A Foundation for Success
So, you want to build some cool tech? That’s easy. All you need to do it assemble a few Devs and a couple of Testers, find a Product Owner with a clear vision to give the team purpose and meaning to their work, create a prioritised backlog, and bingo! A highly valuable product increment appears at the end of each sprint to the delight of your customers and the astonishment of your colleagues.
You and your team are heroes. A 1979 Macintosh calibre team. Your team trusts one another implicitly – they’re not scared of healthy conflict and will call each other out if anyone puts their needs above those of the team. There are no egos here – what matters is the product. They push one another to the greatest levels of mastery in their craft and are laser-focused on achieving their shared goals. Highly collaborative, pairing is second nature to this bunch, soaring high together. Scrum was new to this team, but with the guidance of their ScrumMaster, and with a genuine commitment to the framework, learning, and continuous improvement, the benefits of this new way of working surpass everyone’s expectations. They are a team.
And then there is reality
When the last person slops into the daily stand-up meeting 10 minutes late, the meeting lacks focus and pace. Occasionally, a Manager comes along and shouts. Everyone’s frustrated. They go through the motions and escape the room as quickly as possible.
The Jira task board is never up to date. Each member diligently works alone at their desks, passes their code on for review… and then test. The team rarely accomplish what they agree to during sprint planning. This leads to frustration during the sprint review. Occasionally, a Manager comes along and shouts. There is no sense of ‘Team’ within the team. There is tension. No one mentions the elephant in the room. There is no trust. The team are shy of conflict. Dave is late all the time, and Becky spends group breakouts checking Facebook. Neil is new and struggling – he wishes that Craig would give him the time of day. Lisa checked out after the first sprint. There is tension. There is no team.
The point at which a new team is formed represents an important sliding doors moment – your team’s outcomes will be very different depending on the actions you take during this critical time. That’s why it’s worth spending a little time and money investing in the forming phase with a structured team start-up.
In this post, I will suggest a framework and offer tips and activities to include in your team start-up (one that I have used successfully with teams) and offer tools that you can use to continue building on the foundations you set when you get back to the office.
But first, it is important to understand the psychological stages of team development and use this information to guide your decisions during the forming phase and beyond.
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
In his book ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a team: A Leadership Fable’ , Patrick Lencioni tells the story of the fictional Decision Tech team as they try to overcome their differences and escape disarray by being lead to confront the five dysfunctions that Lencioni has found to be at the very heart of why teams (even the best ones) struggle. Based around the 5 dysfunctions, he suggests a model and specific steps that can be used to overcome the hurdles that many teams face. These are.
Absence of Trust
An absence of trust among team members essentially comes from an unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. New teams often lack the foundation of trust that allows members to be genuinely open with one another about their mistakes, weaknesses, and concerns without fear of consequence such as conflict or ridicule.
Fear of Conflict
Without a solid foundation of trust, conditions are ripe for the second dysfunction to emerge – fear of conflict. Teams that lack trust are unwilling to engage in impassioned and frank debate around ideas. Poor behaviour that is counter to the group’s success goes unchallenged. Solutions often lack depth due to the team’s unwillingness to challenge one another and question the status quo. This is not about maintaining the status quo.
Lack of Commitment
A fear of conflict means that team members don’t speak their minds or air their opinions openly. Decisions are derived through dominance and acquiescence. Although the team may indicate a commitment to group decisions on a superficial level, there is rarely, if ever, genuine buy-in. Individual contributors do not commit to decisions born out of veiled discussion and single faceted perspective.
Avoidance of Accountability
Without real commitment and buy-in, team members develop an avoidance of accountability. Teams of grey men uncommitted to the goals of the team avoiding accountability and unwilling to hold others to account.
Inattention to Results
Inattention to results occurs when team members put their individual needs (such as ego, interests, recognition) in front of those of the team. Since no one is held to account in any meaningful way this behaviour quickly become pervasive and damaging.
Teamwork is severely compromised even if one dysfunction is allowed to take seed within a team. Your start-up should seek to break down any barriers to trust and fear of conflict whilst also beginning to discuss what it looks like to be a team – one where everyone is committed and accountable to the shared goals of the group.
The Tuckman Stages of Team Development
Another well-known model is Bruce Tuckman’s stages of Team Development. Tuckman suggests that in order for a team to reach their full potential they pass through the stages of Forming > Storming > Norming > Performing. In other words, it is normal for teams to start in polite agreement and then experience conflict as trust is built and a sense of team begins to form. This creates teams that face up to and overcome challenges together – planning and reaching goals by leveraging the collective talent of each team member.
Both of these models can help you make an assessment of where your team are at in terms of their development. If you are unfamiliar with either of these I suggest this is where you start. Then…
When working with a new team you should be particularly observant in the early days. How do they relate to one another? Do they seem to like each other, mess around a little, and celebrate joint success? Do team members challenge each other and hold each other accountable for their actions? Is there an elephant in the room that is being ignored? Resist the temptation to jump in with two feet. Spend lots of time observing. I recommend you spend the first two weeks simply observing your new team.
