What does it mean to be a hero? Dictionary.com defines hero as “A person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for their brave deeds and noble quality”.  When I think of this definition I believe it’s not hard to find examples in people who choose careers such as soldiers, emergency services people, and many others. We can also find heroes in every day life, when for example someone puts their life in jepordy to save another.

HeroI frequently run across a mindset in teams I work with which recognizes someone on the team as a hero. Management likely encourages the behaviour through rewards, recognition and too much latitude. When I find a hero I usually see signs such as:

  • The person works crazy hours usually on their own to get work done
  • They will leap at the difficult tasks even though they know it could mean working all night
  • Problems seem to get solved, but rarely is there an explanation of what was done
  • They come to meetings with their laptop or smart phone in case a trouble ticket comes in
  • They resist changes in which they need to make their work visible (eg. Scrum or Kanban)
  • They will often skip good steps in their work such as testing, documenting and more
  • The team accepts all of these things

Do any of these attributes sound familiar? I’m fairly certain everyone will have seen at least one hero in your career. Despite this person being on a pedestal have you considered the impact the hero might be having:

  • People and teams learn when feedback loops exist. If your hero is working alone, and not sharing information you will are likely living in a control cycle where no learning occurs
  • By accepting the hero’s bad practices such as not testing code, you are allowing problems to be introduced into your system. So in fact the hero culture may actually be feeding itself without you being aware of it
  • In working so many endless days & nights your hero may eventually burn out. What happens when this person suddenly isn’t available to save the day?
  • When teams visualize their work through tools such as a Scrum or Kanban wall, I am always impressed how the team work increases organically. When you allow your hero to keep their work hidden your team looses the opportunity to improve a situation.

So this all leads me to the question of whether allowing a hero culture to exist is the responsible thing to do? I realize your hero may give you short-term comfort as they seem to make problems go away. But at what cost? Some of my peers have a black and white attitude about heroes … fire them!

I prefer a different approach where they make their work and actions more transparent to the team. Don’t allow them to work alone, ensure they are visualizing their work, and conduct a review of the outcomes to get to the root of problems. Sometimes these heroes may choose to leave as they don’t like the change, but in other cases they are relieved to have this burden taken off them. Either way your team will be better off for it.

So the next time someone works crazy hours to solve a problem start by thanking them for giving up personal time. Then bring together the team and learn from the experience so you can reduce the need for such actions. After all, shouldn’t you be trying to reduce the need for so much support?

Building Great Teams

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