If you ask someone experienced what they think of their team, they’ll usually tell you their team is the best team they’ve ever worked on. It’s so rare to hear someone say they think their team is bad or even mediocre. Why is this?
We rationally understand that most teams and employees must be average, near the middle of the bell curve of ability. But we don’t experience it that way. I don’t believe there is some “dark matter” of teams that fill the back of the curve, and I and everyone I know works at the front (and anyway, you can apply the curve to subpopulations).
There’s also the factor of, what do we mean by “best team”? We have no single or compound measure of performance. And contexts change: business performance, market forces, type of work, and especially our own mental state and abilities.
I suspect the reason we feel we are always on the best team of our career is exactly because we and our teams are so often average, and we can’t consistently measure team ability. In fact, I suspect most of us would believe a statement like “I was on a 70th percentile team” is absurd. But what percentile rank can we assess?
I don’t know. Not only can we not measure, we have tremendous psychological reason to believe our current team is exceptional, both for our sake and our coworkers.
But despite the inability to measure, effective and ineffective teams do exist. Something like 10% of us are each on truly great or truly awful teams. The 10% on awful teams likely know they are on an awful team (by virtue of thinking their team is awful). But the 10% on great teams can’t likely know they are, given how the other 80% also believe they are on great teams. They will be able to identify ‘average’ teams later, though.
You, your current team, and most people you hire, are likely average. This has vast implications in how you hire and build a team. In particular, I have thoughts on the following which I’m going to try to post about in the future:
- Considering where someone has worked is pure noise with regards to competence (though not in regards to technical experience).
- As our great team scales, we often feel like the average competence is getting worse. But if we believe we’re all average, we can accept this as an effect of systems and process, not the temporarily-above-average competence bar reverting to the mean.
- Performance of individuals is largely a function of circumstance, not competence.
One more note: As I was writing this post, I saw this study about “Talent vs. Luck” (summary at inc.com). Basically, competence follows a bell curve distribution (see above), while wealth is more of a power curve (like, 20% of the people control 80% of the wealth). The study abstract and conclusion are well worth a read, but ultimately, in the words of the researchers: “Our simulation clearly shows that such a factor is just pure luck.”
PS: I wrote this post in February 2018 — these thoughts are not a subtweet of anything at my last few jobs, though that distribution curve suggests it’s applicable.