Get to know your team and their individual personalities. Gain awareness for existing norms, the underlying team dynamic, and any shared history. Ask your team members about their hopes, fears, frustrations, and motivations and listen. Remember ‘two ears one mouth’.
It is important not to judge your team or individual team members. There are many studies that suggest (such as Induction: Process of inference, learning, and discovery, by John H. Holland et al) that when asked to reflect on our choices or behaviour, our instinct is to point to factors outside of ourselves. For example a simple question such as ‘why did you react in this way?’ would typically (and correctly) be met with a response that points to factors outside of one’s self, such as ‘I’m just not getting the support I need from this company’. But when turned on its head; if you were to consider a colleague’s negative behaviour, you’re far more likely to point to an aspect of their character in response. For example; ‘Kate is making lots of mistakes at the moment and seems checked out. Why do you think that might be?’, would often be met with a response along the lines of ‘She just doesn’t care anymore. She’s just lazy’. We all judge people in this way. Think about it for a moment.
However, It is proven that it is our environment that influences our actions the majority of the time – rather than an aspect of our character. So, If a team member displays behaviour that is counter to the greater good of the team your first instinct should be to look closely at the environment around them. What could be triggering this behaviour? How can I support this person? Where does my focus need to be over the coming week and months?
At this point, it’s going to be clear that there is work to do. You should start to form a strategy for how you’re going to support your team. Hone in on what your team is doing well – plan to build on that. Seek to understand where dysfunctions are emerging and think about how you can help your teams overcome problems and avoid potential pitfalls. Your team start-up is the foundation of your strategy.
There are various tools and techniques that you can use to help your team move towards greater levels of performance. A structured team start-up is just one of them but done well, it can really help you and your team lay a solid foundation for success. A good start-up will minimize the potentially negative aspects of the storming phase while encouraging a growing sense of candour, courage, and commitment within the group. Investing time and money in your team at the outset sends a clear message; that you’re serious about your investment in them as a team, serious about improving, and serious about the role you have to play in that.
Here is the framework and activities that I like to use in my start-ups along with some tips based on my experience.
Location, Location, Location
Off-site is best. Getting the team away from the office shifts the focus from the day to day and reinforces the message that you’re serious about all of this. A change in environment takes people out of their comfort zone and primes them to engage in activities that might be out of the norm. Make sure that your chosen space has plenty of room for interactive games, spontaneous activity, and general team building. Locations offering catered lunches and casual recreational facilities such as pool tables, etc are always good.
Involve the Team in Planning the Session
An element of surprise can be useful in terms of pushing your team out of their comfort zone. But make sure you share and involve your team in the agenda so that they are involved in shaping the day – this is about them. Suggest a number of ideas for individual workshops/activities and let them tell you what resonates with them. What you do with your team really depends on their individual personalities. A team I recently worked with would have hated anything that looked like a traditional team building exercise but enjoyed solving problems together and throwing axes.
Leave Plenty of Time for Play and Group Bonding
Although you’ll have clear objectives for the start-up don’t fall into the trap of pushing a jam-packed agenda. Leave plenty of time for valuable group bonding exercises and socializing. This could be in the form of structured activity, but I find that leaving plenty of slack time in the day for spontaneous group chat and recreation also works very well. Depending on the amount of time you have (and budget) a great way to end the start-up would be an afternoon go-karting or paintball. It’s doesn’t all have to be about work. Relax and get to know one another.
Encouraging the team to share personal information with one another is a great way to build trust within the group and remove personal barriers. Having each team member answer disarming questions such as ‘What is one thing the group doesn’t already know about you’, ‘what’s your biggest failure or weakness’, or ‘What do you like and hate about working with this team’ really engages people and helps to build empathy, rapport, and trust within the group. Simple but effective. Alongside this, playing games such as ‘The Marshmallow Challenge’, ‘The Ball Point Game’, or ‘The Minefield’ should also form part of your agenda. Some of these games can be used to demonstrate an agile principle or two, but for me the value here is bonding, encouraging your team to work together to overcome challenges whilst also building a sense of trust and candour within the group.
Develop a Shared Understanding of the Scrum Framework
Whilst team bonding is an important component part of your start-up, you should also spend significant time exploring the Scrum framework and it’s underlying philosophy with your team. From my experience, I have rarely found a team where members possess a deep knowledge of the framework; it’s roles, events, values, and underpinning principles. Conversely, I have frequently encountered team members (especially ‘seniors’) who claim to ‘know’ Scrum, but actually, upon probing demonstrate a superficial understanding – usually limited to the mechanics of the framework. Worse still, misconceptions abound – especially surrounding the role of the ScrumMaster. When asked, I find that most teams assume that a ScrumMaster’s role is limited to removing impediments and facilitating meetings. Most teams I work with regard the stand-up as some kind of status update meeting, rather than an opportunity to inspect and adapt. Many teams have adopted a Scrummerfall (traditional sequential approach disguised as Scrum) type hybrid approach without even realising it. I have never encountered a team that has continuous improvement at their core. Most are unaware of the Scrum values. A surprisingly large number of team members have had no formal Scrum training of any kind.
