All For One and One For All

I enjoy a good adventure story, and the Three Musketeers is an excellent read.  One of the catch phrases from that novel that has stood the test of time is “All for one and one for all.”  It’s a pronouncement of unity, of loyalty, of watching each other’s backs.  Project teams with this kind of attitude can work miracles.

About seven years ago, I was put in charge of a team that was stuck.  The team had stopped delivering internal releases, and every other team depended on these drops to keep things moving toward an ultimate external release.  After briefly surveying the scene, I declared the date of our next release, and told people to either ship on that date or tell me why that could not happen, as a way to identify (and fix) the blocking issues.  Instead of giving the team the two or three months that many thought they needed, I gave them one month.  Everyone pulled together, and we shipped on time.  From that release on, the “release train” stayed on track, delivering on a regular, predictable schedule.

That my strategy worked is a testament to a strong team having a unified purpose.  The team members could have told me I was crazy or too demanding.  They could have come up with 1,000 excuses why I was asking the impossible.  Instead, they buckled down, performed the difficult tasks, and delivered.

In contrast, last year I was asked to lead a project with a Frankenstein team.  The chosen moniker is not meant to disparage the team members.  Rather it is an allusion to the fact that four separate teams with various objectives and history were stitched together.  The result was not exactly natural, quite the antithesis of a graceful musketeer.  Moreover, the purpose and direction were never entirely settled.

To avoid getting myself in trouble, let’s say we were planning to sell ice cream, “because everybody likes ice cream.”  Were we going to have a parlor, or sell from a cart?  How about an ice cream truck that drives through neighborhoods playing music?  Someone learned that the real margins come from hand-mixing in a variety of extras: candy, nuts, etc.  The Ice Cream Committee (ICC) met for weeks, all summer long, and never quite decided on the Ice Cream Strategy (ICS).

At one point, someone “in charge” had had enough of meetings that were going nowhere.  He pulled me aside and said, “We cannot wait any more because summer is almost over, and no one will eat ice cream in the winter.  It does not matter how we are going to sell it.  We need ice cream!  So mix those ingredients, and start turning the crank.”

By now you know how this story ends — badly.  The team was never unified, the direction never became clear, and nothing of lasting value was ever produced before the team was dissolved.

The Three Musketeers had it easy.  There were only three of them, and all they had to do was stick together one fight at a time.  Companies ought to organize unified teams to give them a chance of succeeding.  Here’s a simple recipe.

  1. Start with a small number of team leaders (one, two or three) who are charged with articulating an objective and a strategy for reaching it.
  2. Allow the leads to add only the people that will help serve the mission.
  3. If the team ever becomes fractured, pause to resolve the differences.
  4. Have enough patience to see it through.

Do this, and your teams should be able to deliver valuable things on a regular basis.  They may even surprise you with a miracle or two.

What projects have you been part of that suffered from lack of unity?  Leave your story in the comments.

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