Monthly Archives: April 2013

How Self-Organizing Teams Get Stuck

Self-organizing teams are those teams that are given a goal and decide amongst themselves how best to solve the problems at hand to achieve the goal.  In the agile world, these teams also work in small cycles and use feedback to learn quickly and adjust course as needed.  When things go well – these teams do extremely well.  In software that usually means building great software that delights the customer.

But things don’t always go so well.  I’ve been on many such teams that don’t achieve those levels of performance and sometimes fall flat on their face and fail miserably.  What happens?  Here are some common stumbling-blocks that I’ve observed:

  • Lack of safety.  When individuals on a self-organizing team feel unsafe to share their thoughts and experiences and ideas the team is unable to leverage that expertise to make decisions and learn quickly.  Therefore the teams learn more slowly and make more mistakes and are blocked.
  • Lack of ownership.  When individuals don’t take ownership for the success of the team, they watch mistakes happen within the team and “don’t step up” to fix them because that is not their responsibility.   However, self-organizing teams kick-ass because they are able to leverage the diversity of the group.  They make great decisions and learn quickly because everyone takes ownership for the success of the group.
  • Not addressing problems early.  No matter how safe things are, or how much ownership you take, if you don’t see problems and address them when they are small, you have no chance of achieving high performance.  The problems grow and become significantly harder to solve.
  • Not caring about human dynamics.  Sometimes we get annoyed with each other.  Sometimes we have disagreements and some bad feelings linger and may fester.  Great teams don’t let these things build up and have the difficult conversations quickly.  However, for the rest of us, this is the beginning of the end.  We end up spending too much of our time working with things.  We start to feel unsafe around others.  And we disengage.
  • Not using consent.  Self-organizing teams do the best they can to get everyone’s input and make it real.  That is best done by consent – not majority rules – or leader rules – or more experienced rules.  You miss too many opportunities to do the right thing and catch mistakes early if you discount someone’s ideas.  They have legitimate concerns even if they are the in the minority.  Effective teams take the time to listen and address those concerns.
  • Not able to confront and learn from failure.  Knowledge work is all about creating something new.  And creating something new is always fraught with mistakes and missteps.  However failure is often unsafe and painful.  Teams that are unable to confront failure will not learn from those opportunities and will often take much longer to get to a less effective solution than teams who fail fast and learn from those failures.

And, if you manage to get it right at the team level – how does this scale?  Or does it?  In many organizations, a small team doing well will only be a blip on the radar and won’t really affect the success or failure of a product, let alone the organization.  But that’s a topic for another post, stay tuned….

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Posted by on April 26, 2013 in Individuals, Interactions, Teams



On Transparency and Openness

We all want to be transparent and open on our teams – don’t we?  Well, at least we want the benefits that come along with it such as:

  • not being surprised at the end of a long project that we are off-course,
  • ability to recognize change early in order to respond to it,
  • a way to build trust in what we are doing,
  • a mechanism for estimation
  • and many more….

However, achieving transparency and openness are more difficult than they might seem to start off with.  One of the primary reasons, is that if you are transparent and open about the work you do, the agreements you make, and the results (or lack thereof) you achieve, you also open yourself up to publicly failing.  And that public failure is extremely painful for most of us.

If you are a coder, can you remember the first time you ever had to pair-program?  If you are a product owner, do you remember a time when you had the team working on the wrong thing and was questioned about it?  For the rest of us out there, can you remember the last time you had someone review your less-than-perfect work?

For most of us – it is uncomfortable having someone review our work and see our mistakes.  But that is what we are asking of people in the agile world:  to pair-program, to build in iterations, to meet the definition of done, to estimate and openly miss those estimates.  And not only that, we are saying that people should do more of it, fail more often so that those failures are smaller, and confront those failures and learn from them.  That’s a TALL order for anyone.

(Unfortunately?), transparency and openness are absolutely necessary for sustained high-performance.  And being able to fail quickly and learn from our mistakes is a hallmark of great teams.  Every single team that I have witnessed achieved hyper-productivity has achieved this state has found a way to be comfortable with failure and leverage it for learning and success.

