Friday, 8 November 2013

"A" Players

I hear many references to organizations wanting to follow the advice of Steve Jobs and to have only what he called "A Players". Jobs' logic was that when you have enough A players, they will discover that they really like working together and won't want to work with B and C players anymore. This has the effect of creating a great organization.

What's lost in that "sound bite" is that Jobs' went on to flesh out that notion that A players can come from many backgrounds, bringing talents from many different disciplines. Essentially, his idea was that you can't be successful with people who are only talented in one aspect of delivering a product, e.g. writing software.

As I write this post, there's a very interesting example of this playing itself out in the sporting world.  I'm a big hockey fan (Canadian, eh!) and love my hometown Ottawa Senators. They had a successful season last year, making it to the second round of the playoffs and earning their coach Paul Maclean the award for the best coach in the league. This year, however, they started off the season by struggling defensively which was an aspect of their game at which they excelled last year.

So, the Senators called up Mark Borowiecki from their AHL team in Binghamton, NY. Borowiecki is not an A player by the standards of many people. He's not flashy.  He doesn't score much, although he did score his first NHL goal in a game on Nov. 8th. He plays what's called a "simple game", meaning that he doesn't try to carry the puck but rather passes it. If he's pressured, he'll make a simple play off the boards or glass to get the puck out of danger. He was called up because he's considered a steady, calming influence. He's playing with other defencemen who are making several times the salary.

Since Borowiecki arrived, the Senators have won 2 games handily and lost the other in a shootout after overtime, still gaining a point in the standings. The team's defence has improved greatly, with the number of shots against them dropping dramatically since Borowiecki's arrival.

Is this a coincidence? Possibly. However I would suggest that Borowiecki's play has rubbed off on others. Also, the confidence that the coaching staff has shown in him by playing Borowiecki ahead of two more experienced and arguably more talented players also makes it clear to everyone that you will be held accountable for your play.

So, a "B Player" by most definitions has changed the way a whole team is playing.

The question, though, is whether Borowiecki really a B player? While in Binghamton, he had no goals or assists through 9 games of the 2013-2014 season, but he was the team captain. Evidently the coaching staff sees more than just his talent as being important. Perhaps what makes him an A player is not his talent for scoring but rather the intangibles he brings such as quiet leadership and a steadying influence on the ice.

While all of this is sports-related, I have certainly seen these concepts transfer to any domain in which people are working in groups with a common goal. They key to successfully working together isn't to have A players whose talent only represents a single dimension, but rather to have A level talent from multiple dimensions and multiple people.

In the realm of delivering software-based products, this means that those A-level talents are much more than just the ability to write software. You need people with the ability to identify and understand what the market for the product wants and/or needs. You need people who can create amazing, intuitive designs. You do need talented software developers, but complemented by people with talents for ensuring that the software works as expected and also continues to work then the unexpected happens. You need people who can understand how the raw data that a system creates can be used to inform business decisions. You need people who can understand how all of this needs to work without compromising the security of that data. You need people who understand how all of this works at the level of machines running anywhere from someones laptop, tablet or phone to servers running in a cloud environment.

If you only have A Players in one of those dimensions, you likely won't succeed. If you measure whether someone is an A Player within a dimension by a single metric, you may also miss the non-linear positive effects that a person can have. You might miss the Mark Borowiecki's who can raise the level of play of an entire team despite having much less talent than others by most of the common measurements.

2 comments:

Phil Green said...

This is right on on many levels Dave.

I like the succeeding at product level thinking, too often organizations fall into the local optimization trap and loose sight of the larger prize.

As you know and outline, the embrace diversity pattern applies to disciplines, roles, skills/talents, experience, personality type. Build teams and organizations with many T shaped people whose T-stems are in different areas.

Steve Johnson's recent talk at an Ottawa Product Management Association meetup, based http://bit.ly/1axdxAD, followed a similar line of reasoning for building Product Management teams.

And good on coach MacLean for bringing up the kid from Kanata.

James O'Sullivan said...

Great post. Do you think that some people confuse A-players with A-type personalities?