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By Jack Ganssle

Married to the Team

Published 7/08/2007

Marriage (if you're not a drunken celebrity) is usually preceded by an engagement and a period of dating that can last years. This time allows for an important ritual wherein one spends a lot of time trying on the potential spouse for size and fit, for compatibility and friendship. Outs exist at any time during this courtship, outs that are safety valves to defuse what could turn into an over-pressured boiler once the wedding is over.

Yet half of marriages end in divorce, often within a very short period of time.

Most engineers, though, marry their team after only an interview lasting an hour or two. It's more like polygamy than conventional marriage as teams are, well, teams, comprised of many members.

Extant team members are members of an arranged marriage, as many don't meet the "spouse" till the day of the marriage. Then they're expected to work in an almost intimate way, killing each other's ideas when they're bad and accepting a constant stream of intellectual criticism that is not always well-meaning or tactfully given.

CEOs sign pre-nuptial agreements, though sometimes these are, oddly, golden parachutes that enrich them even as they destroy the company.

We spend 40 to 60 hours a week working with these people, which may be far more time than spent with one's real spouse. Though divorce from a team is easier than that from real marriage, at least after a conventional divorce one can take years to re-evaluate, to figure out what went wrong, and to pursue a different tack the next time. A work "marriage" that fails leads to another hurried arrangement - a shotgun wedding, if you will - within days or weeks to avoid financial ruin.

Bankruptcy can follow. Just as it often does with real divorce.

In a romantic courtship certain rules ameliorate failure. Avoid a hasty trip to the altar. Avoid any idea that seems brilliant at the time, when the time is a party and a couple of drinks. Get to know the other, his/her friends, interests, desires and dreams. Find congruence between these and yours. Feel a deep attraction. Recognize that, while there is love at first sight, too often we men (at least) mix that up with lust at first sight.

A team marriage is always a hasty affair. There's no bachelor/bachelorette party. No toast. The only promises akin to those implied in the I Do contract are legalistic paperwork about withholding taxes and a parking space. After a whirlwind courtship lasting perhaps only a few days the company proposes; and one has a day or two to accept. The honeymoon is a half-day of health insurance and 401-K forms followed by total immersion into all of team's problems.

Anniversary flowers, romantic dinners to nourish the relationship and the occasional present out of the blue are the grease of a real marriage to help overcome inevitable differences and spats. There are virtually no analogous tools in the workplace. Grievances fester, the rumor mill buzzes, and teams either implode or work far less efficiently than they could.

Larry Constantine, one of programming's luminaries, works half time as a family therapist. I've always thought that a wonderful commentary on the nature of teams. His legendary team-building skills presumably stem, at least in part, from his understanding of the nature of human interaction. Yet in most companies leads are simply engineers who may be clueless about helping developers work efficiently, and with as little friction as possible.

What do you think? Do we bring the skills we use in marriage to the workplace? Should we?