Most project leaders have been there before: The hero saves the day, yet again. Everyone is grateful because, obviously, if not for the hero the project would have crashed and burned. It seems so lucky that the team can benefit from this all-star who pulls the project out of the fire time and again. What would we do without him (or her)?
Indeed, a good question: What would we do without the hero?
Let’s flash forward a little ways. The hero has grown tired of the project and leaves. Fears abound that the project is doomed; there’s no way the team will survive without him. Concerns run deep, until the hero tells us he’ll stay on-board as a part-time consultant. Of course, he’s pretty busy these days — but, well, he’ll give us a “preferred” rate and show up at least a few days each week. He’ll keep the project afloat, no worries… in between getting his new company off the ground, of course. The one we’re funding with expensive consulting dollars. Either that, or the hero feels the project isn’t challenging enough, and leaves to greener pastures and more exciting projects, still promising to provide part-time support to keep the project afloat.
Either situation is dismal. Both demonstrate a project and a team that’s being held hostage to the whims of the “hero.”
The truth of the matter is simply this: Heroes are bad for the team, bad for the project and bad for the company.
Heroes are motivated by making themselves indispensable to the project by becoming irreplaceable. Most often this takes the form of information hoarding. The hero understands quite well that the established culture supports his role only while he and he alone can solve the project’s problems. One of the most effective ways to make sure this happens is to keep critical information away from the team. He’s the only expert in a few critical areas, and refuses to share his knowledge because it would be inefficient or too difficult to convey to someone else.
This leads to situations where the hero is subtly motivated to make sure there are instances in which only he can save the project. By ensuring the hero is the only one with the answers, the only one who can solve the problem at hand, he becomes indispensable — and, also, a tremendous project risk. Not only is everyone on the team constantly put in second-place to the hero, they also suffer as a whole when the hero is at his best. In times when the hero “shines,” the team is struggling to overcome roadblocks they haven’t been prepared to deal with. The project falls into jeopardy because the team cannot focus on a solution as a whole. Instead, the team churns in vain trying to contribute to the solution that only the indispensable hero can tackle.
Consequently, team morale is often a casualty of the hero culture. The continued failure of the team to exceed project goals, instead running into roadblock after roadblock, is tiring. Compound this with the fact that only one person, the hero, is enough of an over-achiever to solve the problems of a seemingly over-ambitious project and the team begins to become demoralized. Nobody likes to come face to face with failure repeatedly. Doing so in an environment that doesn’t provide the tools to better oneself is futile, and the hero team leader is certainly not motivated to fix the situation. In point of fact, most heroes tend to be pretty lousy team mentors, as being a hero implies putting oneself above everyone else. This means that while the hero has holed up inventing the next great solution, the team is left to its own devices. This vacuum of leadership provides a poor environment for anyone interested in advancing their skills and career, let alone seeking out a workplace that provides opportunity to learn.
Environments that support the hero become detrimental to the team. With the team leader focused on fulfilling the role of hero, collaboration suffers. Without a truly open, collaborative, information-sharing environment projects function at low efficiency (or, in some cases, fail to function completely as information is silo’d and isolated). In contrast, a healthy team elevates everyone, sharing information and skills, making the hero obsolete and making the entire team indispensable. A collaborative team rapidly turns into a formidable force when its collective attention turns to any problem — such teams turn out productive results faster and more efficiently. Each individual’s growth becomes a focal point, and the positive experience and knowledge gained from such a working environment becomes a lesson that each team member can share. In an open, collaborative, delegating environment the team lead will mentor the team; constantly challenging each person to take on more responsibility and grow into new opportunities. The best team leads are not information hoarders but information sharers, almost trying to engineer themselves out of the equation by teaching everything they know. In fact, this kind of leadership becomes truly indispensable because so few people are able to teach, motivate, mentor and unify a group of people toward a single purpose effectively. It’s not the information hoarded in the team lead’s head that makes him invaluable, it’s his ability to create a hyper-productive team and get things done.
As a project leader it’s important to confront the hero mentality head-on, making it clear that a hero is known for what it is: A detriment and risk to the project. Heroes are a liability. They are a bottleneck to progress, introduce the risk of “hostage projects,” generally make poor mentors and leaders, and always create specific situations that are harmful or dangerous to the project.
