. Greatness is not carved with convenience, complacency, or indifference.

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