So, how do you get past that discomfort, pain, and fear?  Well, in many ways you don’t, it will always be there for many of us, however we can make it more palatable and increase the chances of truly achieving and sustaining the benefits by making things safe.

the state of being safe; freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger, or loss.

In many ways, we feel a risk of injury, danger, or loss when our mistakes are made public.  Are we going to be blamed if our mistakes are visible?  Will it affect our review at the end of the year?  Will someone roll their eyes and say that they can do it much better?  Will we be humiliated or will we lose standing on the team?  These are things that exist in many of our lives at work.  And when they do, we feel unsafe.  And when we feel unsafe, we will shut down and shut down transparency and openness along with it.

So what can we do about this?  Well, we need to make things safe.  How do we make things safe?  As always I don’t have a recipe independent of context, however, here are some effective tactics:

  • Be reflective.  When there is an issue or problem ask yourself how you are part of the problem.  Listen – really listen.  When people feel listened to and acknowledged, they feel valued and they feel more safe – even if they end up being wrong.
  • Respect people.  No matter what you say, or what you do, your opinion of the people you are working with seeps out; sometimes through body language and sometimes through the tone of voice and other means.  You can’t fake respect and everyone can sense it.  So, if you want to create safety, you genuinely have to respect others and see them as equals.  (Anatomy of Peace is a great book on the subject.)
  • One thing my friend Steve Peha does when he is facing a problem with someone else, he addresses himself and his perception of what’s happening and his reactions to the issue at hand instead of (as most of us do) pointing the finger at the other person and telling him/her how they have goofed and upset us.  Christopher Avery’s work on Responsibility Redefined is spot on here.
  • Trust people.  You don’t have to be nieve about it, but start with trust.  You can always re-evaluate if you’ve misplaced your trust.  Trust in another person shows that you see they have value.
  • Focus on the subject – not the people involved – and be ready to be wrong.  It’s ok.  None of us have it all figured out.  So instead of arguing who is right or wrong, focus on the work; the subject – instead of yourself or the other person.

Looking back on this list, it feels woefully inadequate for such an important subject.  But it is what I have today.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll have better answers.


Posted by on April 19, 2013 in Individuals, Interactions


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How To Be Mediocre Without Even Trying


Have you ever been on a team of aces – the best of the best – and failed? Have you ever been on a team that consisted of average people, found your rhythm and exceeded expectations? Have you ever been on a highly successful agile team and then later used the exact same practices with another group of people, but failed to get the desired results? Why do the same practices work really well with one team and not another? What is behind this?

There is a frequently self-fulfilled stereotype among technical professionals that we are not good at interpersonal skills, that such are traits of one’s personality, and consequently un-learnable. Many of us feel uncomfortable with the topic so we tend to underplay its importance, which is evidenced by our characterizing such skills as touchy-feely. We focus on our work – the real work – of writing code, coming up with and maintaining designs, and architecture. The touchy-feely things are unimportant and frequently get in the way. The technical practices are the important thing.

Hereʼs the [hidden] truth: we are wrong. Agile methods constantly bring up problems and upsets. Agile methods do not ensure success alone. Our ability to respond to problems effectively as individuals, teams, and organizations is the real key to success. The answer to success is therefore not in the technical practices but in the human dynamics beneath our methods. Human dynamics are the difference between a failed team, a team that gets by, and a hyper-productive team. Unfortunately, many are unaware of these practices, and therefore using different agile methods alone becomes a hit-or-miss gamble.

The good news is that these human dynamics are learnable. In this article I will explain why this skill set is so important to highly productive software development and give you a simple model to better understand what these skills are, and when they should be used. But before we dig into the skills, letʼs take a look at software development in general.


Here is a hypothetical situation that I have presented to many of my students:

Suppose I was your client and I asked you and your team to build a software system for me.Your team proceeds to build the software system. It takes you a full year – 12 months – to deliver working, tested software.

I then thank you and your team and take the software and throw it out. I then ask you to rebuild the system. You have the same team. The same requirements. The same tools and software. Basically – nothing has changed – it is exactly the same environment.

