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High-performance Teams – Avoiding Teamicide

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Steven Denning recently wrote a series of articles about high performance teams; the type of teams that Agile organisations need to encourage to be effective. 

According to Demming, “high-performance teams constitute only 2% of all teams in the workplace”, however he states that

"When the management practices are right, then you have lots of them. That has happened in Toyota & Honda, and in software development. How much is "lots"? Hard to say precisely. Toyota/Honda constitute about a quarter of the car industry. In software, perhaps a third of all software development is now done in various variants of self-organizing teams, under the labels "Agile", "Scrum" or "XP", and many of these progress to become high-performance teams."

Formation of High-performance Teams

He provides some advice on the formation of high-performance teams:

We know that high performance groups emerge when the members take ownership for the well-being of a whole group. We see various signs of this higher level of engagement. Members consider themselves responsible for assuring the group’s success. They become willing to do whatever is necessary for the group to become exceptionally successful. They do so in a spirit of giving and generosity and a belief in doing something special or intrinsically worthwhile, rather than something done as a result of bargaining or self-interest or calculation or obligation. They accept accountability for the outcome of the group’s activities.

In a high-engagement group, the ownership of the group is not limited to the hierarchical leader or a few people at the top. A group becomes fully engaged when every member becomes an owner with a sense of shared responsibility and accountability for the accomplishment of the mission of the group.

High performance groups emerge when people have the courage to make commitments to co-create a new and different future.

He further discusses the role of the manager and the importance of self-organisation to enable high-performance team formation.

However most of the high-performance teams were not manager-led teams. They were teams where the management had deliberately stepped back, or was inattentive or where one reason or another was totally absent, thus enabling the team to self-organize. It’s as though there was a tear in the fabric of the universe, an open space that was created, and lo and behold, the self-organizing team emerged.

What generates the energy and passion of self-organizing teams, and their eventual high productivity, is that the members enjoy the opportunity to organize their own work and contribute their full human potential to the collectivity, rather than being limited to what the organization thinks it can absorb, and only at those moments when it is ready to absorb it.


Denning debunks the popular management myth that high-performance teams are fragile and short lived, prone to self-desctuction  – the reality is such teams are often the victim of management practices that result in what Tom Demarco & Tim Lister refer to as teamicide

He refers to management attitudes that kill high-performance teams:

  • Sometimes it’s murder—death by intent to kill: high-performance teams often achieve what they achieve by breaking the rules of the prevailing corporate culture. Managers can feel threatened and so they disband them, in order to preserve the status quo.
  • Sometimes it’s manslaughter—death by negligence: the management doesn’t understand the high-performance team or its mode of operation and so it does things that unintentionally eliminate high-performance, e.g. moving members of a high-performance team to other teams, ostensibly with the goal of creating more high performance teams but typically with the result of eliminating any high performance.

Employing for High-performance Teams

Denning is far from the only commentator talking about  the importance of high-performance teams in these turbulent times; at the recent CeBit show in Sydney Ominlab Media's Stefan Gillard gave his perspective on leadership attitudes needed to select people who will form high-performance teams in creative industries:

  1. Be clear about the leader’s role – creating and conveying the vision of success, leaving the details to the team.  “I really don’t care of the types or forms of vendors I work with, the types of systems I design, the process that is created to deliver what I do. I’m about delivering business value. It’s my role to deliver a business outcome”
  2. Hire people who you know, or who people on the team know. “The reason behind that is the known quantity. People who have to build a new team often use recruiters and try to express what they are trying to achieve, but it is a step removed from the team that is actually physically going to do the work”
  3. Ask strange questions when recruiting – understand their career aspirations and personal goals, select people who are planning their careers with a long-term view. “What that also does is put the candidate on the back foot If they can’t think of a response to that question then that’d a flashing light that this person hasn’t thought of where they are going in their career, maybe this isn’t something serious for them.” 
  4. Use the Force – ask “if you were a Star Wars character, who would you be, and why?”  He states “If someone says they are R2D2 then I probably have a pretty good engineer on my hands and someone can get a job done and not feel the politics of a place. If I have someone more personable, like a Chewbacca or a C3PO, then I have someone who is more amiable and who can bring about team functional effectiveness.”
  5. Let the team make the final choice – the people who the candidate will work with must want to work with them. “We have a process called Running the Gauntlet in which the final interview for a person, no matter how senior, is with the juniors in the team. If the juniors come back to me and say they don’t like his style, he wasn’t willing to respond to my question about how they have developed people in the past, then they don’t get a wave through”
  6. Select for the right mix of skills – map out the skills you need and select people for their skills, not their job title.  “What skills, what the succession plan is, and how you are going to make yourself redundant in a short period of time – there is a finite window of where your involvement [in the project] will take place”
  7. Make yourself redundant – the leader must be able to back away from the team and know they have a concrete understanding of the goals and objectives they’re aiming to achieve and have the support they need to get the job done.  “By having core, key measurements in place on how we deliver business value on a project up to the hand over point.”

How do organisations create high-performance teams, can they be created or do they only emerge naturally?  Which management attitudes and approaches work, and which don’t?

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