The superhero anti-pattern in scaling teams

15 Mar 2018

You know her; you have seen him in action; and too often you have been one — a superhero who flew down, laid yourself on the broken tracks and let the train pass over your shoulders and saved the day.

Have you been one? I know I have.

There is an escalation from a customer that has to be solved and a colleague has worked round the clock to bring it into the release schedule and will soon the solution will make it’s way to the customer.

Absolutely the right thing to do!

So what’s wrong with this approach?

The answer to my follow up question “so what moved out to make way for this escalation?” and the answer was “nothing, we pulled it in”.

Why is this a problem?

Occasionally becoming a superhero is a much desired attribute in a team member as it shows initiative, dependability in a team member. Done too often it shows organisational issues.

A superhero anti-pattern is an opportunity to unmask the following issues

The team is under-staffed

Too often, the team has a charter way bigger than they can handle and people need to be superheroes all the time. This over a period of time is going to impact the team credibility, morale and general well-being of the team members.

Not enough processes

Process is a maligned word but a good process in place is the world of difference between a teams ability to scale and respond to changes.

Too many escalations by too many stakeholders

Every person in the organisation has a direct access to any of the team members. “After all open communications is our thing!” The problem is that the team ends up responding and clarifying things to every person within the org and that sets the team up for failure. Recently, a colleague introduced me to the role called “the disturbed” which nominates a person on the team that takes the disturbances for a short period of time and keeps everyone focussed on their tasks. In this case, we are nominating one super-hero proactively.

The team leader and the team is not learning

There aren’t enough retrospectives in play that help the team learn and improve.

The individual loves the superhero mode

Almost everyone enjoys responding to the urgent versus doing the important because too often the important thing is really hard to do and there is always enough time. Urgent on the other hand makes people look good — who doesn’t want to look good?

The individual is gaming the system and climbing the ladder

Raise enough red-flags, come in, save the day and look good — win kudos. This motivation is insidious and eats at the culture of the organisation and the morale of the team. Rooting this out is hard and can be done encouraging members to continually focus on the important and not the urgent. When urgency itself is not rewarded the behaviour will be greatly reduced.

The superhero anti-pattern rears its head (often) in organisations that are undergoing rapid scaling. The superheroes themselves will not have enough bandwidth to recognise the sub-optimal behaviour and its ramification on the organisations. It is an opportunity for leaders to step back and unmask underlying organisation issues.

So what about my colleague — turns out that all it took was a conversation to point out that lets not put undue stress on the system and indicate what downstream deliverables get impacted and reflect that in the plan. Once done it provided a breathing space to the team to confidently execute on their deliverables.

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