There are many ways to address this. My first recommendation would be to avoid the use of the word training entirely, and, secondly, ditch the PowerPoint. Go for a workshop style that is as visual and interactive as possible. A blend of didactic talks, games, and group dialogue works best for me. Your goal here is not to attempt to teach your team everything there is to know about Scrum – that would be impossible. Rather, you’re seeking to reveal more of the essence of the framework to the group and plant the seed of new ideas and possibilities. Attempt to inspire your team to continue their learning journey. Definitely spend time discussing the dynamic between Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Dev Team and how each should support the other.
More often and not your teams are going to made up of people with different levels of experience – both with Scrum and within a professional working environment in general. I find it very useful during the start-up to create a common understanding of the framework within the group. A great way to do this (especially where there are experienced team members in the group) is The Scrum Dojo. Based on Gamestorming’s Carousel technique, The Scrum Dojo is a fully interactive workshop where team members are encouraged to explore and question the various components that make up the Scrum framework. The session is intended to spark curiosity and help each person gain a deeper insight into Scrum, it’s values, and fundamental principles wherever they may be in their journey. Use the time to probe the teams understanding and put the worst offending misconceptions around Scrum to bed.
My Scrum Dojo Playbook and the visuals I have used can be found here.
Good v Bad – Scrum Team Health Monitor
Once your team has spent some time exploring the Scrum framework it is time to turn your attention back to the team itself. One of the key objectives of my start-up is for the group to walk away with a common understanding of and general agreement for what constitutes a ‘good’ team. For this, I use a simple technique where the group are asked to imagine what a ‘very good’ and a ‘very bad’ team would look like across a number of areas representing (at the positive end of the scale) essential attributes for a well performing, well-supported team. Let’s take ‘Purpose’ for example. If a team were to have a genuine sense of purpose what would that look like? And a team without purpose? Once you have discussed and aligned on the meaning of each area, the entire team then spends a few minutes capturing their thoughts using a silent writing technique. Spend some time discussing the output as a team – It will really help your team focus their minds when they work to create a Team Charter. I also like to use this data as the basis for a Team Health Monitor.
Team Health Monitor
The Team Health Monitor is a simple tool that you can use to baseline and then monitor the health of your team across the categories you discuss in the ‘Good v Bad’ workshop. The monitor is a simple self-assessment tool designed to highlight areas for improvement both within and outside of the team. It’s not about judging your team or finding weaknesses, it’s about finding ways to support them from outside and within.
I have used a customized version of Henrik Knieberg’s open source model – customizing each card with a good and bad example for each area based on the team’s own words. Customizing the tool in this way is a lot of fun and leads to an engaging workshop. It builds nicely upon your team’s start-up activity. Give it a try with your team!
My version of this model can be found here.
A wonderful way to round out the start-up is to work with the team to create the first iteration of a Team Charter. The Team Charter is a working agreement that outwardly expresses your team’s commitment to each other and the broader organisation. It serves as a formal code of behaviour and allows each team member to call out what is important to them, set their boundaries, and make their expectations of their teammates clear. Encourage your team to have open and frank conversation. It is a time for courage.
For me, this is an important step in cultivating a sense of openness within the team. Without doing this, you’re expecting your team to engage in a complicated game of cat and mouse. The wishes of individual team members won’t go away, they will simply surface in different, possibly less constructive ways. Get it out there then and work come to agreement around what is and what is acceptable team conduct. It is much easier for teams to hold one another accountable to a mutual agreement – something that is for and by the team. Don’t worry if you don’t complete the document during the start-up. It will likely take a couple of iterations before it is considered ‘done’. Once you’re happy with the output make it visible in your team space for all to see – it is the team’s north star. Revisit regularly and update as the needs of your team evolve. Encourage your team to hold one another accountable to the standard they have set themselves.
The team forming stage can be one of the most challenging and unsettling periods in the life-cycle of your team. But, if treated with importance and respect, it can also mark the beginning of an exhilarating journey for you and your team. In this post, I have outlined a framework and offered a set of tool that I have used successfully with my teams. It is not perfect or a ‘one size fits all’, it’s simply my view on how you might approach your start-up based on my own experience and trial an error. Go ahead. Give it a go. Inspect and adapt.
My work provides me with the opportunity to work with an amazingly diverse set of people and incredible teams. For me, it is a huge privilege to engage in this work – guiding teams towards greater levels of performance and contentment in their work. With care, attention, and disciplined application of your skill-set, I’m positive you will find this to be a worthwhile endeavour leading to countless rewards for you and your teams – as have I.
Christiaan Verwij. How to kick start a great scrum team. Web – medium.com/the-liberators. 2017
Patrick. M. Lencioni. 5 Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. Jossey-Basset. 2002.
John H. Holland. Induction: Process of Inference, Learning, and Discovery. The MIT Press. 1986
‘I help teams re-frame how they think about product development.’