How long will it take you and your team to rebuild the system again?

When I present this hypothetical situation to my students – many of them with 20+ years experience in building software – they typically respond with estimates that are anywhere between 20% to 70% of the time. That is, rebuilding a system that originally takes one year to build would take only 2.5 to 8.5 months to build the second time around. This is a huge difference! Do you know any one factor that can affect software development that much?

So, what was the problem? What was different? The difference was that the team had learned. They learned about each other as a team and have gelled over the year. They learned about the true requirements – not just those written down. They also learned to use the toolset, the idiosyncrasies that come up during all software development. Basically they worked through all the unknowns until they built and delivered a successful software system. Learning is THE most costly part of software development.

Thatʼs the main reason that agile practices (sometimes) work so well – they are all about recognizing and responding to change. Agile practices from test-driven development and continuous integration, to iterations and retrospectives are all accelerating feedback to enable the team to learn faster. By cycling at every possible instance, agile teams have the opportunity to accelerate learning and address the most costly portion of software development.

But learning is not automatic and it does not come for free. Anything that impedes our ability to learn will take us down the road to mediocrity. That is where human dynamics come in. If we donʼt know how to leverage problems individually and as a team and organization, then we cannot benefit fully from agile practices – no matter what those practices are.


Software development is a team sport; we either all win together by producing great software, or we all lose together by not achieving our goals no matter how well we execute individually. For software teams, there is no such thing as “it is not my problem”. Believing that a problem belongs to only one member of a software team is as invalid as for people on a plane to say “it is not my wing on fire”.

These skills are important for everyone, even purely technical roles such as developers and architects. Consider the following scenario as an illustration:

I am a developer on a team who gets the architecture and/ or design handed down from above. I just got out of a meeting with our architect where he explained the reasons behind why things were set the way they were. He was very polite and said all the right words; but I did not feel listened to.

I brought up what seemed like important issues of things that are infeasible given the current libraries we use. I was unsatisfied with the architect’s answer. He just explained the issues away as though brushing them aside. On the surface I can’t really argue, but I feel frustrated because his ‘words’ are right but I still have a sinking suspicion that things are not right. I am also a little annoyed that my architect didn’t take me seriously and I have started thinking of him as disconnected and an ivory tower architect.

This has several effects on our productivity:

• I may not do my best at solving the problem his way and will be glad if it fails and say ‘I told you so’.

• I may ignore the architect, because of my new perception of him, and that will cause an inconsistency in the code. If I am right, people coming to work on the code after me will have a harder time understanding it in a larger perspective. If I am wrong, then I’m wasting my time on a solution that will not work and impact the architect’s perception of me.This, in turn, will make me more resentful.

• I work much more effectively when I’m bought in and excited. When I’m doing things out of obligation I do what’s necessary to get by. It is also more difficult and stressful on me, which directly affects my productivity.

• The architect will not trust me no matter what choice I make. If I do what he says slowly (because I’m coming from obligation) he’ll think I’m slow. If I don’t do what he says he won’t trust me at best and will consider me an obstacle at worst.

This scenario shows how sincerity (the architectʼs and later mine) affects ownership. I abdicated ownership in the scenario when I did work out of obligation. My perception of the architectʼs insincerity reduced my trust in him, and my actions will reduce his trust in me. All of this happened because I perceived a problem but did nothing to confront the issue or correct it. All of this happened in an environment where ʻarchitectsʼ hand down the law to ʻdevelopersʼ – an environment that leaders in the organization have created and maintained.

My part in it, even if I am a lowly developer, is that I have chosen to join such an organization, and I let my upset affect my work and did nothing to resolve it.

In all of these scenarios I have impeded my ability to learn and the ability of others to learn by not confronting the upset and working it out. The odds are good that if my architect reacts negatively and does not address my upset that the problem will fester and grow and continue to affect our ability to learn and thus our productivity.


Now, as I said before, agile practices are especially good at bringing problems to the forefront because of the numerous inspect and adapt cycles. How we react to those problems, both individually and as a team, makes the difference between hyper-productivity and mediocrity. To that end, when we encounter a problem there are several fundamental, learnable skills that deeply affect our effectiveness as technical professionals in a team environment because they equally affect our ability to learn.