Unfortunately, putting an end to hero culture is often not an easy task. Many workplaces that embody hero culture don’t understand the problem — they think everything is “just fine,” and look to the hero as a critical resource, someone that has saved the project or the company time and again. Especially in young or inexperienced organizations, the difference between a supportive environment and a destructive one is unclear. The hero continues to operate above and apart from the team, often disregarding what little authority or direction he disagrees with. Inexperienced team members don’t know they should have a team lead that is mentor, guide and teacher. Organizations can be set up in such a way that the hero figure is empowered beyond reasonable boundaries, as often happens when clear structure and accountability is not in place. Combined, these problems can create the environment where a hero-mentality, embodied in someone who is ill-suited to create unity, lead, and mentor, ends up holding the project hostage. Most often, the evidence will point to the root problem: The team will constantly run into problems only one person can solve; team members will disagree with the hero and often not achieve consensus; much of the team will be “out of the loop,” particularly where the hero is involved; overall, the team will operate either apart from the hero or as individuals, not a cohesive group. Perhaps most indicative: The hero has sole authority over the project, yet little accountability. This is common in so-called “flat” organizations. I tend to avoid organizations that strive to be “flat,” as it’s really just a way of saying “we don’t want to deal with the fact that someone has to be in charge.” The simple truth is that leaders and managers need to have the authority to implement policy. Good leaders and managers will find ways to do it without using their authority unless necessary.
The easiest way to fight hero culture is from a position of authority, such as the project sponsor or project manager role. Given the advantage of authority, the hero can be given a choice: Either become a collaborative leader, or face what amounts to demotion as a new leader steps in. Some heroes won’t be able to make the right decision and will end up leaving the project — but others will embrace the idea of transforming themselves into a positive influence. I’ve seen this happen in a few cases and can honestly say the results were extraordinary. It could be that your hero’s spirit is willing but he doesn’t recognize there’s a problem. Likewise, it could be that your hero is struggling to move into a management role and needs guidance himself. Sometimes you’ll find out the hero was thrust into a leadership role without wanting it, and will happily step aside.
Whether tackling the problem from a position of authority, or from the inside, there are a few strategies that will help to ease the process. Developing a collaborative environment is a first step at ending the hero culture. This means putting in place tools and processes to share information, including an open information environment. Get information out of everyone’s head and into a tool that facilitates group review and commentary, such as a wiki or document repository. This can begin by emphasizing brainstorming sessions, collaborative documentation and group exercises to design and implement solutions. Often group development can be a productive tool, as well (some environments, such as Extreme Programming, push pair programming as one example — I don’t believe pair programming should always be put in practice, but this is a good example of when it makes sense). Project deliverables should also be managed in an open, collaborative environment. Use a project or task tracking system that lets everyone see what’s going on, what’s being delivered and how it’s being done, and most important: Focus on shared responsibility and avoid having unique specialties in favor of collaboration.
The team should also push for opportunities to advance skills and individual knowledge. Avoid “information silos,” or individuals who hold all the answers to a specific problem. It’s healthy for teams to have more than one expert in an area. Not only does it reduce risk, it also affords a more collaborative environment where two or more people can openly discuss a solution and work together on implementation. Any time you hear “only one of us knows how to do that,” immediately think in terms of how you can turn one into two or three people.
Demand a leader that is a good mentor. If the team hero isn’t up to the job, find someone who is — and be vocal about wanting an environment that supports growth. A healthy work environment includes ample opportunity to take on more responsibility. Any project manager that hears you want the responsibility will start casting about for a means to give it to you — and that usually means making sure the team leader can advance his team.
Ultimately, your work environment is in your hands. If you’re aware of the problem, identify it and and surface it — but do so in a constructive way. Have ideas and solutions ready to solve the problem, and emphasize the value it will bring to the team or organization. Focus on the facts as much as possible, like productivity gains the team will experience when it has greater bandwidth, and how getting to market more rapidly (and probably with a better, more robust product) will boost return on investment.