“I think this will be one of the greatest adventures of my life. I can imagine that every skill I’ve ever learned – as well as ones I’ll have to develop on the island – will be called into play. I can hardly wait!”
– Sonja Christopher (1st person ever voted off the island in the TV reality series “Survivor”)
The heart of Agile is the self-organizing team but how does that team come to be?
Ideally through self-selection by a group of people rallying around (with) not only a common purpose but also a shared set of values. Too often this is not the case. Teams are often thrown together by management based purely on the technical skills needed and who they already have on staff and within their existing organizational boundaries. If you’re lucky, team chemistry will also be considered but again from the perspective of management.
And this was the hand we were dealt – an assembly of individuals grouped by management into four cross-functional teams. Each with a name and a specific purpose in mind but with many different and at times conflicting sets of values. The challenge was for these teams to “gel” over time towards a shared set of values and beliefs – towards simply comfort in working with and supporting each other.
There is no easy path to a high performing team. You can’t buy yourself a winning team as the 2013 New York Yankees realized when they became the most expensive MLB team ($US228.8M) to fail to qualify for the postseason. There is no substitute for the individual and team growth sparked by the storming phase that all high-performing team go through. The getting to know each other’s quirks, the rolling of the eyes, the private and public sharing of feedback, the “players-only” meetings, the peaking of each team member’s abilities towards the common purpose – all are necessary pains to evolve the identity and cohesion of the team. Agile teams like Agile implementations like the people and companies themselves are all unique – there are no two alike. Which begs the need for team storming before Agile teams can truly be high-performing. That’s what makes bringing the simple Agile Manifesto to life so complex and yet so rewarding for both individual and team when they succeed.
In our case, each of the four Agile teams went through growing pains. Unlike traditional teams where negative emotional contagions can grow and fester behind formal project status reports, Agile teams bare it all for all to see every day. Whether it be snide remarks during the daily standup or direct, transparent comments during team retrospectives, Agile teams are encouraged and give each other permission to be open and honest with their feelings. To work in an environment of trust and safety. But what happens if conflicts are irreconcilable? One team ran into such a case. They had a low-performing QA person. Despite repeated attempts by the team members to coach and nurture her, she did not improve. The team’s overall performance and ability to commit were beginning to suffer. They were at their wit’s end. So they recommended to management that she be removed from the team – in essence voting her off the island. She was a good person but just did not fit within an Agile culture. In the end, she was relieved to realize it herself.
With each of the teams working out their differences, they started to gel and get comfortable with each other. Questioning each other was perceived as caring for each other and the welfare of the larger team. Thoughts of ulterior motives and hair-raising on the back of the neck were replaced with an open mind and listening to genuine caring to help each other grow and improve. Paraphrasing Daniel Pink from his book Drive, they started to “feel in control, full of purpose and in the zone”. The teams had flow, rhythm and cadence. They worked face-to-face with the business every day to share and clarify. Mountains of misunderstanding gave way to bridges of empathy. The proudest moments were when they demoed to their peers, the business and leadership. The stereotypical tech geek introverts had become budding team evangelists looking for an audience to share their great accomplishments.
The team is not a zero-sum game. When one person wins, everyone wins – there are no losers when someone wins. How do you know a team is high-performing? Is it when all team members are holding hands and singing Kumbaya? It’s not. Here’s what we observed:
- An insatiable need to understand what makes the Business tick. Our QA testers started talking about increasing conversions when they demoed a new feature!
- Focus moved from ‘me’ to ‘B’. Moving from building shiny new things to delivering business value every day. The epitome exemplified by the pride every single team member beamed when demoing their progress in helping build business capability.
- Team members became more than their HR title. Team members wanting to take on different responsibilities – UI developers wanting to learn .Net programming and test automation, QA testers volunteering to try being a ScrumMaster.
- A “Whatever it takes” attitude. Teams started going the extra mile to solve obstacles rather than expecting others to solve them. They were no longer waiting for direction or permission.
- Quality became everyone’s job #1. There was no tolerance for crap. And there was no more finger pointing at the QA testers for not catching more defects. There was a realization that one finger pointing towards someone meant four fingers pointing back at oneself! They were in it together for good or bad.
- Sincere caring, sensitivity and empathy towards each team members’ challenges whether it is personal or professional. One team used Apple’s FaceTime and changed their daily standup meeting to accommodate a team member that had to be in Finland for personal reasons.
- Along with empathy came a pact to be honest with each other and have the courage to speak one’s mind. An outsider would see it as conflict and feel uneasy but to our teams it became the currency of breaking down to break though. In the words of Margaret Heffernan, “Conflict is frequent because candour is safe” – Social capital was accumulating on our teams.
- Team members achieved “Ri” in the team’s ShuHaRi journey. Without prodding, team members’ behaviors started to surprise and transcend our expectations. One team researched ways for Agile teams to satisfy the competing needs between new and sustaining development. Another team initiated a pilot with a 3rd party to trial a new way of collecting user feedback in real-time. The students were becoming teachers!
This portrait of high-performing teams was far more satisfying to witness than simply holding hands and singing Kumbaya!