The Keys to a Successful Software Team: An Interview with Andy Kaufman


In this interview, Andy Kaufman, the founder of the Institute for Leadership Excellence & Development, explains why team chemistry is often an afterthought, how enthusiasm can often trump skill, and how to deal with conflict.

Josiah: Welcome back to another TechWell interview. Today I'm joined by Andy Kaufman, the founder of the Institute for Leadership Excellence & Development, and a keynote speaker at Better Software East. Andy, thank you very much for joining us today.

Andy: Hey man, it's my pleasure. Thanks, Josiah.

Josiah: Absolutely. First, before we really dig into the meat of your keynote, could you tell us a bit about your experience in the industry?

Andy: Yeah, yeah, sure. I started as a software developer, so even to this day, I'm a geek at heart, and was into stock and commodity trading. And my first week on the job, someone shoves a book of code in front of me, goes, "You're on call tonight," and I'm like, "What?" I learned pretty quickly that everything I learned in college about software was maybe a little bit different, but moved into doing software for doctors' offices, and eventually got into data warehousing and big data. My background is tech, and it's on the softer development side of it.

Josiah: A lot of your keynote is about team-building, about project success. If building a team that works together is so valuable to a project's success, why does it so often feel like chemistry is kind of an afterthought?

Andy: Yeah. Actually, that's a really good question, because I've seen examples where chemistry was an afterthought, and I saw an issue where—I've seen plenty of issues where chemistry was the primary thing that people interviewed on. They're interviewing on, "Yeah, I could see myself working with her, or him, or whatever." This is what I learned from a mentor, and I'll tell you, Josiah, this has served me very well. He said it this way: "There's character, there's competence, and there's chemistry." What I like about that is I tended to maybe be on the other end of your question, and that is, I would interview on chemistry of like, "Yeah, I think they could fit in really well here."

I've seen it where—I certainly have done it, but I've seen other people do this as well—that we interview on competence, like, "Oh man, the person's a stud. They are going to be great at this," but we forget about the other ones, and so the mentor that taught me this was, his point was, you have to interview character first. His point on that one, for example, listen during an interview, how do they talk about the people on their team at their last job? Do they tend to be somebody who points fingers and blames other people? Do they seem to be somebody that takes responsibility?

If they don't make it through that test, it doesn't matter the rest, but let's say they seem like a person of character based on how they talk there. Certainly, you have to look at competence for sure, but there's an element of which you can also train some of the competence. You know? Keep that in mind, but that chemistry part, don't lead with it, because like you said, you can't forget it, but it's part of that trifecta there between the three of them.

Josiah: Let's say if we're talking about basketball teams, let’s look at the Houston Rockets last year, where they have some of the best players, where they should be one of the best teams in the league, but the chemistry didn't work, the team didn't blend together. In sports, that's one way to look at it. But you've worked with many different types of teams throughout your career, so is there anything in particular about software teams that you've noticed to be different, that you've noticed maybe you have to organize them a different way?

Andy: Yeah, there's always uniqueness, I suppose, but this is the interesting thing. Having grown up on the software side, and now I work with organizations like, this morning I had a keynote with United Nations, so we had people from all these different countries, and some of them are trying to reduce violence. There's a scale of project that I would never normally work on there, and I work with small teams, just lots of different teams. I guess I always thought software was different because I grew up there. Here's what I'm finding overall, and I suppose it could spill into your sports team analogy there as well, but I guess these are the struggles I seem to find across types of teams regardless of industry, is there's this clarity on what is needed, or there's dealing with the pace of change.

I fought that all the time on the software side, the technology's changing, but I teach an MBA class and I have, it's a health care MBA, and it's a project class, but it's a health care MBA focus, and an oncologist in the class, I think he's been practicing for no more than fifteen years, he told me, "Everything I learned in med school is irrelevant." I'm sure that's an exaggeration, but his point is he's seen the pace of change there, so the clarity and roles responsibilities, and more work to do than people do it. I felt that on the software side. I think a lot of people do. It's things like challenging stakeholders, changing priorities, but honestly, I'm seeing that everywhere now, Josiah.

I think the common thread that certainly is there through software, but I see it elsewhere now is that it's the people side of our work. It's what makes it the most challenging, but a CIO told it to me this way, he goes, I was leading a panel discussion and I asked him, "What are some of your greatest joys in your role over the years?" And he goes, "The source of the greatest joys is the same as the greatest pains. It's people." I think that's often kind of at least at a root of some of these challenges. Yeah.

