“Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.” — Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
A few years ago I began working at Myplanet. Like most people, I had lots of experience in traditional workplaces, with a form hierarchy and command & control the usual way of operating. I’d even spent eight years as a sole practitioner providing services to small and medium businesses. Myplanet was my first experience with an Agile, team-based collaborative working environment.
A high-functioning team takes work to build, but it's worth it
I’d joined a team of developers that were smart, talented, and capable of successfully producing the product in front of us. As a team we were supported by an organization that believed in the power of teams to produce outstanding work. There was only one problem: our team wasn’t producing.
We weren’t failing completely, but we were coming up short. We found ourselves in a cycle of not delivering on promises because we were spending the end of each week, and sometimes the beginning of the next, fixing the errors in the previous week’s code.
Our typical week would see any or all of the following:
- Failure to meet our commitments
- Team discussions to find improvement turned to talk of distractions and not our actual problems (aka shed painting)
- Inattention to details
- Inattention during meetings (people fell asleep!)
- No one asking for help, or requests for help being ignored/laughed at
- Silence during meetings
- Frequent defects & mounting technical debt
Now, in hindsight, I recognize these are just some of the symptoms of all dysfunctional teams. We weren’t unique and the solution to our problems turned out to be a fairly well-trod path, too.
Many of us on the team floundered with finding a solution. We just seemed incapable of bringing the group together. Looking around for help, one of us came across Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. A colleague and I read it. It pretty much described our team to a T. We then went out and got a copy of the companion workbook, Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, and convinced the group to give it a try.
“Remember teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” — Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
Starting out we felt good — securing the initial buy-in of the team was a success in itself! — but fairly quickly we hit a roadblock we just couldn’t get past: We stalled on trust. For five or six weeks, maybe (probably) longer, we couldn’t get past that first, basic building block.
Again, we found out that this was not uncommon or unique to our group. Our team had a lot of water under the bridge, which is hard to get past. We also had a team of people who worked hard to be invulnerable, never showing flaws or letting others see they were unsure, pretty much every single one of us.
Eventually, we were able to move on to the second dysfunction, fear of conflict, but make no mistake resolving the absence of trust amongst ourselves was hard. Very hard.
I believe that it was the continuing demonstration of commitment by several key people (our technical architect, product owner, scrummaster, and senior developer) that ultimately got us past that first, major milestone. Day after day, week after week, we fessed up to our mistakes, supported each other through tough problems, and related events from our lives with our teammates over those weeks. We did the exercises; we tried to be vulnerable; we stopped talking so much with so much certainty. I suppose we realized it was about more than talking the talk, we had to walk it, too.
I’m not going to kid you, the process didn’t become an easy stroll through the garden after that. The fear of conflict exercises were hard, too. But we’d built the trust, we knew we could get there if we kept at it, and when we did get there, we got to feel the value of it immediately. In fact, it’s something many of us still return to during team retrospectives.
And once we’d reached that stage, things did start to pick up. It was a joy after we completed the work on the first two of Lencioni’s dysfunctions to see how easily we worked through the following three. Our growing trust and ability to fearlessly discuss issues freed up our ability to work well together.
It took a lot of focused, intentional effort, most of it challenging in a way we weren’t used to. But the result was worth the pain and effort. We became a team that excelled. We delivered on our promises; we became trusted by our client; we took on greater challenges. And, that’s not to say we were perfect, not by any means. We’re all human and these dysfunctions are woven into our social interactions. Our work on the dysfunctions continues to this day, with existing high-functioning teams and new, still-figuring-it-out teams. But it’s work we know pays huge dividends.
That first team experience with transitioning from dysfunction to high-function taught me a lot, and there are three things in particular I’ve never forgotten:
- It’s hard; it takes time;
- Vulnerability is key — and extremely difficult;
- Leadership roles have to demonstrate and practice vulnerability; the team had to experience it, not just hear about it.
If you’re reading this and in a management position, number three is the reason many attempts to employ agile or team-based project management fail. The people with their hands on the levers frequently don’t know how to demonstrate vulnerability and give trust. There are a lot of reasons for that and for now those reasons aren’t important. What’s important is that lack of trust will block your team’s improvement and success. There’s only one person who can fix that — yourself.
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