Using an amusing medieval tale with a modern twist, Andrew Fuqua and Charles Suscheck tackle the dilemma of dealing with problematic overachievers in your agile team.
One upon a time, in a corporate castle far, far away, a young serf named Tommy inherited the responsibility of working on the ancient microcode. As fate would have it, Tommy also inherited the related production problems, in particular a nasty memory corruption issue. Poor Tommy didn’t know how to use the remote command-line debugger and, being the new owner of the code, he didn’t know how to approach the troubleshooting. Tommy besought the senior developer, Sir Harry, for help. Sir Harry was known for his ability to slay the biggest bugs in the kingdom.
However, Sir Harry secretly felt insecure about his own ability and uncomfortable with Tommy’s looking over his shoulder, so he was not patient with his new apprentice. To protect his reputation as hero of the kingdom, Harry banished Tommy to a cube-shaped hut as he toiled into the night. Harry had taken over.
By daybreak, Harry had triumphed over the evil bug. He bragged about his heroic effort throughout the kingdom. The manager minstrels emailed him songs of heartfelt thanks, and sent copies to everyone including the King and his court. Harry was given a medal, which he proudly displayed next to his others.
Do you know anybody like Sir Harry, the knight who single-handedly solves problems, pushing serfs aside, bragging about the number of hours he spends at the office, and garnering much cheering from management? He is the classic overachiever—a hero who exemplifies the highest levels of productivity while teammates fall by the wayside. His commitment may seem admirable, but numerous studies [1, 2] point to a negative correlation between this type of behavior and whole-team effectiveness. As a leader, if you don’t change an overachiever’s behavior, you run a high risk of being held hostage by his abilities and paying a cost in team productivity.
What Is an Overachiever?
An achiever is an eager, involved team member who buys into the project and is willing to go the extra mile by lending a hand or working extra hours. The agile achiever focuses on teamwork and collaboration.However, the overachiever is focused solely on the work and on himself, to the detriment of the team. Whenever things appear awry, the overachiever takes over and personally does the work. When the project is going swimmingly, he creates a false sense of urgency. He may, perhaps unconsciously, believe that his way of doing things is best. He may be totally unaware of his behavior.
An overachiever is often seen by anyone who observes the team as an informal leader. Management praises him instead of the team for heroic efforts. After a flurry of production problems, the true effects of the final rush—high staff turnover and morale at an all-time low—become apparent. The hero stays on, waiting for the chance to prove himself once more as the lynchpin.
Why Is an Overachiever a Problem?
Expectations, team growth, mutual trust, group direction, and commitment can be negatively impacted by an overachiever as he sets a pace that few can match, which in turn puts a lot of stress on team members. Managers may judge team members relative to the overachiever, saying “ Joe’s a good coder and puts in his forty-five hours, but Fred is working even more hours and doesn’t waste time playing games at lunch with the others.” Management often favors a person like Fred and overlooks and ignores someone like Joe. As Carly Chynoweth put it so aptly in the The Sunday Times, when there is an overachiever in the mix, the overachiever can turn team into subteams: “You get a sense that there’s an in-crowd who the leader rates and others who are left by the wayside and don’t know why. They will become disengaged and leave.” 
Another problem is that overachievers emphasize short-term results rather than developing their teammates or giving feedback. In believing that they can do the job better than anyone else, they deny others the opportunity to learn and grow. In this way, no individual can improve to become as productive as the overachiever.
Team members might feel that the overachiever doesn't trust them if he routinely pushes them aside when difficult situations arise. Their initiative and responsibility evaporate as they take on the routine, task-focused work. They are intentionally or unintentionally kept in the dark by a hyper-busy overachiever. This sentiment is best summed up by Daniel Goleman from his article, “Leadership That Gets Results,” published in the Harvard Business Review: “People [working for an overachiever often] do not understand where they are going. They’re just following the walk of this turbocharged leader, who doesn’t direct the team but focuses on output. They get annoyed, exhausted, and feel that they need to second-guess what the leader wants because they’re not being told.” 
Agile and the Overachiever
With an overachiever, a common theme emerges of the hero pushing aside the team. The values of the agile manifesto—that people are important—become hollow words, Products are no longer built around motivated individuals (emphasis on the plural), but are built around an individual. As the Agile Manifesto states: “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and the support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”  Note that this refers to “motivated individuals” working collaboratively, not to individual contributors working alone. The effect of an overachiever can mitigate many of the great principles of the Agile Manifesto. For example, the manifesto states: “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.” . Too much emphasis on the individual is the opposite of what Larman and Adkins so aptly described in Agile and Iterative Development: a Manager's Guide and Coaching Agile Teams.
Agile development emphasizes decentralized and lateral control structures and reciprocal power relations and encourages employee creativity and initiative by putting the context of the work squarely on the shoulders of the team. Team members must be comfortable enough to make mistakes; otherwise, the team cannot develop and use its abilities. Leadership must promote acceptance of ambiguity, facilitate collaborative teamwork, and promote exploration . Leaders—through formal training, individual discussions, and example—must coach the team on effective group dynamics, build the team’s confidence, and help team members embrace ambiguity .