Josiah: Speaking of people, what have you found to be some of the causes of the lingering tensions and anxieties that can lessen a team's effectiveness, and the bigger question, of course, how can you ease some of these tensions and anxieties that might break a team apart?

Andy: Yeah, you can't pass out medication, so that option's not going to work. We'll talk about it in the keynote, but one of the things that comes to teams is often talked about is Tuckman's theory of teams. Though people may not recognize it by that name, it's the thing that, it's the notion that teams go from form, storm, norm, perform, and so the idea is that the teams are going to form. The thing I like about the model, even though maybe it oversimplifies things, is that it doesn't matter whether you're a good team leader, or a bad team leader, there's going to be some storm, there's going to be some storm, so there's going to be some of those tensions and anxieties. Especially when a team first gets together. Clarity is often the thing that helps us get out of a storm. What are roles and responsibilities, and understanding the why behind. Why are we doing this project, why am I on this team, the why is often a big part of that.

I have to say, some of the lingering tensions and anxieties, it often has to do with the leader of the team. You could argue in many ways that everything rises and falls on leadership. Whether it's one person, or we're really trying to do shared leadership on the team, but things rise and fall on it. For example, here's just one idea. This will be unpacked further in the keynote, but how does the leader deal with conflicting opinions? Because if they ignore the conflicting opinions, if they're not open to contrary ideas, approaches, or if they don't deal with conflict well, I'm telling you, that will cause lingering tensions, and so one of the ideas that we'll talk about in the keynote is that if you don't have some conflict, and one of the guys that interviewed on another podcast, Michael Roberto, he calls it cognitive conflict versus affective conflict. He's an academic, which is why he uses terms like that.

The point is cognitive conflict is you and I arguing about what's the best fantasy play this weekend. It's not arguing. It's really wrestling with the idea. It's really trying to understand, or on the context of a team, it's listen, this approach has these sorts of tradeoffs. What about this approach? That's conflict, but if the person leading the team is just like, "No, no, no. All right, enough. Just this is the deal. Just do this," then that will cause some of these lingering tensions and anxieties. Being open to conflicting opinions, keeping the conflict cognitive, in fact, encouraging it, provoking it maybe even, but if it goes to affective, this is where it goes over the line of respect and things like that.

I guess the last thing that comes to mind is accountability. Does the leader encourage? Do they keep themselves accountable? Do we keep each other accountable? If there's no accountability, I'm telling you, after awhile, it just sucks the life out of a team.

Josiah: Conflict is so fascinating in this way, because so often you can spot issues in a team, but people just won't bring it up, because there's this fear that once you bring it up and it's out in the open, you might actually tear the team apart if you don't effectively address the conflict. Have you seen that? Have you seen people that are afraid to even broach an issue, because they could maybe irreversibly destroy kind of the camaraderie among the team?

Andy: Oh yeah. No doubt about it. One project leader at a major airline told me this way. She goes, "No one ever wants to look at the five year cost of this project," because it is a massive project. She goes, "They only want to look at the one year cost." She goes, "I think it's because if they looked at the five year, that they'd be like, we're idiots. Why are we even doing this?" It was like this risk that you want to raise your hand on, but you know if you raise your hand on, you're going to look like you're being Danny Downer, Debbie Downer, or not being a team player. There's some great risk-management, risk-identification strategies to help with this. The Delphi technique, or the nominal group technique where people, you don't have to raise your hand, you can just put it on post-it notes. These are things, risks that I see, but you don't have to raise your hand for, and so it's done more anonymously, so those are things that can help.

This issue of camaraderie is interesting, because if it's an issue with one person on the team, then it's our responsibility, if we're leading the team, to go and deal with it with that one person, but if it's an entire team, whether it's risk, or conflict, or just something that's just not working, it's just something's not working, I guess the model I like best on that one Josiah, is version of the retrospective, that this is something we shouldn't just do at the end of a sprint, or at the end of a project.

The idea of that is, "Hey, as a team, how are we doing? What is going well?" I like to do this on a quarterly basis with teams that I lead, regardless of if it's at the end of a project, or it's some sort of milestone. Just sit back and say, "all right, real quick, what's going well? What is it that's ..." That basic idea, I guess the key on that one is that if the team members feel like they're part of the identification of the problem, and part of the solution, it really works, but if I'm like, "Hey, I, me, me, me, I'm the leader, I have all the answers," that's not going to work, because none of us are smart enough to get that figured out. Engaging them in making sure the problems are identified, but also owning the solution too, big deal.

