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This article was published on December 1, 2016

Personalities: How to build and manage adaptive teams

Personalities: How to build and manage adaptive teams
Andy Dunbar
Story by

Andy Dunbar

Chief Operating Officer, Mirum Chief Operating Officer, Mirum

A team is a living breathing being that is greater than the sum of its parts. Made up of hand selected individuals, chosen for the contribution they make, each team is different and no single individual can or should determine the overall personality.

Sometimes this is achieved through serendipity, where a team is built based on who is available at the time. Other times, a manager has the chance to build it from scratch.

Regardless of your situation, it helps to understand the personality types involved:

The Teachers

These are individuals who excel in growing the skillset of others and whose greatest talents lie in passing their knowledge on.

Often they were craftsmen or journeymen themselves,however, should an individual be too purely academic, the lack of exposure to real world challenges and solutions can create its own risks.

The Craftsmen

These people invest in building a deep and practiced ability in a focused area. Through understanding their subject matter inside and out, often having learned from mistakes, they are the experts on a team, knowing best practice and the typical pitfalls.

Becoming a craftsman takes years depending on the depth and detail of the subject matter.

This could be the content author who understands WordPress completely and has evolved their skillset with it over the years, or the project manager who understands DSDM in its most theoretical state, and the best form practical application. The risk with craftsmen is that their focus can prevent them from more pragmatic solutions or even that their craft area becomes obsolete.

The Journeymen

Journeymen are typically the mainstay of a company – individuals who are skilled in a number of different complementary areas, perhaps within a single discipline but sometimes spanning several topics.

This could be the front-end developer who is comfortable with various scripting languages and frameworks, or the designer who excels in both visual design, brand development or even interaction design.  These people are flexible enough to understand the most efficient way to achieve an objective, as well as skilled enough to build complex solutions.

The risk of journeyman is the constant need to stay flexible around skillset, and to avoid the danger of thinking you know a subject better than anyone else.

The Tinkers

The tinker is one of the most challenging roles on the chart.

At its highest form, the tinker is someone who excels in learning how to learn.  They are someone who may have been a craftsman or, more likely, a journeyman in several areas and thrives in knowing how to join them together in interesting ways. They typically love modelling scenarios and proving a design – they are the prototypers and the business case builders.

The risk is that you build a skillset which is defined by a very shallow application – without the depth, you can fall into purely low level execution and it needs to be paired with a strategic understanding of purpose.

The Pioneers

Pioneers are another risky role. They are people who find the cutting-edge ideas and pull them apart. Their objective is to find uses for these ideas – be they strategic approaches based on new and emerging channels, or new bleeding edge technology.

These could be the Quality Assurance testers defining new ways link automated testing with Business Analysis, or the Designers trying out new design software, transforming the future of Experience Design.

The finest pioneers are able to identify value in opportunities before investing too much energy. The challenge with Pioneers is that it’s hard to always choose the direction – even with guidance from the Visionaries.

Chances are you will get it wrong from time to time, so balancing the time investment required to get meaningful use out of something versus knowing when to pull out and move onto the next destination – it’s often a tough call to make.

The Visionaries

These are the people staring at the horizon. They are the brave thinkers looking over the curve in the road and finding the next big commercial opportunity, or brand direction.

This could be the Strategists predicting the development of western social channels based on WeChat or the developer looking at emerging hardware kickstarter projects for how they can leverage new APIs.

The risk with Visionaries is – like Pioneers – that it is hard to predict the future and with the pace of change in modern times it’s easy to get it wrong.

Balancing fluidity and stress

We are however individuals, not labels on a box or easily grouped personas.

The real power of the team lies in understanding both natural inclination towards one of these descriptors but also the ability to flex and move fluidly between roles. The craftsman who can teach her craft to a junior, or the tinker who can flesh out his prototype into a full product – this adaptability marks us as the creative individuals we are.

Along with understanding that people move fluidly around this arena, I believe it’s important to understand the degree of flexibility each person naturally has and to balance what we ask.

When people feel they are breaking new ground – even if just for them – it can be rewarding and challenging. The drive to grow yourself is quite common in those who are passionate about their work.

balance, just right
Moving people beyond the boundaries they are comfortable with can however cause stress. If people are stretched too far we run the risk of overwhelming the team. This can create a sense of powerlessness and in turn detachment from the task at hand and a feel that they cannot influence the outcome.

So, we need to understand our team individually and encourage fluidity within the tolerance of the person in question. It doesn’t stop there either.

Often we ask demands of team members within the confines of a stressful situation – this could be increased workload, through a looming deadline, or by the sheer complexity of the task itself. This stress in turn reduces the tolerance of the individual – and is commonly shown by them retreating to the place they know best.

When you put someone under extreme pressure, you find they typically revert to the role they are most comfortable with. The role that they know inside and out and can operate most effectively in. Once they start exhibiting this behavior, it’s harder for them to break out of this pattern.

To retain an effective team balance you either should support with additional resources, in the areas needed, or to reduce the workload – by adjusting scope or timeline – to allow the key individual to be more effective again.

The purpose of creating adaptive teams

The generalists on this map are typically the easiest to staff on a team. They can play several roles and can often, successfully, deliver work.

This tends to work better with a smaller, shallow project of limited complexity and often reduced product lifespan (marketing communications, simple microsites etc).

people, team work
Where there’s long product lifespan or significant complexity around depth of interaction/technology, then specialists are of paramount importance. A team needs to balance both wide fluid individuals who can bend to the project needs, and the deep roots of experts to ground it in best practice and solid foundations.

It’s important to understand that people don’t always stay fixed on this scale. As humans, we’re not conveniently described but as business owners and managers, we can map out patterns of behavior to help us get the most out of our team.

We can also encourage and facilitate certain behavior – to enable someone to become more fluid in their thinking or to increase their knowledge and build a craft in a certain area, where there is a lack of depth.

That said, to build adaptive teams is less about forcing people to conform to an idealised model and more about understanding the individuals and their current gravitation.

The objective is not to change individual behavior, though there can be value in that at times, but pursue balancing the team.

If you have two or three experts on a team, then you may benefit from one or two generalists as a counterpoint. If your team has a skew towards tried and tested technology then you may wish to add a tinker to elevate the craftsman to think about evolving their craft, demonstrating value with prototypes.