I once worked with a number of different teams at a particular fast-growing start-up company. The projects were intense and challenging, with many technical alternatives to consider, many feature decisions to make. One particular project stands out in my mind because of one team member and his ultimate influence on the project team’s decisions.
“Steve” was a senior engineer with the project. He’d been around since the early days of the company. Frankly he could be a bit hard to be around. He was very opinionated, very forceful in his communication; some thought he was a troublemaker. But he knew the products inside and out. Beyond that, he cared about the business itself : what the company was trying to achieve through all their technical projects. When he sat in a team meeting or investigated design alternatives, he brought both sets of knowledge to the table. I can remember sitting in meetings with him where he just blew other team members away. He continually challenged assumptions about the project. Just because management thought the product should have feature A and B, this guy didn’t necessarily buy it. He knew something about the customers, too, and didn’t hesitate to assert his opinion about what they needed. I watched him take on the CTO and head of Marketing several times : he was passionate about getting the customer the right product at the right time and cost.
Steve also had a keen eye for technical risks and made sure they got intense scrutiny before anyone committed to including them in the project. He understood what the technology could do and had innovative ideas for product design, but he put considerable effort into balancing the technical capabilities with pragmatism about project risk. Needless to say, project managers wanted him on their teams.
Steve also took considerable initiative to bring new ways of working to his projects. Just because they’d “always done it this way”, no process or methodology was sacred. For example, as the company’s custom integrated circuit capability developed, Steve suggested new ways of approaching the design process and new ways to use the tools, to help get projects completed quickly with high yields.
So ultimately where did Steve’s influence come from? It had nothing to do with any job title or position. His influence resulted from the strength of his multi-faceted contributions to the project team, the information they needed, and the decisions they made with that information:
- He demonstrated detailed, practical technical knowledge of the technology and the company’s products.
- He showed appreciation of customer needs and considered the business ramifications of project decisions.
- He brought experience and judgment from previous projects into each new project, doing whatever he could to make the effort go well.
- He took the initiative to suggest new and better ways of doing things.
The result? He had the ear of team members and decision makers. They listened to his opinions, they sought his advice, they depended on his judgment. I personally wanted his discerning mind, rich experience, and strong opinions on my projects. He wasn’t Superman; and remember, above I said I had initially almost written him off as “way too hard to deal with.” He wasn’t always right; he COULD seem hard to work with because he could be very abrupt and abrasive in his delivery, aggressive in his communication – although out of passion for what he felt to be right, not out of some desire to be difficult! But by virtue of his contributions to both technical product development and to the good of the company’s overall business, he was very valuable to me and others, and therefore very influential. He was a key element in teamwork – team decision-making – that produced a good result for the project.
So I maintain that one of the most important things we can do to achieve great teamwork on our projects is to make sure each individual understands the contributions they can make – of information, opinions, insight, passion, and drive for what’s right. And we can be willing to work with them even if they have different personalities or approaches.. that’s our part of the teamwork effect. I think it’s the individual contributions put into actoin to lead to truly great teams.