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  • Peter Zylka-Greger

We are a team! Wait…are we really?

Aktualisiert: 12. Nov. 2022

Teams — most of us nowadays are part of a team. At least, that is what we tell and what we believe and often it is what we are being told.

The question though is: is this the case?

In the world of business, teams make up an essential part of an organisation’s structure. But what defines a team? The definition of a team according to Katzenbach and Smith “is a small group of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

I personally often like to describe a team as “a group of people that needs each other to achieve a common goal.”

My definition often raises a lot of doubts for me about what I see in organisations. Do teams need each other to achieve a common goal? Or is every individual just happy to have enough work within a 2-week sprint and have as little interaction with colleagues as possible? Only to bring it back to the sprint review 2 weeks later and demonstrate the results from their individual work.

So what is the missing link here? Why are people joining teams and are they truly benefiting from being part of a group?

I currently see 3 major factors contributing to it:

1. Having teams became the norm within organisations.

But only a little effort was put into some fundamentals: What is the purpose of having a team in the first place? Do we need a team for what we are trying to achieve? What kind of personalities do we even need within the team (the book “Good to great” gives a perfect explanation of “First who and then what?”) — just to name a few. When questions like this are not asked or answered correctly, we end up with teams that are not fit for the tasks at hand.

Signs to look out for:

- you get blank stares when you ask “why they are a team”

- when you ask for the team’s top 3 challenges, you get a bunch of individual challenges thrown at you

- Swarming, Mob, Pair Programming? “Listen…we do not do this here. But we have someone else review our code.”

2. There is no common goal.

This could be an entire blog post on its own. Organisations seem to endlessly struggle with this. Even though there is a goal defined for what they would like to achieve with teams, once established everyone seems to go back to what they have known before — simply deliver output. As a result, everyone is focused to finish his/her story. There is no motivation to work together to reach a goal because there is none except for finishing everything that was put into the sprint. So everybody becomes busy with their tasks and forgets about the others in the team.

Signs to look out for are:

- In your sprint planning, every team member makes sure to have enough tasks assigned to them (bonus if they make sure to have their Story point capacity fulfilled)

- your sprint goal sounds like this “finish all the stories in the sprint”

- your Sprint Review is a demonstration of individual work and often starts like this “This is what I have worked on in this sprint…”

- there are no team challenges (collaboration, attitude etc.) raised during the Retrospectives, and also no one understands why they need to sit in yet another Retrospective.

bonus sign to look for: you are getting new team members to get more things done…

3. There is little to no questioning of the team set up and the way they work together

In one of the “real” teams, I had the privilege to work with, there was a constant exchange on how we could not only improve the work within the team but also if there is something we could do to improve the team setup. And we experimented with a lot of things before we settled on a team setup that we considered good enough to proceed with. And this was a team that was completely co-located (and working 5 days a week in an office pre-pandemic — and we loved it!).

But what about the teams that are distributed over different time zones and in different countries? I rarely see this being questioned by the team or even by the people that have set them up in this way. I know the agile community is all about stable teams, but doesn’t it require time to find the right people and the right setup for this team in the first place?

I recently saw an interview by football coach Jurgen Klopp where he stated that the secret to a well-working team is, to take your time to have the right group together and that especially in the beginning he had to change a lot until they had all the right characters together, the right people, the right skill set, and the right mentality. How much time do we take in organisations to form teams? How much are we continuously looking for better ways? For new approaches? Or is it the norm to stick with a “set it and forget it” approach to forming our teams?

signs to look for:

- everything about your team is exactly as it was on day 1 when it was formed

- team members leaving the team do not spark conversations about what to change

- “the enemy is outside” attitude

- You think Patrick Lencioni wrote the 5 dysfunctions of a team about your team

What’s the alternative?

I, unfortunately, do not have an answer. There is another element that almost made it, which is “Is there really no “I” in team?”, but that is a story for another day.

I would like to see an approach where we are more careful with the term “team”, and consider if this is the right approach, or if a working group would not be a good starting point.

Teams can be super powerful, and I would not write these lines if I haven’t experienced it myself. This was a team where the common goal was always present, where feedback was on our daily menu, where limits were challenged and finally where individuals understood why they came together every day and how they would benefit from it and through that, the product/customer.

But this was a team that was co-located, had the right people, let go of the people that weren’t a fit for the culture and loved what they do.

How many of these teams do we have nowadays? And how do we set up teams in the best possible way? Is it the best way to have people from 3 different time zones in the same team working together? Or are we losing out with this setup and its limitations due to language, different cultures, different working times etc.? Will the future bring us different setups -more localised setups?

Is there a better way, like the fluid scrum teams and dynamic reteaming — as often described by Joe Justice at Tesla?

As Heidi Helfand said:

“Whether you like it or not, teams are going to change. You might as well get good at it.”

As already stated above, I do not have an answer for this, but I feel like this is a challenge that is present in a lot of organisations and might be a topic that inspires others to take a look in the mirror — preferably with their teams and ask the question:

“Are we a team? And if so — why are we a team?”

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