Take Your Team to a Drag Race

One thing that I have noticed at the beginning of a project is that there almost always appears to be confusion. Confusion about mission. Confusion about terminology. Confusion about what is important. Confusion about roles and responsiblilities. It feels bad, it looks bad and it smells bad.

It’s like what drag racers do before a run. They used to pour bleach on the tires and spin the drive wheels, creating massive amounts of foul smelling smoke. The purpose of this exercise is to heat up the rubber, so on the actual run, the tire are already super sticky and get traction and the car launches like a “hole shot” down the strip. There is a science to this, but it feels, looks and smells bad.

This is a team formation fable. At the beginning of a software project, we all have assumptions and expectations – not all aligned. During the initial period the team has to bring itself to alignment in order to get traction. We don’t all know each other very well so we don’t really trust each other, and we quickly form opinions about others capacity and integrity. If leadership is good, this period is very short, and we settle into a rhythm where all can function and collaborate to get good work done. If leadership is poor, or there are many leaders striving for supremacy, then this process can last a long time.

In order to “get out of the bleach box” – the leader needs to:

  • establish a common understanding of the mission.
  • establish a common language that all agree to use to talk about the project.
  • establish a set of common values that all will hold each other accountable for adhering to.
  • establish a basic understanding about who is responsible for what, and how decision rights are assigned.

What really great leaders do is to make this stick, so that even as decision rights and responsibilities transition from one individual to another, the team doesn’t lose traction. There are a series of events that require “intense communication” to prevent the team from losing traction including:


  • a leadership transition – great leaders can hand off or accept a new assignment without creating a vortex of confusion.
  • losing, adding or replacing team members – the whole team needs to be involved when the team changes.
  • the mission changes – when something in the environment causes the mission to change, everyone needs to adjust to the NEW mission.

Here is a challege, assess how well your team does when these events happen – do they lose traction and end up in the weeds, stuck until someone outside the team comes to the rescue? do they go back to the bleach box? or do they just keep on knocking down the work?…

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