Teams and the Way They Work
- Set a clear goal for the team to work towards
- Be clear on what the constraints for the team are
- Functional teams are based on trust, and a common desire to succeed
- A mix of skills help the team solve problems
- Having a coach for the team will guide improvement
As soon as the job gets large enough, we need more than one person. People are great, however each person is unique, with a different skillset, knowledge base, history, value system and wants and needs. It is only when there is clear direction, shared desire to succeed, and clear boundaries that they will thrive and flourish.
My nine year old son wanted to play soccer (I am Australian, so football could be (Rugby League, Rugby Union, AFL, or Soccer), so he started with playing at school, and joined a team. It was a newly formed team of very excited under 9 boys, all with visions of being Renaldo and Gareth Bale. Their manager and coach had their work cut out for them, as there was a wide range of skills and abilities – and they didn’t know each other’s names.
They worked as a group, and lost every game in their first season. They kept training, having fun, and learning. They practiced defending and striking. They celebrated their small successes, they praised each other, and rebuked each other equally.
They started a new season, and at half time of their first match, they were 1 nil ahead. The team was happy, the parents nervous. Then the other team scored and their heads dropped. They started arguing with each other, not running, and the other team won 6 -1.
They trained again, and talked about what happened. The next match they were nervous, and went on to start the match. It was a scintillating match, with the lead moving backwards and forwards. I am delighted to say that his team won. The boys were ecstatic. What could change so much in a week that would enable them to cope with going behind in the score: my answer – teamwork.
Let’s look at another team, arguably one of the most successful high performing teams in the sporting world at the moment – the New Zealand All Blacks. At the time of writing, they own all the silverware (Rugby World Cup, Bledisloe Cup, and about to seal another Rugby Championship), have been undefeated for 17 matches, and are undefeated on home soil for 39 tests.
A team will flourish when there is
- Core Values
- A clear goal
- Clear roles
- Competence in the right skills - the team having all the skills needed to do the job
- Clear constraints
- A guide
Using the Scrum framework to solve complex problems, there are two teams mentioned. The Scrum Team, and the Development Team.
The Scrum team has three roles, a single Product Owner, the Development Team, and a Scrum Master. The Scrum guide states:
Scrum Teams are self-organizing and cross-functional. Self-organizing teams choose how best to accomplish their work, rather than being directed by others outside the team. Cross-functional teams have all competencies needed to accomplish the work without depending on others not part of the team. The team model in Scrum is designed to optimize flexibility, creativity, and productivity.
There are some key phrases here: self-organising (I prefer British spelling), and cross-functional. Let’s explore that later.
The Development Team do the work to deliver the potentially releasable increment of “Done” product. Looking at the way they work, the Scrum guide states:
Development Teams are structured and empowered by the organization to organize and manage their own work. The resulting synergy optimizes the Development Team’s overall efficiency and effectiveness.
If we think about our sports teams, as soon the game starts, it is up to the players on the field to make the difference. They have trained and planned what to do in certain situations, and get on with the game. The coach, reserves and spectators may offer advice from the sidelines, it is still the team that responds to events on the pitch.
Considering my sons team, they did not start to win until they worked as a team. When they held their position, talked to each other – and most importantly trusted each other – did they start to achieve success.
The ability to direct work between each other requires a few things:
- Trust between members
- Shared Values
- Clear Goal
Trust between Members
If there is no trust, I would assert you don’t have a team, just a group of people.
Trust is the foundation of meaningful communication, and provides the setting for respectful conflict. Teams that trust each other don’t play the blame game – and honestly look for ways to improve. Trust provides a channel for open communication, and an understanding that someone is looking out for you. You know that what you are doing is appreciated by your team, and equally appreciate what every other person is doing.
Trust is the foundation for self-organisation – you know that your team members will make a good choice about what to do.
Having a common set of values builds on the trust base, providing a framework for people to work with. The values guide behaviours, with team having a common understanding of what is and isn’t accepted. The Scrum values are a fantastic, as they highlight the values that will help a team deliver a working product. Gunther Verheyen has written a superb article about this.
If the team wishes to define a shared value set of their own, that is fantastic. The Scrum values resonate with teams building greater trust.
If the individuals in the team do not have the necessary skills and understanding to complete the task at hand, they can’t make a decision about what to do. On a sports field, do I tackle or hang back, keep the ball or pass it?
The more skilled the individuals are within the team the better the capability of the whole team, with the least skilled person deciding the performance level, not the most skilled. Looking at the All Blacks, the team have adopted a “Total Rugby” approach that requires all players to have the ability to support each other, regardless of the number on their back (which signifies the position in Rugby). This translates to a very high team competence, and a phenomenal win record.
The key here is that your team needs to build the individual and collective skills to complete the work required. This will require time and support for the necessary training and coaching. In many organisations I have worked with, the skills are often available within the team, they are not given the space to help each other improve.
