Rants, rambles, news and notes from another geek

Heroes and Villains

Recently I was involved in a discussion of teams and roles and whether the ‘hero model’ is healthy.

In general parlance, the hero model is one where we encourage people to be superstars, to stand out, and to save the day. This is a common model in many companies and many people attribute individual compensation models as being the culprit.

Here is how the thinking goes. When you recognize and reward people for standout, rock-star, save-the-day behaviors, what you are really doing is rewarding people for not being team players. Or perhaps they are team players, but they are on a team that is more like a figure skating team than a basketball team. On a figure skating team, each person is individually judged and the scores are combined to create the team score. The ‘team’ doesn’t actually work together to achieve their final score.

A basketball team, however, doesn’t work this way. It is more like a machine where each moving part tightly meshes with the other pieces in the system. When one part fails or under performs, the entire team fails or under performs. As the old saying goes, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Most agile-minded folks like the idea of basketball teams and don’t really like the idea of figure skating teams. Most agilists will talk about teams as if they are organisms. They will use metaphors like family, system, machine, and others, that show how the parts are all working together. Many non-agile folks will talk about team members as resources and describe the team in language that make it sound like the component parts are replaceable and interchangeable.

Now, lets get back to the idea of Heroes. The gymnastics team loves heroes. In fact, they depend on heroes. The team may all be made up of heroes in the ideal case, but there is always the poor schmuck who doesn’t have a good day, who falls, or who gets hit in the kneecap by an opponent’s boyfriend.

Let’s look at that a bit closer. The opponent in the famous kneecap case was a fellow team member. Was a Hero. She was heralded, along with the kneecapped skater, as one of the next great skating Heroes of her generation. But I would propose, and most would agree, that she was not a Hero. She wasn’t one before the kneecapping and she obviously wasn’t one after the kneecapping. She was a Villain.

If you think back to your comic book lore, there are some interesting characteristics of Heroes and Villains. Heroes are almost always reluctant. They don’t want to have to do what they want to do. For the most part, they just want to be regular folks. They don’t want to be different, or shining; they want to be just like everyone else. They’d rather be on the team of humanity than outside it.

Villains in the other hand love to light up. Love to be noticed and get attention. In fact, for most of them, that is their number one goal. They will engineer situations to get attention, to look better than the other guy and.. to get paid.

So here’s my assertion as it related to software development teams: The Hero Model doesn’t exist. What does exist is more properly named the Villain Model. Organizations that recognize, reward and encourage people to stand-out will create a system on Villains. We are engineers, and it is our nature to want to hack our way around obstacles to success. It is what we do. Presented with a system like we’re discussing here, some folks will eventually figure out that to ‘get ahead’ you have to compete with your team members. You have to stand-out, be a Hero, save-the-day, get the bonus, the gold star, the promotion.

But as I said, when you set out to be a Hero, you are almost always a Villain! You will go after the best projects, leaving the trash for others. You’ll sign up for the best work items, leaving the bugs for lesser mortals. You’ll avoid pair programming, because that is sharing the glory. You’ll try to ‘own’ key pieces of the system to protect your asset base. Some people, as we have seen in the figure skating story, will actually attempt to undermine their competitors by kneecapping them. Remember, Heroes are reluctant.

So… are you in an organization that rewards kneecapping villains? Are you a kneecapper yourself? If you aren’t, do you know who is?