Diversity of Ability

I’m better than you are.

No, that’s not how I want to start…

What makes a high-performing team?

No, no, that’s still not right. Let me try again…

When you think about the people you work with, your co-workers, teammates, and colleagues, what is it that you find yourself admiring?

Photo by Mark Raugas – http://innercapture.com/galleries/squatch18/index.htm

For me, it often comes down to things that I’m not good at – useful skills and knowledge that I lack, or where my team members are far more advanced. When you consider the people I work with, this can be pretty intimidating[1]. It’s great to know that I can reach out at any time to some of the best experts in the world, but it sometimes makes me wonder what I have to offer to the team when I see them kicking ass and optionally taking names.

As it turns out, I have a lot to offer. Specifically, I’ve been able to do some pretty significant things[2] that have changed the way my team works, and changed the impact that the team has on Power BI as a product. And if I believe what people have told me[3],  I’ve implemented changes that probably could not have been made without me.

This brings me back to this question: What makes a high-performing team?

Since I’m no expert[4], I’ll refer to an expert source. This article from Psychology Today lists 10 characteristics of high-performing teams, and #1 on the list is this:

Define and Create Interdependencies. There is a need to define and structure team members’ roles. Think of sports teams, everyone has their position to play, and success happens when all of the players are playing their roles effectively. In baseball, a double-play is a beautiful example of team interdependency.

Based on my experiences, I’ll paraphrase this a little. A high-performing team requires team members with diverse and complimentary abilities. Everyone should be good at something – but not the same thing – and everyone should be allowed and encouraged to contribute according to his or her personal strengths and interests[5]. Every team member should have significant abilities related to the priorities of the team – but not the same abilities. And equally importantly, each team member’s contributions need to be valued, appreciated, recognized, and rewarded by the team culture.

I’ve worked on more than a few teams where these criteria were not met. At the extreme, there were teams with a “bro” culture, where only a specific set of brash technical abilities were valued[6], so everyone on the team had the same skills and the same attitudes, and the same blinders about what was and what was not important. And of course the products they built suffered because of this myopic monoculture. Although this is an obvious extreme, I’ve seen plenty of other teams that needed improvement.

One example that stands out in my memory was the first major product team I worked on at Microsoft. There was one senior developer on the team who loved sustained engineering work. He loved fixing bugs in, and making updates to, old and complex code bases. He was good at it – really good – and his efforts were key to the product’s success. But the team culture didn’t value his work. The team leaders only recognized the developers who were building the flashy and exciting new features that customers would see in marketing presentations. The boring but necessary work that went into making the product stable and viable for enterprise customers simply wasn’t recognized. Eventually that team member found another team and another company.

I’m very fortunate today to work on a team with incredible diversity. Although most team members[7] are highly skilled at Power BI, everyone has his own personal areas of expertise, and an eagerness to use that expertise to assist his teammates. And just as importantly, we have a team leader who recognizes and rewards each team member’s strengths, and finds ways to structure team efforts to get the best work out of each contributor. Of course there are challenges and difficulties, but all in all it’s a thing of beauty.

Let’s wrap this up. If you’ve been reading the footnotes[8], you’ve noticed that I’ve mentioned imposter syndrome a few times. I first heard this term around 8 years ago when Scott Hanselman blogged about it. I’d felt it for much longer than that, but until I read his post, I’d never realized that this was a common experience. In the years since then, once I knew what to look for, I’ve seen it all around me. I’ve seen amazing professionals with skills I respect and admire downplay and undervalue their own abilities and contributions. And of course I see it in myself, almost every day.

You may find yourself feeling the same way. I wish I could give advice on how to get over it, but that’s beyond me at the moment. But what I can say is this: you’re better than the people you work with[9]. I don’t know what you’re better at, but I’m highly confident that you’re better at something – something important! – than the rest of your team. But if your team culture doesn’t value that thing, you probably don’t value it either – you may not even recognize it.

If you’re in this situation, consider looking for a different team. Consider seeking out a team that needs the thing that you have to give, and which will appreciate and value and reward that thing you’re awesome at, and which gives you joy. It’s not you – it’s them.

Not everyone is in a position to make this sort of change, but everyone can step back to consider their team’s diversity of ability, and where they contribute. If you’ve never looked at your role in this way before, you may be surprised at what you discover.


[1] Epic understatement alert. I work with these guys, and more like them. Imagine my imposter syndrome every damned day.

[2] I will not describe these things in any meaningful way in this post.

[3] Which is far from certain. See the comment on imposter syndrome, above.

[4] Imposter syndrome, remember? Are you noticing a theme yet?

[5] I explicitly include interests here because ability isn’t enough to deliver excellence. If you’re skilled at something but don’t truly care about it, you may be good, but you’re probably never be great.

[6] Bro, short for brogrammer, with all the pejorative use of this term implies. If you’ve been on one of these teams, you know what I mean, and I hope you’re in a better place now.

[7] Present company excluded, of course.

[8] Yes, these footnotes.

[9] Did this work? I was a little worried about choosing the opening sentence I did, but I wanted to set up this theme later on. Did I actually pull it off, or is this just a cheap gimmick? I’d love to know what you think…

2 thoughts on “Diversity of Ability

  1. Pingback: Representation and visibility – BI Polar

  2. Pingback: The parable of Clark Kent and the performance review – BI Polar

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