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Originally published in The Smalltalk Report, February 1996.

"Special" Team Members

by Jan Steinman

Let's face it -- we're all "difficult" at some time or other. This can range from mild irritability over a bad-hair day, to active sabotage between competing groups. These problems are best dealt with before they develop into a pattern of behavior, but the pace of Smalltalk development often results in people settling into behavioral patterns before anyone notices.

We divide "special" team members into three categories:

  1. "pluses" offer net productivity, but can be much more productive if their unique strengths can be exploited while reducing the impact of their weaknesses,
  2. "zeros" are a wash, and can be tolerated while your organization finds a place where they can become "pluses,"
  3. "minuses" detract from the productivity of others, and can seriously impact a project if not dealt with in some way.

Keep in mind that we are writing about established behavior patterns here. Obviously, new assignments, emotional problems, family crises, etc. make the best of us "zeros" or even "minuses" from time to time, and a compassionate organization will help, or at least tolerate, these non-chronic productivity losses.

Here are some of the more prevalent behavior patterns we've found in Smalltalk projects, and some suggestions for dealing with them.

"The Loner"

This person is an enigma to management. The Loner is often a Meyers Briggs "INTP" type, who may be perceived as "not a team player," and might even be fired if he wasn't so damned creative. Like Bramson's "Analyst," The Loner will often miss deadlines, not because he isn't working, but simply because he is still working!

The big danger on a Smalltalk project is that The Loner may disappear after having been given an assignment, and come up for air several months later with a beautifully crafted, complete solution to the wrong problem. Because Smalltalk is so productive, it may be tempting to redefine the project around The Loner's wonderful solution of the wrong problem, since he may well be far ahead of the rest of the team, who have been busy collaborating all these months!

At worst, a single Loner is a "zero," but two or more on a team may quickly destroy a project if not guided by a skilled architect. Once you've discovered a Loaner on your team, there are several techniques you can use to harvest his creativity without yielding control of the project:

"The Loaner"

While discussing The Loner, we realized we have on several occasions experienced its pun! For various reasons, the project is running late, and senior management decides they had better round up nine women so they can ship this baby in a month.

Over 20 years ago, Frederick Brooks, Jr. noticed that adding resource to a late project makes it later. Loaners often consume more time than they add, and are therefore "minuses," because they need to be integrated with the team's procedures and conventions, and also absorb all the history that has gone into getting to this point of crisis. This is not so much a reflection on the person as it is on the process that put him in this unfortunate situation.

This problem is amplified by Smalltalk, because Smalltalk is not a language; it is an environment. Not only must this person learn your project before they can be useful, they often must learn exotic (to them) concepts, such as Dictionaries -- concepts for which your team has developed a shared vision.

Even more insidious is the possibility that you might not be getting quality material to start with. Think of it -- if asked to loan one of your team members, would you give your best person, or perhaps someone whom you haven't quite been able to find a place for yet?

If your manager insists on doing you this "favor," keep these in mind:

"The Cowboy"

The Cowboy typically learned Smalltalk in relative isolation, and is used to being "king of the image." He delights in tricky code, sometimes doing it for sheer intellectual pleasure, without the slightest rationale.

The Cowboy's nemesis is ENVY/Developer, because he doesn't like people looking at his tricky code, he can't imagine others actually working on his tricky code, and he absolutely hates the constraints imposed by a code management system -- if changing the implementation of basicNew suits his purpose, he can't stand the thought of getting the permission of Library Supervisor!

Cowboys can be wonderful "pluses" if carefully managed; they can also be "minuses" if they consistently destabilize your environment, or if their escapades consume an entire "stunt-double" resource. To deal with The Cowboy:

"The Slacker" or "Robinson Crusoe"

The Slacker often knows the best web sites, and is up on the latest Usenet newsgroup gossip. He may often quickly collapse a window as you walk over to his desk, and you may notice his long print jobs that are totally unrelated to work. When others are at his desk, they often seem to be doing the typing or mousing.

We sometimes call this pattern "Robinson Crusoe," because it seems The Slacker always expects to have his work done by Friday, even though he hasn't started it by Thursday. (And if Friday is inconveniently stranded on some desert isle, The Slacker is perfectly content to arrange for other team members to pick up his slack!)

The Slacker never makes a deadline while never working a full week; but neither does he ever report that he is behind schedule, and of course, there is always The Good Excuse.

Slackers come in two varieties: Dumb And Lazy, and Bored. It can be difficult to distinguish between them, but the difference is vital:

If you do not raise The Slacker to at least a "zero," your project will suffer much more than the mere loss of effective head count. Sometimes you can do this by:

Often, despite your best efforts, a Dumb And Lazy Slacker cannot be raised to a "plus." This cannot be tolerated, and he must go. If removing The Dumb And Lazy Slacker from your project is not possible, you need to minimize his impact on your team:

"The Know-It-All"

This person often actually knows a lot, but The Know-It-All's insecurity causes him to "know" more than he actually knows. (In the immortal words of Bo Didley, "It ain't what you don't know; it's what you know that just ain't so!") We've found this often results from taking someone who has been the "big cheese" on a traditional project, and immersing him in Smalltalk, which is strange, different, and frightening to someone who has become used to being an acknowledged expert.

This is the only pattern that Bramson also uses, and he divides it into two parts: "Bulldozers" and "Balloons," the primary difference being "Bulldozers" know what they're talking about, while "Balloons" do not. Of the two, "Bulldozers" are merely obnoxious -- although they may demoralize others with their strong assertions, they are still strong "pluses," even in context of the entire team. We're more concerned with "Balloons," who can lead an entire project astray if they have the ear of someone important!

Don't let The Know-It-All's insecurity blind you to what they can be contributing. To deal with The Know-It-All:


There are very few truly useless people in this world, but there are many people who are viewed in light of their weaknesses, rather than being put to work using their strengths.

Smalltalk amplifies this problem -- an out-of-place person can cause damage quicker on a Smalltalk project than they can on a traditional project, and corporate cultural checks that normally help such people, such as peer reviews, management one-on-one meetings, and performance reviews, are tuned to the slower beat of the traditional project.

Starting a Smalltalk project offers the opportunity for a "behavioral context switch," in which old patterns can be broken. By catching behavioral difficulties earlier, you can keep them from becoming established patterns. Once behavioral patterns are established, their impact on productivity must be carefully monitored, and humanely dealt with.


Type Talk At Work, How The 16 Personality Types Determine Your Success On The Job, Otto Kroeger and Janet M. Thuesen, 1992, Tilden Press, New York. This book concentrates on applying Jungian personality type theory in the workplace, and is much more approachable than defining works on the topic.

Coping With Difficult People, Robert M. Bramson, PH. D., 1981, Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York.

The Mythical Man-Month (20th Anniversary Edition), Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., 1995, Addison-Wesley, New York. A wonderful classic. Read it, then read it again in six months or so!

Go to the previous column in the series, or the next column in the series.

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