If the scenario above was on an agile project, my code would be quickly used by others and the problem would be brought up again and again no matter which route I took. This would have been likely to increase the animosity between the architect and myself. We might very well have ended up in a difficult confrontation that would have entrenched us in our positions because we saw each other as obstacles.

Or it may have been solved – if either of us were skilled in the human dynamics of regularly solving these types of problems. The teams that are successful with agile methods are the ones that have members who are adept at leveraging such problems for their benefit and that of their peers.


Iʼve shown a typical scenario in which an upset impedes learning. However it does not have to be that way. Every upset is an opportunity to grow and learn, both individually and as a team. If I could solve the upset and take ownership of the problem I would keep from impeding my learning and that of the team. And if I could find a way of doing this myself – without having to rely on anyone else to change then it becomes feasible. Those are two pretty big IFs, but those are the skills that we must master to succeed. Those are the skills that will turn our losses into wins and make every problem an opportunity for success. Those are the skills that are more important than the technical agile practices.

Furthermore, it is not only the skills that matter, but when we use those skills. For example, I put the blame on my architect before asking how I had a hand in creating this upset. I put the solution to my upset squarely on the architectʼs shoulders since he is at fault for my problem. Now the only way to solve the upset is to change the architect and since I see him as incompetent anyway then Iʼll have an extremely hard time of doing so. So the first category of skills that we must address, before anything else, is working on ourselves. Can we take ownership of our own problems? Below are five categories of human dynamics skills that we must address in the proper order to reliably and repeatedly leverage our upsets for improvement:

  • SELF. By far, the easiest person to change is ourself. This is our greatest point of leverage in solving a problem. Instead of blaming the architect and starting down the road of either working out of obligation or doing my own thing, I should look at myself first. If I take ownership of the problem and see the architect as a team member and not stereotype him as an ivory tower architect I can prevent a vicious cycle.
  • CLARITY. When facing a problem we are often very aware of what we donʼt like about it. We are aware of the problem. But are we aware of what we want? I was very aware of what I did not want – I did not want the architect dismissing my ideas or looking down at me. But what did I want? It was clearly more than just presenting my solution. Feeling disrespected and undervalued had a large part in my upset and my actions moving forward.
  • ASKING. Once we are clear on what we want, chances are we havenʼt asked for it. The next step is to ask for what we want from others explicitly. I did not ask the architect for respect I just assumed he did not respect or value me and subsequently I lost respect for him.
  • AGREEMENT. Asking for something does not mean you will get it. Have we reached explicit agreement? If we let problems be, the best we can expect is that they will linger and many times they will fester and grow as they may with the example above.
  • CONFRONTING. Once we have asked and agreed upon something then it is appropriate to call someone on a missed agreement. Many of us are extremely uncomfortable with confrontation and are not skilled in doing so in a constructive manner.
    This means that many of us either shy away from confronting others or are so uncomfortable with confrontation that when we finally get the courage to do something we do so under great pressure.

The above categorization is an umbrella for a large set of human dynamics skills that are learnable and applicable to our day-to-day work. There are many models and discrete practices that fit under each of these categories that help us implement these actions. I would like you to remember that order matters. Before you call someone on something you believe they did wrong, go through steps 1 through 4 before executing step 5. How did you help create the problem? Are you clear on what you want? Have you asked for it? Did you get explicit agreement? Only then is it fair and proper to call someone on a missed agreement.


Beware that small upsets that go unaddressed build up. Agile methods can be painful and counter-productive if we donʼt address the upsets that come up frequently because of the cyclic nature of many of the agile practices. That in turn, impedes our learning little by little, which can slowly bring our progress down to a halt and put us in a situation worse than before we started adopting our agile method of choice. Since learning is the largest part of software development, we need to figure out how to learn from every upset instead of allowing upsets to slowly bring our productivity to a near halt.