Josiah: Yeah, we talked about skill earlier, and being competent, and having chemistry, but I think something that people don't always think about is enthusiasm. In your mind, are commitment and enthusiasm maybe even more important than those other things, because like you said, we can teach some of that competency, some of that skill. Some of that stuff you can help people with, but you can't really teach someone to be enthusiastic about something, or to be inherently enthusiastic, so in your mind, are commitment and enthusiasm maybe even above skill?

Andy: Yeah, but you know, here's the interesting this is you can't force commitment and enthusiasm. I had a real interesting discussion, the name of her book was Performance Breakthrough, and Cathy Salit. She makes kind of a bold, and I'm not so sure scientific assertion, that there's no such thing as introversion and extroversion. This is what she meant by it, is you get the most introverted person talking about something that they really care about with one of their best friends, they're going to act extroverted. I thought, "Isn't it brilliant in some ways?" It's not are you in this box or that box, you're either an enthusiastic person, or a committed person, or not. What you are, is someone who's really bought into this.

There's all kinds of factors, and some of this we'll get into in the keynote, but if I had to just seed a little thought, and if someone listened this far into the interview and they go off and do a little research on their own, there's a model called scarf, S-C-A-R-F, scarf by David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute. Basically it stands for different things, but here's just here's two of them, the S stands for status. When people feel like their status is lowered, like I'm not important, they're not as engaged. Who's enthusiastic when they feel like they're a pee on. When people are given responsibility, they feel like they're valued and they're listened to, that's status.

The C is certainty. Do I know where we're going? If a team member's like, "I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing here," or "My roles and responsibilities keep changing, so I'm much more enthusiastic when I have an idea where we're going on this thing." Anyway, scarf has much more on things like autonomy, and do I feel like I'm in the in-group, the relatedness, and do things seem fair, but my point on this one is if I'm leading a team, and people are not feeling very committed, and enthusiastic, I could say, "What a bunch of losers," or I could say, "What am I doing to not set the conditions under which they want to feel that way?"

I can't force them to be that, and if every morning I'm like, "Okay, let's have a team hug," they might be like, "Give me a break," but what can I do to set the conditions in which they feel like they're really valued. There's certainty, they feel like they have choices here, that they feel like they're part of the in-group, that things are being done fairly. That one model, I got to tell you, Josiah, well maybe a week goes by where I don't refer to that model, but I found that it's really helpful.

Josiah: Yeah, and you're going to be talking about a lot of teams like that at your keynote.

Andy: Absolutely.

Josiah: You're going to kind of be asking people there to think about the best teams they've been a part of, and what made it great, and so let me flip that on you personally. What's the best team you've ever been a part of, and what made it great?

Andy: Yeah, oh man, that's a great question. I've actually, I feel very blessed in this regard, that I've been on some really, really good teams, so it's not like just this one, but one that does come to mind, it's when I worked for AC Nielsen for many years, and they come to mind because to this day, if you talk to anybody from that team, they kind of wax out wax eloquent about those days too. We were doing decision support software on top of Nielsen's amazing data warehouse, but I would say some of the factors, great skills. There wasn't a single person there that we were like, "Oh man, we have to carry the load for that person." They were bought into the mission, it was really interesting work, and though, not necessarily best friends, we were friends and we had strong social bonds, and so that was good, but I would say overall, there was this commitment level to the cause that we were all, like I didn't have to say, "Hey would you work this weekend?" People would just do it. People were really bought in. That was easily one of my favorites.

Josiah: All right, great. I don't want to give away too much more of your keynote. I do appreciate your time again, Andy, but kind of to put everything into focus here, more than anything, what central message do you want to leave with the audience? What's kind of the lingering thing you want to leave them with as you walk off the stage?

Andy: As far as that keynote, it's develop a great team, you will do great things. I think it was Donald Rumsfeld who had the quote something along the lines of, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want to have," and I think sometimes people go, "Man, I'd love to have a great team. I wish we could hire, I wish I could get rid of these people," but here's the deal, you've got the army that you have. Use your leadership skills to develop the team that you have, and if you do that, you're going to do great things.

Josiah: All right, great. I really do appreciate that ending. That's great advice, and I'm looking forward to hearing more from you at the full keynote.

Andy: That would be great man. Nice talking to you, Josiah. See you.

Andy KAndy Kaufman started his career as a software developer and was promoted into management for all the wrong reasons. After learning many lessons on his path from front-line manager to senior executive, Andy founded the Institute for Leadership Excellence & Development Inc. He is now an international speaker, author of three books, a certified trainer, and executive coach, focused on helping people learn how to lead more effectively and deliver more reliably. He is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP®) and the  host of The People and Projects Podcast which provides interviews and insights to help listeners lead people and deliver projects.

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