I was in my brother-in-law’s office the other day. He’s a former Marine and on the walls of his office are various and sundry decorations and plaques. They’re on the walls in his office, the hallways, the garage, the bedroom – in short, they are everywhere. I’ve seen it all before and in my ignorance all I thought was, “Military dude” and never gave it another thought.
This day was different though. As I looked at the plaques I saw for the first time the same name repeated over and over, it was the company he belonged to (or some such military beast – I’ll confess my ignorance of all things military up front). In addition to the name of the group he was part of, many of the plaques contained the signatures of the members of that group. It reminded me a bit of a high school yearbook, signed by all your buddies. At that point it hit me – this guy was part of a really tight team.
Bear with me here – I know that last sentence sounds like one of the all time great statements of the obvious (hey, everybody has a super power – stating the obvious seems to be mine). Here’s my point: great teams tag their members. I get the term “tag” from John Holland (Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity). In his book, he describes the essential characteristics of complex systems in nature. Frankly, a lot of it is over my head. But there is one part that discusses the ability of actors in a complex system to “tag” one another. He describes this property of tagging as critical for complex adaptive systems. Tagging enables them to discern important differences and to create order out of chaos. Teams are chaotic. Software teams are *really* chaotic. Last time I checked (on TV), war was chaotic too. So this notion of tagging struck me as important. How important was not clear to me. That is until I saw my brother-in-law’s office. Each one of those decorations on his wall reinforces the message, “This is who you are.” Tag! – you’re us.
You see tags in all sorts of strange and wonderful places. For example: some asshole “tagged” my fence where it adjoins the street behind my house. He spray painted a slogan that I can’t even begin to decipher across roughly 10 feet of fence. I guess somehow that makes my fence part of his ‘hood.
Another example: I worked at Aldus in the early nineties. One of the innovative new product teams went out and bought themselves letterman’s jackets (The PressWise team: a.k.a. “The Wise Guys”). You know the kind I’m talking about – the nice colorful jackets that the jocks wore in high school with a big letter for whatever varsity team they were on? You saw a group of those guys wearing those jackets and what did you think? Assholes? Perhaps, if I’m honest I remember thinking, “I’ve got to get one of those!” In our peculiar little geeky corner of the prepress software world, those guys were tight. It worked. Tagging in action.
A final example: I remember the very first product that I delivered from concept to customer. On the day we shipped, the team gave me a box that was signed by every member of the team. I still have that box. That box means a lot to me (sniffle…). We gave a box to every member of the team and it was proudly displayed on their desk. Of course these days we don’t deliver “shrink wrap” software as much as we used to. It’s all on the web. So where do we keep our box? How do we identify ourselves as part of the team?
How do you know you are on a good team? Well what sort of tags do you have to mark yourselves? How does the team mark you to indicate that you are part of the group? After looking at my brother-in-law’s office, I think we could be doing a lot more tagging with our software teams.
To be perfectly clear, there are a lot of teams out there that we software geeks can learn a lot of valuable lessons from. I don’t mean to trivialize a squad of marines by comparing them to a bunch of pale faced, bespectacled software guys trying to support a gaming habit – but I see a lot of things we could learn from the military in terms of creating really tight teams. Given the complexity that software teams attempt to tackle, it may be essential.
ps. Mentioning my brother in law may have been a mistake. He may be forced to kill me. Sorry Dana. In my own defense, it seemed like a good idea at the time…