The Wisdom of Teams – Generalizing Specialists

I’ve almost finished reading The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. I wanted to share a couple of paragraphs that give a great example of the idea of Generalizing Specialists that is such a key part of Agile Work. Here’s the passage:


The [Connectors Team] made several decisions that solidified its common team approach and sense of mutual accountability. First, it set some rules. Everyone on the team had to identify two others who could serve as backups during vacation and sick days. To eradicate the attitude of “it’s not my job” from the team, it was agreed that whenever anyone needed help, the person asked had to respond even if the activity was not in his or her area of expertise. And the team also agreed on a peer appraisal system that gave everyone the opportunity to evaluate everyone else and, through [their team leader], feed it back to the person being evaluated. Clear-cut rules of behavior like these are an important element of all successful teams.

Second, the team eliminated the two managerial positions that had retarded empowerment. This effectively modified the membership of the team because only one of the two managers whose jobs were eliminated chose to stay. The other believed he could not take a perceived demotion and left. By January 1991, however, the Connectors Team was a dramatically more effective group of people than it had been at its formation a year earlier.

Energy and enthusiasm reached higher levels as the team started pushing itself harder and in more innovative ways. One of the engineers, for example, decided to become completely qualified as a purchaser as well. Instead of being threatened, the purchasers on the team worked hard to teach her the basics of the job. The peer review approach worked so well that the team agreed on the additional – and, for many teams, difficult – step of directly providing each other feedback instead of relyinng on the team leader for this task.

There are several great points in the above story:

Backups: many agile methods do not explicity talk about this, but there is a need to make sure that the Truck Factor increases. A low truck factor can be a real problem and I strongly recommend that the Queue Master (Product Owner, Customer) in particular needs to have backup. As well, this hints at the idea that eventually the roles of Process Facilitator and Queue Master should eventually go away to be taken on by the team as a whole.

Skills: the example of the engineer learning to be a purchaser is a great example of a brave soul really taking to heart the idea of working for the good of the team by becoming a generalizing specialist. In my own coaching work, I have seen purely business-oriented Queue Masters become technical contributors to the team through a process of both deliberate and “accidental” learning. Every human being has an incredible capacity for learning. In a high-performance team, everyone takes that ability very seriously – to the point of it becoming a responsibility.

Rules: one of the simplest, yet most profound, ways that a group of people can start on the process to becoming a high-performance team is by working together to agree on some ground rules about team behavior. One team I worked with, among other rules, decided that no “stinky food” was allowed in the team room. The passage above notes the non-trivial rules. Both “trivial” and non-trivial rules are important to the team for two reasons:

1. Develop a set of expectations that individuals can hold each other to in order to avoid or deal with conflict.

2. Become aware of the team’s power to set their own working conditions, independently of management or other “leadership”.

Management: regrettably for most managers, in a high-performance team the value of formal, traditional management is much reduced. However, there is now an opportunity for two different types of work: the generalizing specialist work on the team, and the servant leader work of supporting the team. The servant leader is someone who is exceptionally good at problem solving, organizational change, and working through influence rather than authority.


This book is incredible. Every time I read a few pages I think “Oh! I’ve got to write about that on Agile Advice!” Unfortunately if I did that, I’d be in serious copyright violation. So all I can do is encourage you to read the book.If you have already read the book, I would love to hear your impressions, particularly if there were things about it that you really didn’t like. What didn’t you like and why? What are the holes in it’s argument?


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