The power of a clear goal is in getting a clear and common focus. The team can then work together to achieve the goal. A vague woolly goal leaves the actual direction subject to interpretation, allowing people to work towards their individual understanding. This is the reason that there is a coxswain in rowing, to keep the team focussed on working together.
Think of the power of the All Blacks Haka, a traditional war cry. It is a call to action that builds on the team values, and asks each player on the team to give their all to achieve the goal (win the game). It is a challenge to themselves, as much as their opponents.
The team needs to understand who can do what, and where the individual responsibilities lie. Within Scum there is the focus of the roles:
Product Owner: Value: “The What” – Value, Total Cost of Ownership, Return on Investment
Development Team: “The How” – to produce a functioning working increment of the product.
Scrum Master: “The Framework” – to coach people to use the framework and remove impediments
Within the Development team there isn’t a distinction between job skills, there is a collective responsibility. Every person develops. Analysts develop requirements (Product Backlog Items), Architects develop working designs, Coders develop code, UX develop user experience, Testers develop tests, build and release engineers develop deployment artefacts. Collectively the Development team own the completed “Done” product.
The Development Team self organise around this work, and people do not need to be expert in all the tasks, or even complete all the tasks. They are expected to help each other though – to lend a hand. How is up to the individuals and the collective.
Competence in the right skills - the team having all the skills needed to do the job
The team as a whole group will need all the skills necessary to build the increment. There could be an overlap in skills, and this is often described as having T shaped skills, a broad skill base with a specialism. There are some people that are expert generalists, and can see the whole.
The team may not have a deep expertise in all areas, and this would be a focus of training. The key is that the team would do the best that they can with the skills that exist within the team. People can learn skills a lot more quickly that they can change attitude – so with the team we are looking for a mindset over a skillset.
To enable the team to focus on delivering a working product, they need to know what they can change, and what are the fixed constraints. This is a factor in large enterprises, as a lot of waste can be generated if each team solves a common problem in a slightly different way. One organisation I worked with had 8 different ways of accessing a database, 6 different ways of logging an error. Teams would introduce different versions of products or tools, without consideration of the impact on other teams, or the production environment.
The teams need to know where the edges of the sandpit are!
Depending on the industry, there may be legal, regulatory, or compliance constraints. These constraints must be explicit and understood. It may help to bring the expert on these constraints in to work with the teams to ensure they meet any constraints required.
To help the team focus on improving, there needs to be a guide or coach. In Scrum this is the Scrum Master. In professional sporting teams, there may be a team of coaches. The intent is the same, to help the team reflect on their performance and aspire to improve. To remind the team what improvements they should be enacting, and to challenge them to keep improving.
One of the challenges that arise is when a team improves significantly, and doesn’t look towards further improvements – plateauing their development, and not fulfilling their full potential.
Just enough is not the end point with teams!
How can you tell if a team is self-organising?
The team doesn’t need to be prompted or reminded to meet their obligations. They are punctual. They encourage each other to achieve value from the meetings. They help each other achieve their goals. They don’t shirk responsibility.
Ask don’t tell
As they support each other, it is often as a question not a demand. “How can I help finish that?”. They are open to asking for help, and asking questions to clarify understanding. Questions are a strength, not seen as a weakness.
There are team behaviours that the team will demonstrate as they work.
The team works as a unit. No one is left behind, or singled out as a weak link. They build a strong identity as a group, and grow this identity. There is a high degree of trust between team members. Working with each team members strengths and weaknesses to work towards the goal.
Open and honest reflection around progress and interactions is common. Feedback and issues are seen as opportunities to highlight things that are working well, as well as things that can be better. There isn’t blame associated with this, only a burning desire to be better. This reflection isn’t endless though, and “analysis paralysis” is not encouraged.
Once actions are decided to be helpful, they are enacted. These are agreed by the team, perhaps with the guidance of the coach.
This helps the team keep the momentum towards their goal, and the relentless pursuit of realised value.
What can you do?
Take a moment to reflect on the team(s) that you are in.
Are they rewarding to be with, or is it a chore? How cohesive is the team? Do you discuss how you are working as a team.
- Take 3 minutes (that is less time than it takes to make a drink), and write a list of things that you can do to help the team. (share a book you have read, facilitate a meeting, share a joke, etc..)
- Order the list. Try and complete the top item in the next 7 days.
- Review your list.
You can be the catalyst to inspire your team.
About the Author
Simon Reindl is the founder and director of Advanced Product Delivery, the business he established in 2015 to help individuals, teams and organisations around the world improve the way they build and deliver their products and services. An experienced coach, trainer, speaker and technologist, Simon has over 20 years’ experience in helping organisations in the private and public sectors and all industries adopt new technology and improve the value delivered. He is qualified to lead the full range of Professional Scrum Training courses (PSF, PSD .NET, PSM, PSPO and SPS) as well as coach people at all levels – whether in technical or managerial roles.