Does every team need pawns?

The Spotify Team Health Check Model has a pawns vs. players question. It asks which statement you agree more with:

  • We are in control of our destiny! We decide what to build and how to build it. OR:
  • We are just pawns in a game of chess, with no influence over what we build or how we build it.

I was talking with a friend and former co-worker recently who disagreed with the premise that being a pawn is a bad thing. They said that pawns are important, and that every team needs some pawns.

As you’d expect, I disagree. First of all, I think it’s worth asking why pawns exist. It’s usually one of two reasons:

  1. The pawn doesn’t want to have opinions. They want to be told what to do and be left alone to do it.
  2. The pawn doesn’t feel empowered to voice opinions. They’re lacking psychological safety.

Reason one is the person, and reason two is the team. I’ve talked about both reason one and reason two before.

Either way, it’s unacceptable. Does everyone need to be opinionated? No. But everyone needs to be empowered, and everyone needs to care. Being a pawn is a slippery slope to being a ticket taking code monkey, and it’s the death of team jelling.

A team can survive with pawns, but it’ll never flourish.

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