In an agile environment, the team should be the center of work and productivity. Yet, each sprint provides an opportunity for the hero to pull out the stops and meet the sprint goal. This can become a positive feedback loop for the overachiever, who is gratified by his contribution. This behavior artificially inflates velocity since the team completes more work than is possible under a sustainable pace. Eventually this rush to completion at all costs leads to another iteration of overly optimistic commitments.
An overachiever may hoard tasks or even whole stories, ensuring that he is the center of the team’s effort. Even pair programming  can provide an opportunity for an overachiever to show off as he reduces his partner to a passive observer.
Aggressive product owners may take advantage of overachievers by equating acquiescence with collaboration and pressuring them to add little features “under the table.” Agile development can be a threat to the overachiever’s sense of control. With agile, we want whole-team participation and swarming, team responsibility, and team recognition. The overachiever, now with less of the spotlight, may feel lost and long to add value as an individual contributor.
How to Deal with an Overachiever
You can’t change people, but you can encourage new behavior by making the environment conducive to the expected behavior . Here are a few ideas on how to take the fun out of dysfunctional:
Set an Example
Overachievers are motivated by recognition. When an emergency happens and an overachiever steps in, acknowledge the sacrifice but don’t affirm heroics. Rather, recognize team collaboration and emphasize that the team needs to ensure that this pattern of emergency and heroics doesn’t happen again.  Make it clear that this type of behavior is a symptom of something worse than the problem that required heroics. Find and fix the root cause.
Appeal to His Intellect and Ego
Overachievers may not realize that the biggest impact within an organization comes from teamwork, not individual effort. Additionally, overachievers are very goal driven. Help the overachiever understand his style – show him where he can change toward a more collaborative style and set goals focused on changing that behavior. For example a goal of pairing, giving a brown bag on the project, or a goal of picking an apprentice would help the overachiever be more collaborative.
Appeal to the overachiever’s sense of self-worth by pointing out that being the central focus is limiting his advancement. He can’t take on more responsibility, lead more people, or add higher-level value if he can’t delegate to his teammates. He needs to boost the skills and abilities of his team to create more value. Collaboratively set goals that groom the overachiever to reach the next level, which focuses on team productivity. The overachiever should feel that the goal is something highly important that everyone must accomplish together.
Present personal growth toward a collaborative team as a challenge. Tell the overachiever that he must be able to turn over his work to his team mates and it’s his responsibility to see those team mates grow in their skills and knowledge. People with a driven personality respond positively to a difficult goal. They thrive on the recognition that comes with successfully pulling off the “impossible.”
Remove Opportunities for Bad Behavior
Deming writes that productivity is largely dictated by the environment, which management is responsible for . Therefore, make sure teams can have success without personal heroics. Remove pressure to overcommit. Make good use of early delivery in the sprint, continuous integration, unit testing, and burndown charts to avoid end-of-sprint rushes.
Prevent hoarding and encourage swarming. Make work visible through a task board. Make sure it is clear who is signed up for what and for how much. Limit the allowable size of tasks and the total work in progress as well as the amount of work per person.
As a last resort, redirect the overachiever’s get-it-done attitude away from specific development and towards removing impediments or address continuous process improvement. Redirect him away from always completing stories and ensure that the team completes them.
Andy Pearson, the CEO of PepsiCo once named one of the ten toughest bosses in America, said,
“If the need for recognition and approval is a fundamental human drive, then the willingness to give it is not a sign of weakness. Great leaders find a balance between getting results and how they get them. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that getting results is all there is to the job. Your real job is to get results and to do it in a way that makes your organization a great place to work—a place where people enjoy coming to work, instead of just taking orders and hitting this month’s numbers.” 
Overachievers are the team heroes—those who come to the rescue when the project is in trouble. They feel the need to pull the project single-handedly from the brink of failure. This may seem like the type of person you need on your team, and it may produce short-term results. However, it has a disastrous effect on the dynamics and well being of the team. Incorrect management reinforcement can set up a feedback loop that kills team productivity, which in turn makes the overachiever seem necessary.
You must mold the overachiever into a catalyst for whole-team productivity. Redirect the overachiever toward teamwork. Reward collaboration, take advantage of the overachiever’s tendencies in helpful ways, or directly challenge the overachiever to change. By doing this, you will be on the way to promoting whole-team effectiveness.
- Goleman, D. “Leadership That Gets Results,” Harvard Business Review, March-April 2000.
- McBride, Patricia and Maitland, Susan. EI Advantage: Putting Emotional Intelligence Into Practice, McGraw Hill, 2001.
- Chynoweth, Carly. “Do it my way and stay in tune”, The Sunday Times, accessed 4/2/2011 at http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/career_and_jobs/senior_ex...
- Beedle, M. et al. “The Agile Manifesto,” 2001, accessed 10/2/2010 at www.agilemanifesto.org/principles
- Larman, C. Agile and Iterative Development: a Manager's Guide, Addison-Wesley: Boston; 2004.
- Adkins, Lyssa. Coaching Agile Teams, Addison-Wesley, 2010, p. 39.
- Suscheck, Ford. “Jazz improvisation as a learning metaphor for the scrum software development methodology,” Software Process: Improvement and Practice, Volume 13. Issue 5.
- Heath, Chip and Heath, Dan. “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard”, Crown Business, 2010.
- Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis, MIT Press, 2000.