While it's true that teams benefit from diversity of ideas and backgrounds, teams also benefit from diversity of work styles. In the office, a well-balanced team is one which contains people who mostly explore, people who mostly execute, and people who split time between both.

Let's label each end of this spectrum being an "athlete" or being an "artist".

Athletes

Athletes are the people on a team who care most about performance. They mostly focus on their personal performance, but sometimes an athlete will critique the performance of others in order to improve outputs within the team as a whole.

If you ask an athlete to take a task, they will accomplish that task quickly and ask for the next one. Junior team members are prone to overlook some details for the sake of performance, but more experienced athletes will have developed the “feel” to guarantee that things are done right the first time.

Athletes thrive in an environment where a goal line is visible and their stats are lit up on the wall. Sales reps are very often athletes, but so are many software engineers, designers, illustrators, and support reps. The “rules of the game” need to be clear, especially how you score points and what examples of high performance looks like. If you require an athlete to confirm 25 meetings per week or write code for every detail listed in a Jira ticket, they will deliver, but setting open-ended goals can result in confusion and frustration.

Artists

Artists are the thinkers and tinkerers. They say things like “it will get done when it gets done”. They have their own personal expectations for what good, great, and perfect looks like.

It's for this reason that artist-types are best at tasks that require exploration and creativity. Designers are artists, but so are many marketers, software engineers, business consultants, and data scientists. They regularly push the boundaries of what’s possible with idealistic solutions, challenging the team to think bigger. Its normal to see artists “go dark” from time to time when they want a safe space to try out ideas.

The tendency to deliver solutions which are grand in scale or unrelated to the team’s goal is why artists do their best work in an environment with just enough constraints to make expectations clear. Not enough constraints can lead to work that gets “thrown away” and too many constraints creates an environment hostile to creativity. For example, being firm about expected timing is an effective constraint because it lets artists better prioritize time spent on exploration versus other activities without directly policing them.

Leveling up - coaches, machines, and trailblazers

As individuals gain experience, they either master their style or blend styles together.

The leveled-up athlete could be called a “machine”; they are the kind of worker who can generate so much high-quality output that it seems inhuman. Unsurprisingly, like a machine, they can be somewhat rigid in their approach, but the trade-off is blazing fast execution.

Artists might eventually grow into “trailblazers”; their drive to explore new solutions and cutting edge ideas cannot be stopped. Trailblazers know that most of the exploration is impractical for day-to-day work, but the exposure leads to the kind of insights that create huge business value.

Coaches are the individuals who learn to recognize and apply both work styles at once. They are the ultimate blend of self-managed output learned from experience. Despite the name, coaches don’t necessarily need to be a direct manager, or even spend time doing the same type of work (in which case they are called "player-coaches"), they just need to be able to communicate with other artists and athletes on the team in a way that helps balance each person's strengths. In my experience, I've encountered consultants, product managers, COOs, and direct managers who have all been excellent coaches.

There are some individuals who may prematurely claim to be senior, but their lack of experience will betray them in practice. Additionally, anyone who bulldozes through work without enabling their surrounding teammates has not truly leveled up.

Achieving balance

How many athletes and artists do you need on your team in order to improve site reliability or to deliver new product features? How about if you need to build out a brand new SMB sales pipeline? The answer depends on a lot of factors.

When faced with challenges like these, people managers should take the time to recognize who is an artist and who is an athlete so that they can encourage each person to focus on tasks that suit them best. In some cases, managers will have to admit that an athlete or an artist on the team isn't thriving and recommend that they seek another team who is in demand of their skills. Ultimately, that person will be thankful.


Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash