21 Oct 22
Let's talk about the one team role that isn't always obvious. Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister define the role of the catalyst as the person that makes the team work well together in their well regarded book–Peopleware.
The catalyst is important because the project is always in a state of flux. Someone who can help a project to jell is worth two people who just do work.**
They cite a story around evaluating members of a team. It's noted that one individual on the team is clearly not the best coder or tester. From the outside it was hard to see what the team member added to the project. But during this person's 12 years with the company, all of their projects were a huge success. It wasn't obvious at first but with some observation it became obvious the person was a catalyst. The person helped everyone communicate and get along. The projects were more fun because of this.
Some people will have a natural inclination for this role. Maybe they're more extroverted than the other members. Maybe they just gravitate more towards sociology. As a manager, I wonder if this ability can be discovered as part of the interview process. Almost every place I have worked or interviewed at has had some measure of "culture" baked into the interview process.
At Nike, I was recently asked to form a new team and quickly of course. While looking to form this team, I was mindful of the structure. Identifying a potential career growth opportunity, I asked a current engineer to assume the informal role of the Tech Lead since they had institutional knowledge. Following that key piece, the original plan was to hire a group of engineers not requiring a lot of experience. We didn't require senior thinking, these were not overly complicated problems to solve. However, I made the decision to not bring on all inexperienced engineers. I decided at least one needed to have some experience. I knew it would be nice to have someone other than the Tech Lead with the ability to help the less experienced engineers with things like onboarding, setting up environments, getting familiar with a language or tool, but more importantly was the ability to get them working as a team. I was focusing more on the sociology side of things. It was somewhat of a last minute decision after conducting a round of interviews, but in hindsight it was a good call. The team has really jelled and moves together as a team rather than newly hired individuals finding their way. The team has been highly successful and I believe a lot of that is due to the Tech Lead and the more experienced person, we were lucky enough to hire, being a catalyst.
I feel as though the catalyst has some overlap with the manager. The manager should be a catalyst as well. Making sure the team is communicating well and moving as a team are obvious roles of the manager. But it has to be understood that the manager being a catalyst and a team member being a catalyst are two different things. Managers may not always be available for facilitating conversations that are happening in the comments of a PR. Having a team member as a catalyst would be helpful in that situation.
If you are managing a team that is struggling to move as a team, or if the team seems demoralized, maybe ask yourself if there is one person that is or can be the catalyst? Can you ask that person to spend more time being the catalyst by simple things like facilitating communication? Can they get the team talking during Retrospectives? Should someone with that skillset be your next hire? A catalyst can make a world of difference on a team beyond the obvious contributing of code!