Some time back, I attended a Certified Agile Leadership course, facilitated by the excellent coaches from Agile42. During that training, we had plenty of discussions about different types of teams, team performance, motivation and self-organization.

After that training, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what I learned, the team I am now working with, and also teams I have interacted with in the past.

How a team functions can make or break a project. A project which is set up in way that ensures a team has the capability to continuously improve and build synergy is much more likely to produce quality results than a project which just consumes resources.

A good team needs time

As we do project work, a new project basically always means a new team setup. With new clients, new environments and changing colleagues at some level, we always need to form the team to fit the engagement. This does not happen overnight.

Tuckman’s stages of group development is an excellent way of viewing how a team matures. It talks about different phases a team goes through when entering a new engagement: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. Sometimes we are able to go through these stages quite fast, sometimes it might take longer, and sometimes we might even get stuck on the way. Teams with a long history together tend to go through these phases multiple times.

We start with Forming, where we are mainly individuals working together and trying to learn to know each other. Our focus is on individual tasks and goals. To get to the next stage, we must first learn to discuss tougher problems and allow the risk for conflict.

During Storming, we start to identify our differences in ways of working and thinking, and start to really form our team. This is the phase where we are confident enough to voice contradicting opinions and allow conflict to happen. In order to move to the next stage, the team must find a way to resolve these possible conflicts.

During Norming, we really start to find our common goal as a team and start to take more responsibility on a team level instead of at an individual level. At this stage, we start to accept each member of the team as they are and find ways ways to align.

During Performing, we reach the level of a true self-organized team that is able to focus on the team goal, autonomously make decisions, and process conflicts on a healthy level.

Re-visiting the Agile manifesto

The Agile manifesto and some of its principles offer an excellent source to reflect on teamwork.

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

The best thing a project leadership can do is to focus on creating a safe environment for a team to operate in. Every time I have worked with a high-performing team, the team has had high autonomy and has been able to decide what they focus on and how they do their work.

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

Nothing destroys good people like tight schedules with unrealistic scope. A team can’t really perform at an optimal level if they can’t have a say in the speed they deliver and how long the work actually takes.

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

If a team can’t adjust the ways it works, it can have big effects on the quality the team delivers. The best teams are offered the possibility to continuously reflect on their ways of working and change them if needed.

Retrospectives are a common session in agile projects where the team comes together to inspect their current ways of working and to facilitate improvement continuously. Especially when combined with a sustainable pace, since then there is actually time to make the needed changes, not just think about them.

Conflict is healthy

As already the above Tuckman’s model suggests, an important element of a good team is the capability to tolerate conflict. If we can’t discuss our differences openly and without fear of retribution, then it is impossible to have a high-performing team. Irritation bubbling under the surface without the possibility to get out kills the possibility to improve and is toxic to transparency.

The Best Team

I recently participated in a retrospective where a colleague of mine wrote down on a sticky note: “Transparency”.

When we asked him what he meant by that, he said that one of the best things in our project is that we are able to be completely transparent about everything within the team. There is no fear about what can and what can’t be said, and we can do things just like we think is best. In other words, our team can focus on building quality.

It took us a while to get to this point, but it was surely worth the effort. Luckily, we are working in an organization that gives us the possibility to decide how we want to work, and luckily we are also working with a client who gave us the chance to do things in the right way and trusts that the team knows what they should be doing.