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Posted by on April 16, 2013 in Individuals, Interactions


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How Great Teams Make Decisions

So I’ve been reading We The People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy which is a book recommended in The Culture Game by my good friend Dan Mezick.  This book describes sociocracy which is a consent-based governance system that looks a whole lot like scalable self-organizing teams.  Ok, sounds esoteric, right?  I agree, the book has been on my bookshelf for at least 6 months and I’m not quite sure why I picked it up, but am really happy I did.

Ok, I just lied, I picked it up because I’m trying to start a new user group in NYC focused on the the human dynamics and culture of high performance teams and I want to create a great self-organizing leadership team.  But I digress……

This morning in the subway, I read the following in a description of teams that practice sociocracy:

The requirement to resolve objections transforms decision making from a struggle for control into a process of puzzle solving.

That resonated for me.  In my experience on the few “magic teams” throughout my career that had really achieved high performance, they made some really great decisions.  And it wasn’t about power or the leader or anything else – it was really about the best decision.  It also wasn’t because we wanted what’s best for the team (although we did), but our mindset was different; it was about solving the problem at hand. And when we had a breakthrough – no matter who suggested the original idea – there was a collective feeling of success.  The mindset here was decisions are all about problem-solving”.

I didn’t realize it until this morning, but decision-making techniques are a really good way to evaluate the ability of an organization to get things done.  Those who can make good decisions repeatably will be much more effective.  And, as the wisdom of crowds tells us, a diverse set of independent non-experts will make better decisions than experts every single time.

Again, looking back at my experiences, but this time with teams and organizations that are struggling, they had difficulty making good decisions.  They could not leverage the expertise of the people they hired and payed good money.  Decisions were often made by managers and those in power who were usually several levels removed from the problems at hand.  This, unsurprisingly, led to low performance and mediocre results.  In these cultures, decisions were tied to power.   The mindset was “the important people make the decisions.”

Ok, so why am I blogging about this?  Well, the idea of “self organizing teams” has always been an ill-defined part of the message of the agile community.  How do they scale?  (Scrum of scrums has never worked for me.)  How do self-organizing teams work together?  Can we get the same level of performance that we get in small teams?

This is a step along the way of answering these questions.  Effective self-organizing teams make decisions with a mindset of “problem-solving” instead of “power”.  Mindsets can scale.  In fact, changing your mindset is often instantaneous.  Also, this is a good diagnostic tool when looking at teams and organizations – how do they make decisions?

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Posted by on April 12, 2013 in Interactions, Organizations, Teams


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Instilling Ownership

So, back in 2005, I was introduced to the importance of ownership in software development teams by Ashley Johnson who had just met and attended a presentation by Christopher Avery on The Responsibility Process.  Over the next few years, I met Christopher, attended what I could of his presentations, and eventually started my own journey to learn about they human dynamics of high performance teams.

So, these days when I tell people I work with about Avery’s model and ownership, the number one question is “how do I get others to take ownership?”

In general, I don’t have one answer that is independent of context, but here is a list of techniques that I’ve found useful:

1) Always start with yourself.  You need to take ownership for your actions, and the results you and your team are responsible for.  (Yes, you read it correctly, responsibility for the results of your team, not just yourself.)

2) Respect the people you work with.  We have bulls**t sensors, and we know when someone asks us to do something because they are looking down at us or see us as obstacles.  In other words, we must see other people as people and equals, before we start talking about difficult issues like taking ownership.   (See Anatomy of Peace and Mike Sahota’s write up.)

3) Explain ownership then ask for agreements to come from ownership.  I shamelessly steal Avery’s model and relate it to software development and how a lack of ownership can bring a team’s productivity down significantly.  At Gemba Systems, we thought it was important enough to put it as our first value in our code of conduct.

4) Make it safe.  It is really difficult to take ownership when everything is going wrong.  It is difficult for us to confront and admit our failures.

Hope this helps – amr

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Posted by on April 11, 2013 in Individuals, Interactions


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Avoiding Invisible Impediments to High Performance (QCon NY)

I’ve been invited to present at QCon NY this year in the tutorials track by Peter Bell (organizer of the culture track).  Jim McCarthy and Dan Mezick will be there – and they should be great presentations!  But I digress…

So “Avoiding Invisible Impediments” is a full-day tutorial on avoiding….  well… invisible impediments.  All those issues around human dynamics and culture that aren’t necessarily obvious and get in the way of true high-performance.  

