Blog Post: Are You Adding To Your Team’s Debt?

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Back during the height of his acting power, Russell Crowe starred in Gladiator. For my money, it’s one of those red-blooded male movies impossible to knock on pure action. It was made right when high quality televisions were starting to hit the market, so the opening scene where Rome slaughters the barbarian Germans will always stand out in my mind. As Crowe is about to lead his men into battle, he utters this promise:

“If you find yourself fighting alone in a field of green grass…do not be frightened for you are in Elysium and you’re already dead.”

Much as we all chuckled along with the troops at that reference, we all have been there. You took it upon yourself to find a way around the UX problem found during user testing. Maybe you thought of a tweak to a requirement while trying to follow asleep. Even better, you were inspired by thumbing through periodicals at your local bookstore (let’s be honest, you were doing it on your iPad) and wanted to put together the design you were sure to win an award with.

Problem was, without knowing it you might have entered a vacuum and forgotten the people necessary for your masterpiece. Your team.

This is not to besmirch those that burn the midnight oil to reach for new heights fueled purely by your passion. Some amazing ideas have been crafted at home and have been shown to my teams during standup the next morning. Difference being, they communicated before, during and after their fit if inspiration hits. 

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That was a tweet I read this morning that got me thinking: cowboy coders aren’t the only people guilty of solo-programming. Biz dev can go off on their own to make promises their team can’t deliver. Designers could be implementing a feature the development team can’t actually code. Development may be building an incredible amount of technical debt by trying to jam something in. All of this could be built around features that were poorly thought out with little validation from stakeholders.

In this instance, “technical debt” could be renamed “team debt”.

As much as we like to applaud the amazing individual efforts of the high performers around us, we have to be careful that we don’t encourage cowboys who run off on their own. That’s when you look up with a mountain of extra work because we weren’t willing to huddle regularly and share what we are working on. I have a team that checks in multiple times during the day with each other.

For you Pomodoro Technique fans out there, I am not suggesting we get rid of our heads down time to be productive. The same team members that check in with each other also want to be left alone for stretches. During “quiet time”, sharing occurs electronically in amazing tools like BaseCamp, HipChat, and CampFire to validate while respecting others around us. Collaboration doesn’t have to be noisy.

What we avoid now will save your skin once you are nearing the end of your release. Think of your team debt as the line Crowe delivers next in the scene:

“Brothers, what we do now…echoes for eternity.”

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