About teams

TEAMs are the innovation engine of an organization. To control them, managers must understand how teams behave as a system and how to influence them in order to get maximum team performance. The difficulty, though, is that they cannot be managed directly from the outside. Instead, managers must indirectly control teams through the adjustment of environmental conditions. The key to control teams is to know which conditions influence the performance and how to determine whether adjustments foster team performance or not. To control teams is never easy, never the same and never straightforward. In the following, I show two well-known theories which can serve as tools to monitor team performance and thus, to control teams.

The team itself

Let us have a look into the system called “team” and what it takes to be a performing team. For the moment, we omit the environment in which the team exists and focus on the team’s inner development level. These levels are best described in the book “The FIVE Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick M. Lencioni. Note that these levels of ability can only be experienced by team members themselves and not from outside of the team.

Level 1: The team’s ability to trust
Lencioni states that “[…] trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group.”

Level 2: The team’s ability to engage in conflicts
Team members should be passionate and enthusiastic when debating. It is all about productive conflicts and the ability to sit through these tough discussions always knowing that, at the end, the team has strengthened their bonds between all teammates.

Level 3: The ability to commit
A team must “make clear and timely decisions […] with complete buy-in from every member”. This ability assumes that all opinions are put on the table. Even those members who have a different opinion get heard and finally buy-in to the team decision. There are no hidden agendas after decision has been taken.

Level 4: The team’s ability to be accountable
The willingness to address misbehavior of teammates who do not comply with the team’s expectations. It requires team members to take the risk of an unpleasant discussion instead of quietly accepting the underperformance and trying to cover it for the sake of a “good climate”.

Level 5: The team’s ability to strive for team results
The final level of a truly performing team is to strive for team results instead of individual goals.

Every level builds on all the previous levels.

How to determine the inner team level from the outside

A tool to determine the inner team level from the outside is the commonly known definition by Tuckman (FormingStormingNorming and Performing).

It gives outside observers the opportunity to know how the team develops and whether the team is going to provide results soon or not. For example, if you observe that the team is in the Storming stage, you should not expect significant results or progress because the team’s inner level is probably somewhere between trusting each other (level 1) and engaging in conflicts (level 2). Whereas a team which is in its Performing stage can provide results in short intervals because the team’s inner level has at least reached the level of commitment (level 3). It is the role of the team leader as part of the team and not of the management to work together with the team to lift it to higher ability levels. It also requires experience and, most of all, time for the team to work itself through all levels. The latter one is particularly important today because team members come and go frequently. Adding or replacing team members is considered the standard action taken by managers in order to increase team performance. Although it solves the current topic and gets managers the desired short-term result. The overall team performance declines, and project schedules prolongate instead.

Environmental conditions are crucial

Both theories are important to understand and to monitor team status. But how can managers control teams from the outside? The only way is to shape the environmental conditions in which teams operate. They are essential for any team development and build the foundation for achieving team performance. Think about environmental conditions as the fertile soil in which you seed a new team. Just like good soil depends on enough minerals, water, stones, etc. the hotbed of team development depends on eight environmental conditions. (see clouds below).

Team size between two to seven members

Teams with more than seven members are increasingly difficult to handle. Why? Bigger teams are more likely to build subgroups or even split and, therefore, usually have difficulties to concrescence. The ability of the whole team to easily come together and communicate, discuss, align, decide and have fun is key for team development.

Multi-disciplinary teams only

We expect teams to create innovation and new ideas. However, teams cannot serve this purpose if there is only one opinion. Only if different views are expressed and discussed, innovation and new ideas will rise.

