Intense teams, not tense teams

intense (adj): marked by or expressive of great zeal, energy, determination, or concentration

tense (adj): in a state of mental or nervous strain; high-strung; taut:

Merriam Webster

The book Multipliers makes the distinction between teams that are tense vs. teams that are intense. Intense teams thrive, and tense teams suffer. Intense teams bring out the best in people, and tense teams burn people out.

But the line is so thin, right? And worse: one person’s “intense” is another person’s “tense”. So at face value, leaders have two choices:

  • Challenge the people with the highest threshold of intensity, which means everyone else feels tense
  • Cater to the people with the lowest threshold of intensity, which means everyone else bored and unchallenged

That’s how I thought of it for a while, but I finally realized that tense vs. intense aren’t different points on the same scale. They’re mutually exclusive. So the trick is maximizing intensity while also minimizing tension.

Maximizing intensity could mean: lots of healthy conflict, flat out giving a crap, mob programming, delegating ownership until it hurts, extreme team focus around a single problem at a time, building a cult of quality, or friendly competition against other teams.

Maximizing tension could mean: fragmenting people’s time, setting aggressive yet arbitrary deadlines, sacrificing craftsmanship to hit those deadlines, pitting team members in competition against each other, setting velocity goals (especially per-person…shutter), or pigeon-holing people into their area of expertise to maximize throughout while preventing anyone from learning anything.

Tension isn’t just too-much-intensity like I used to believe. It’s a totally different scale.

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