Over the past couple of months I’ve re-entered startup land and become a new team member, sussing out both how the company works and what the company is. I’m also figuring out who these people are with whom I’ve thrown in my lot, which is extra interesting given that much of our team – myself included – works remotely. I’ve also been documenting a lot, from key processes and tools to our culture and values.

We’re now hiring another person, so I get to observe and consider my newly hatched ideas and opinions from an almost anthropological standpoint. All of this has gotten me putting a lot of thought into teams, teamwork, and how you get the people part of building companies right. Especially since, in small companies, getting it wrong can cause much bigger problems, much faster, than in bigger companies.

I’m sure there are countless books, slide decks, blog posts, etc. out there pontificating on this subject. You can read them as easily as I can. I’m going to be working from personal experience here, as well as experiences of others I’ve observed in my immediate sphere.

To keep things to a readable length, I’ve broken this up into three separate columns, and we’ll look at each of the points separately.

So far my brain has built a triangle, with a balance of the three things being ideal for each team member, and with varying levels of tolerance in one direction or another – to a point. People tend to be messy, after all.

The three points of the triangle are:

    • productivity

    • reliability

    • fit.

They are all equal insofar as all three need to be present and functioning in and among all team members. But as I’ll explain, there are varying degrees of necessity and flexibility among them. This depends on whether there’s reasonable balance in the team, if it’s adjusting to new members, or if someone’s shoring things up or picking up the slack (whether team members or management).


If a team member is crazy productive (and churning out good stuff, not just stuff), we as teams and managers tend to have more tolerance for failings in other ways. The difficult “rock star” (ugh) that people just kind of get used to putting up with. Deadlines are being met, tough bugs are being vanquished, and really cool stuff is being transformed from whiteboard ideas into reality.

Team members get used to or choke down responses to anti-social behaviour “for the good of the team”. Over time everyone’s “normal” adjusts to this, even if people don’t like it. Managers are willing to do more managing and smoothing over, or letting certain things slide… to a point.

There’s a tipping point at which the amount of choking down or managing required, or the degree of toxicity built up due to someone’s behaviour, just isn’t worth it anymore. It affects morale and group productivity. It polarizes group dynamics. And it takes people’s energy and attention away from things that would make everyone happier and more productive. Why should that person get away with being like that when no one else does?

It is, however, rare for productivity to be amazing when someone is failing miserably at the other two points. That said, what often happens is that the person starts out productive and merely… prickly, and over time that erodes as well. Fortunately, when someone’s failing at reliability and fit and their productivity takes a nosedive, it makes the decision to remove them easier.

Of course, then it’s a good idea to investigate a bit whether the person actually was initially that awesomely productive. Or did the person just talk a good game? Or did the team make someone good look better because there was cool stuff getting done and it made everyone look better?

I once worked on a team where we hired someone in good part based on reputation in a particular community. Over time we came to realize that “reputation” was largely self-built. The story we eventually got after talking to another company that had fired him was quite different (and we’d have saved ourselves a lot of grief had we talked to them before hiring). The time required to go from hiring to being well overdue in getting rid of this guy to contain the damage? Three months.

Next time we’ll take a look at reliability, and the value of slow and steady vs. wildly creative.

M-Theory is a guest column by Melanie Baker, who has a Mennonite background, a career in tech, and enjoys the unlikely ways these things complement each other. She enjoys writing, working with geeks, building communities, baking and creating fanciful beasts out of socks."