Work in Progress (WIP) limits

This factor is most difficult to implement but, if managed properly, it has the biggest impact on the teams throughput and quality of results. Eric Willeke discussed this topic and its implications very descriptive in his speech “Escaping the tragedy of WIP” at the AgileAlliance conference in 2019 at Washington, DC. Eric explained the consequences of increasing the WIP above the teams WIP limit as follows: First, starting with zero and increasing the WIP for a team will linearly increase the throughput (more output per interval) over time at constant quality. However, if the WIP limit of the team has been reached, every new work item assigned to the team will exponentially decrease the throughput (less output per interval) and negatively impact quality. Why? Because new work items cannot be executed immediately. Every team member is already fully loaded. Therefore, the new items are added to the team’s own (usually unofficial and hidden) backlog, and this backlog is executed whenever the next slot is available. Note that this is another drawback of exceeding the WIP limit: the existence of hidden backlogs. Avoid them by any means. If they exist, you won’t be able to predict anymore when work is being completed. Fact is, if this happens, you’ll start to lose control. Team deliveries are unpredictable and aligning multiple teams becomes impossible.

Keep team affiliation

A steady team affiliation is required to keep the team development process flowing towards maximum performance and highest inner level of ability. In other words, every time a team member leaves or joins the team, the team development process starts all over again. Our goal is to reach the team stage of “Performing” as quickly as possible and hold this stage as long as possible, ditto with respect to the inner ability levels. Therefore, any unnecessary team fluctuation should be avoided.

Assign features to the whole team instead of individuals

Features or work items rarely require only one skill to be realized – it is always a team effort. Based on this understanding, assigning work items to a team instead of one member seems natural but still, managers instinctively don’t do this. One explanation for this is that managers think of who is responsible and not who will implement it. Managers do not realize that commitment and accountability inside the team are needed to complete the work items. A commitment of one member of the team to the manager is not crucial.

Define a team lead upfront

As mentioned, a team cannot be developed from the outside. Teams can only be influenced and shaped from the inside. Either by leading by example or moderating. Whatever you do, remember, the team lead is always part of the team. Also, it is human to desire a team lead in case this role has not been defined yet. Otherwise, the herd does not know whom to follow and, sooner or later, it will break up into small groups. Managers should not leave this decision up to the team and hope that, by chance, it selects the member with the best skillset for this job. Let’s turn this into an advantage and define upfront the one with the best skills to fulfil this role.

Support team gatherings

Team gatherings are the social events where teams work (unconsciously) on their own team development. While the gathering itself cannot be influenced, the environment can be setup to encourage team gatherings. This can either be a common space where the team can meet spontaneously, or a more organized form of gathering such as team dinners or just going out to the next pub. Most importantly, the organization should be open for suggestions and should be willing to invest money and time. Investments though are often difficult to justify because the return of investment is somewhere hidden in the overall performance of the team. It is the responsibility of the team leader to convince management that it is a fruitful investment.

Define a clear structure to synchronize with other teams

Teams are not independent entities within an organization. Instead, teams have a web of connections between each other. In order to simplify the alignment and the team-to-team communication, it is good practice to define common synchronization structures. For example, regular conference calls between teams, regular meetings of all team leaders or even the definition of communication channels in tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Most importantly, the methodology considers the culture of the organization and should be in line with it. Otherwise its benefit of team-to-team alignment is neglectable. Face-to-face visits between teams, are definitely preferable to phone calls. In practice, they are rarely done. Mainly because of two reasons: it is too costly and not all team members are willing and capable to travel. Therefore, I recommend not to spend time and effort for a single face-to-face meeting and, instead, focus on other ways to synchronize regularly. The emphasis is on “regularly” instead of one time only. Whatever you choose, the right balance between effort to synchronize and spread of information will boost your team cooperation and overall performance.

Once you have agreed with management on how to handle these eight factors, you should write them down and make them available to all employees. This helps to apply them during your day-to-day work and holds management accountable.

To Summarize

For managers who rely on teams to deliver results quickly, the only measure they can apply is to focus on the environmental conditions. It will have a negative impact on the team and its performance if managers try to interfere with the team directly. This should only be done by the team leader. He/She is the only one who can actively influence the development towards a performing team. Leaders, on the other hand, should know that everything begins with the ability to trust. They should choose their instruments of team building carefully. Remember, every level of team ability must be taken one by one and shortcuts are not possible. With the help of Tuckman’s theory of team development, managers can identify the status of a team from the outside and adjust the environment to foster team performance if needed.

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