There’s an old saw that goes:

“If you want to make a great product, build a great team and they’ll make the product for you.”

From my observations, few organisations subscribe to this homily. I’ve always wondered why.

Is it that organisations don’t want to make great products? I’ve certainly seen some of those. Organisations where everyone is just getting by. Keeping their heads down. Expending little if any discretionary effort. Today it seems trendy to call this “disengagement”.

Or maybe it’s just too much trouble. Building a great team rarely just “happens”. People, from senior managers through to the teams themselves, generally have to put a lot of effort over a sustained period to build a great team. And what happens when the product is delivered and the team disbanded? Like the labours of Sisyphus, we start all over again? That seems a demoralising prospect, to say the least.

Or is it that organisations just don’t believe it? That they don’t see a connection between great teams and the capability to build great products?

Or, perhaps it’s not even on the organisation’s radar. That people might believe the old saw, if they were paying attention to it, but because so many other things take priority, the question of i.e. a strategic capability for product development, or even just software development, doesn’t come up? Doesn’t get considered, discussed, acted upon?

Or, maybe organisations are still stuck in the past, not believing that this software thing will catch on, and that the product thet’re creating at the moment is the last one they’ll ever be call upon to make? Why invest time and effort on building a capability that has only one project – the current project – in which to provide a return on investment?

Or maybe any one organisation just can’t serve two masters. That organisations focussed on delivering products to market just can’t focus simultaneously on building a capability for the future, too.

Or maybe there’s not enough money to make it happen. Like any investment decision, the money has to come from somewhere. Short-termism seems endemic in many organisations, particularly the larger, publicly-listed ones. Jam tomorrow never looks as attractive as jam today.

Or perhaps the organisation has no faith in its being able to keep its people, and thus no faith in its ability to sustain any improvements in its capabilities. Perhaps its business model is predicated on high staff turnover, low wages and the idea that “people are merely cogs and resources”. Where this is true – and I have seen some organisations that think like this – then it might be an entirely rational response neither to invest in people as individuals, nor in the organisation’s capability as a whole.

Whatever the reason, I see organisation after organisation where people are stressed beyond endurance because the organisation is not up to snuff in its ability to deliver new products and product enhancements effectively.

I can’t fathom why this is so widespread, and so persistent – and yet I wish I knew.

– Bob


Actually, if we look at the issue though the lens of the psychologist, we might suspect that the current situation is a product of people – and especially the Core Group – getting their needs met, albeit in sub-optimal ways. Do Core Groups not need their organisations to have an effective software or product development capability? Given the many ways I have seen organisations degrade or destroy their capability over time, I think this is a valid question.

  1. Paul Beckford said:

    I think you are on to something when you talk about capability and peoples psychology…

    I remember early on working for a mobile phone company who pioneered the development of GSM technology… Anyway there was a guy who was really smart. A first class degree from Cambridge. He was a real nice guy, and really committed to the product…. but everyone could see that he wasn’t going to be promoted to a leadership role.


    Well he was far too useful at the coal face… The inverse of the Peter Principle… He would work out quantum physics maths over lunch for fun 🙂 In the early days of GSM you had to do everything yourself. All the clever encoding, and he was amongst the few (globally) who had the smarts to do that stuff…

    He was also too nice… Being in a leadership role meant being a bit bolshy and throwing your weight around. This wasn’t him. He was more likely to go away quietly and just get stuff done himself, then bully and pressure others….

    Also, I sensed that the leadership were sort of scared of him… He was well respected, but I think he was also feared… Hard to explain, but I think it had something to do with the control meme I mentioned before… When he spoke, very few people had a clue what he was on about. You just had to trust him and let him get on with it… This meant that the managers had very little control, they had to just trust him. Something they had learned to do, but I sensed they found it uncomfortable.

    As a consultant I have experienced something similar. It is very difficult to help people. Most bosses feel that it is their job to “know it all”, to “have all the answers”. Working with someone who is clearly more capable then they are makes them uncomfortable.

    I’ve even seen this with startups. 20 year old CTO’s who have resisted our attempts to help, because “I’m the technical expert around here”.

    Satisfying peoples psychological needs isn’t always a positive thing, especially when those needs are driven by ego and fear…


  2. dancres said:

    “we might suspect that the current situation is a product of people – and especially the Core Group – getting their needs met, albeit in sub-optimal ways. Do Core Groups not need their organisations to have an effective software or product development capability?”

    I believe they do have that need but it’s paired with a need for that capability to work in a way they can understand.

    And those ways are utterly at odds with how it actually needs to work for them to get the products they (say they) need.

    • So maybe it’s about not understanding that software development – as a subset of knowledge work – is a fundamentally different animal from traditional kinds of work?

      – Bob

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