Teamwork as alchemy
Dr Andrew Rivers has always thought building a great team is a bit like practicing alchemy. "You initially throw a lot of different ingredients (people) together; you don’t quite know if you can guarantee the right outcome; but eventually, trial and error means you’ll get there in the end."
It’s this that almost perfectly describes what happened when Rivers worked at Microsoft more than a decade ago. "Some 30-35 of us were all put together. Some of the people didn’t work out, but the size of the team we got to in the end was a fantastic group of people. Most of them I’m still friends with today – including two who are co-founders of the business we now run."
It was 2009. Microsoft had been asked to rescue a payment processing system. It had already had millions spent on it, but was still grossly under-performing. "Let’s just say that it was only processing one payment a second, when it really needed to be doing 100. The technical challenge to solve this was huge, and Microsoft pulled in some of the best brains they had – including myself, as well as Paul Brown and James Hockey – two people that eventually co-founded our own company, 345 Technology. There was everyone from testers, to code writers, to project leaders – all superb people, but not always people who could always pull together at first."
Boiling it down to the core
Rivers knows that in high performing teams is that the work rate is high, because people spur each other on. "But we soon found out this didn’t suit everyone. For some, it was the technology itself that they couldn’t fix. For others, things simply took too long, and they weren’t able to come up with the goods. A minority thought their opinions were better than everyone else’s, even though it wasn’t their job to make that decision. Over time though, and as people decided the project wasn’t for them and moved on, the core nucleus that was left became phenomenally strong."
"What I think made it so good was that after the initial loss of people, there were absolutely no passengers left. Each and everyone all had to pull their weight."
"We knew we faced having to solve a big challenge, but we also knew that if we tackled it properly, we’d all be doing our bit. Sure, you can get lots of egos when you put a lot of clever people together, but by the end there was none of this. It was almost like we’d made a collective decision amongst ourselves that we absolutely ‘would’ get this project finished and out of the door."
A high level of trust
Rivers thinks that when you’re in that type of environment, you develop a high level of trust. "While things weren’t always plain sailing, it was trust in each other that got us through."
"Despite the churn in people in the first six-twelve months, after that we really did think we could take on anything. Looking back on it, I think we realised that some people weren’t always the best fit, and these people also realised it themselves. We gave them a try – and I always think you should do this – but then those under-performers were encouraged to move on.
"Interestingly, we had lots of leaders. We had leadership amongst the tech people, and leadership amongst the project management people. But the way it happened was that people naturally stepped up to this, and so it was leadership by consensus."
"In many ways, it was a reaction to how great this team was, that myself, Paul and John eventually decided to join forces and launch our own business. The team we had was ‘so’ good, we just didn’t want to run the risk of going back to how our lives were before, working on projects that you didn’t know would be as good."
Shared vision and inspiration
Now, as a group of three running the business, Rivers tends to think they are still a great team – if a bit smaller. "We all have sides to us that are complimentary to each other, and we each compensate for each other’s weaknesses. In a similar vein, we’ve all bought into a shared vision."
"It’s very hard to plan or predict whether a team is going to click, but when everyone is committed, and wants to work for each other, that’s a very good start. Of all the things I’ve learned, I think this is particularly powerful: You can’t command that people to do things; they have to choose to do things."
"The best any leader can do is inspire the people in their teams. That’s how people will ‘want’ to be a part of any success story."