Addressing Team Reliance Upon One

Our team is comprised primarily of relatively new staters, with all but one being here between four months and four weeks. One developer (let’s call him Jack) has been here much longer and is very familiar with the product. As I’m sure we’ve all seen in this scenario the team has developed a level of reliance upon Jack that was understandable to start with, but needs tackling to avoid problems in the future.

What About Jack?

My primary concern about this situation is for Jack himself. If he spends his whole day answering other people’s questions then he’s going to have no time to learn anything new himself. In technology, not learning means that one isn’t just standing still but potentially going backwards too. One of the most common reasons people choose to move on from an organisation is the lack of personal development. Given how the team relies upon Jack we can’t afford to lose him.

I also worry about the team in this situation. Firstly, they’re disempowering themselves by relying upon Jack. Maybe not now, but I fear that they will be reluctant to make decisions on their own in the future. Secondly, without investigating the product to find the answer they’ll be missing out of serendipitous discoveries. To really gain a depth of knowledge on a product, one needs to rummage.

Dare the Team

I decided to tackle the situation this week by daring the team to go a day without asking Jack any questions. Jack was due to spend the day pairing with someone from another team, and I didn’t want to see him distracted from this opportunity. On the whole the team did very well. I did catch them cheating a couple of times and so gently poked fun at the situation. At one point Jack was cornered by a colleague to help with a support ticket, and like the hero he is he immediately picked it up and ran with it. I went over to speak with Jack and the team to see if someone else could pick it up – which they could – and so Jack returned to his partner.

Daring the team for a day was a great way to raise awareness of the situation to the team, but is clearly not a long term solution. The next day I took Jack aside and gave him two pieces of advice. Firstly, answer questions with questions. Questions return power back to the original asker and allow one to see and challenge existing thought processes. Secondly, give silence to be filled. These two skills take time to develop, but I think Jack can do it.

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