Catalysts, Inhibitors, and High-Performing Teams

November 2, 2010

As a manager in an Agile development shop, I find that an important consideration when staffing our self-organizing teams is to answer the question, “Who is the catalyst on this team?”

A catalyst in chemistry, as defined by Wikipedia, is something that speeds a reaction. It is a substance that initiates or accelerates a reaction. In a team sense, a catalyst is an individual who raises the productivity of the team, more so than simply improving the productivity of the team by the amount of work that the individual catalyst can perform.

How a catalyst accomplishes this can vary; some posses a high degree of technical expertise and keep up on, embrace, and share their knowledge of the latest technical practices. Others latch onto the collaborative aspects of Agile development and – through their willingness to work with others – pull the team together with their positive energy. Others have significant knowledge and history in a particularly large and complex code base – domain knowledge – that they feel passionate about because they were one of those who built the product. They have that "pride of an owner." I’m sure that you can think of other examples.

The team reacts to the presence of a catalyst by being inspired; they aren’t directed as much as they are guided in some way. The catalyst is someone who helps smooth the path for the team so that work is less of a struggle. In the cases where the catalyst has knowledge that the rest of the team lacks, valuable time is saved because the catalyst willingly shares his or her knowledge with the team. Other times, this knowledge is contained within the team, but drawn out by a catalyst who encourages and stimulates key conversations.

On the flip side, there are those who slow the reaction of the team. These are inhibitors. Inhibitors come in various forms, but they always drag the performance of the team down in some way. Some people have an extremely negative outlook that carries into their day-to-day work, and they make everyone around them miserable. Some people are not into working on teams and actively resist the teamwork concept. They would rather work alone, locked away in a private office with an occasional pizza slid under the door. Others have a personal axe to grind with someone on the team.

Whatever the case, an inhibitor is poison to raising the productivity of a team. As a manager, it’s vitally important to deal with and/or remove inhibitors due to the effects of negativity bias, meaning that tend people to pay greater attention – and give greater weight – to negative experiences than positive experiences. Some studies suggest that it takes five positive interactions to make up for a single, bad interaction. Don’t defer on dealing with inhibitor if you want high productivity!

In those cases where you don’t have an inhibitor but you also lack a catalyst, you’re likely in neutral. While you might not have dramatic failures or pressing problems, you are most likley not where you could be or should be. Not everyone is a catalyst, but can you identify your catalysts, and are they placed appropriately in the context of all of your project teams and business priorities?