No matter how good our technical ‘chops are, if we don’t have the human dynamics and culture for high performance, we’ll experience mediocre results.

Some of the topics that we’ll cover are:

  • Ownership and responsibility,
  • Way of being,
  • Safety,
  • Making and keeping agreements,
  • Ability to fail,
  • Paradox, and it’s place in teamwork,
  • “Seeing” culture,
  • Culture design,
  • ….

We’ll spend all day exploring these topics, making them real and concrete by looking back at the work we’ve done in the past and how these issues can easily block our effectiveness.  

Finally, we’ll discuss practical ways of making these “touchy-feely” topics a reality in our teams and organizations.

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Posted by on April 9, 2013 in Individuals, Interactions, Teams


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Culture or Individuals First?

So, the lean world says that environment trumps all – and it does, but it is not sufficient.

Individuals.  “Individuals and their interactions over process and tools” says the Agile manifesto.  Yep, that too.  Useful in context, but also not sufficient to produce high performance.

Lately, I’ve been reviewing Tribal Leadership in preparation for Dave Logan’s talk later this month, and he talks about the tribal culture being all-important and that it is the determining factor for the level of success achieved per group.  But what comes first, the tribal culture “chicken” or the individual behavior “egg”?

In my experience it always comes with the individual.  That individual shows the types of behaviors we expect to find in high performance teams: ownership, respect for others, ability to build trust by making and keeping agreements, and the ability to create a safe space for others to collaborate with him.  That person somehow finds others of like minds, or infects those around him.  And once they reach critical mass, they start to set the norms and expectations of their group (team/department/organization depending on their reach and circles of influence).

So my answer (for today) is that individuals come first.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

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Posted by on April 3, 2013 in Individuals, Organizations, Teams


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Getting away from “agile” and focusing on “high performance”

I’m tired of the “agile” umbrella term even though I’ve made my career being an agile coach and helping teams adopt and adapt agile practices.

So why am I tired of the term?  Well….  Because the value from using it to help people build better software has decreased over the years.  I’ve seen more and more people “do agile” and “be agile” and be “certified agile” without creating high performance teams or getting results.  (Check out the shallot for a humorous version of why I’m disillusioned with the term.)

So, instead of being agile, I prefer focusing on the results – high performance teams and organizations.  Am I trading one catchy phrase for another?  Yes, in a way I am, but not to build another umbrella term – instead I want to shed the baggage and assumptions that come with “agile” and restart our conversation.

So what do I want to do differently?  Well, it turns out agile practices are neither necessary nor sufficient for high performance.  Many teams practice agile practices and fail to get great results and many teams get great results without doing agile.  So what gives?!

It turns out, that every high-performance team (that I’ve witnessed directly) has a culture (to be read “set of implicit and explicit expectations”) that encourages the performance.  And, furthermore, it turns out that these cultures produce certain common behaviors in individuals.

So, I’m not only tired of hearing “agile”, I don’t think agile is the solution.  Culture and individual human dynamics together are sufficient and necessary for high performance.  What type of culture?  What specific individual behaviors?  I’m still learning – and I’m not sure we – the software community – have it totally figured out.  However, here are a list of ideas that haven’t quite coalesced:

  • Mindset is just as important as, if not more important than actions.
  • Respect – both respecting others and feeling respected helps.  
  • Safety.  Feeling safe is needed for innovation.
  • Succeeding together instead of alone (not a zero-sum game).
  • Taking ownership for the success of the group and the problems that arise.
  • Empirical evidence is frequently assessed and taken seriously.
  • Ability to fail gracefully.

But, I’m far from being happy with this list.  I’m getting much better at helping form and join high-performance teams, but there is more – much more – to learn.  So, my solution?  Get as many smart people together to talk about these things and take notes!

Agile Culture New York hopefully will bring together like-minded individuals and world-class speakers to take help us all answer this question of high performance.

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Posted by on April 2, 2013 in Individuals, Interactions, Teams