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On a Plus/Minus for Engineering Teams

Management is rife with sports metaphors, we are all team players trying to get our projects over the line. Netflix’s CEO famously said they are a sports team, not a family. We even go so far to identify individuals and create roles on engineering teams that map on to sports team archetypes, someone might be a good facilitator, quarterback or in clutch situations. What is less obvious nor standardized is how we evaluate individual and team performance. Many times quantifying performance is far more qualitative and mysterious than anyone in the process would prefer. How can we understand the impact someone has on their team, projects and organization as a whole the same way that a basketball team might? How can we ensure that their evaluation encompasses the myriad of ways they might contribute, rather than just counting things like commits or shipping code?

First off, let me just say I don’t have the answer but I think we as an industry can do better. A step in the right direction might be going beyond the sports analogy and evaluating individuals and teams using sports-like statistics. In basketball there is an all encompassing statistic called plus/minus.

“In its simplest form, plus-minus is exactly what it sounds like – when a given player is on the floor, be it for a single game, group of games or a season, does his team get outscored or does it outscore the opponent? This very simple metric is housed in most common single-game box scores, and is the rawest way of determining what sort of effect a player has on his team (and the opponent) while on the court.”

… the general goal remains to contextualize the effect a player has on his team and opponents while accounting for as many situations and player combinations as possible. Rather than tracking what a player accomplishes individually, the idea is to determine what each individual player’s cumulative contribution has meant to what their team does while they’re on the floor.”

Most engineering teams don’t have direct opponents or games but we do have goals and projects, during which we are competing against time, costs and complexity. The rest of the analogy and what plus/minus evaluates applies, rather than focus on any individual statistic that an engineer produces it shows how that individual impacts the team, regardless of the way they might contribute. It captures whether the individual is good at scoring (shipping), facilitating (helping others succeed), defense (avoiding pitfalls), in clutch moments (during an outage) and any other possibility. This agnosticism is powerful because it abstracts away the details and focuses on impact.

A vivid example of this is the story of Shane Battier, the No Stats All Star.

“Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the N.B.A.’s most prolific scorers, he significantly ­reduces their shooting percentages. At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of his teammates — probably, Morey surmises, by helping them out in all sorts of subtle ways. “I call him Lego,” Morey says. “When he’s on the court, all the pieces start to fit together. And everything that leads to winning that you can get to through intellect instead of innate ability, Shane excels in. I’ll bet he’s in the hundredth percentile of every category.””

“In his best season, the superstar point guard Steve Nash was a plus 14.5. At the time of the Lakers game, Battier was a plus 10, which put him in the company of Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett, both perennial All-Stars. For his career he’s a plus 6. “Plus 6 is enormous,” Morey says. “It’s the difference between 41 wins and 60 wins.” He names a few other players who were a plus 6 last season: Vince Carter, Carmelo Anthony, Tracy McGrady.”

Obviously having a team of Shane Battiers won’t help an organization to win a championship or ship a new product but hard to quantify abilities of Shane Battiers are critical to successful teams. Diverse teams can solve problems that specialized teams simply cannot. The bottom line is we should all do better to identify and reward the Shane Battiers like we do the more obvious contributions of specialists and high scorers and that starts with improving how we evaluate each persons impact.

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