If your teams are not the problem, what is going on?
I have not been in your organization. I don’t know your situation. But my experience shows time and time again that the system and not the people is the source of your dilemma.
Most problems originate from the environment and system of norms surrounding the team. The results you are getting are exactly what your system design produces.
“A bad system will beat a good person every time.”
— W. Edwards Deming
A bad system often leads to low team engagement. Low team engagement produces lackluster results. Three common systemic factors have a significant negative impact on team engagement level:
- Teams have no guiding purpose other than task completion.
- Teams are told what to do and how to do it.
- Teams have inadequate support from their leadership.
If you fix the system, the results you desire will come. Let’s explore possible solutions to these issues above.
№1 — Form an inspiring purpose
When your teams do not have a purpose, they have no driving force. Some common contributing scenarios that reduce purpose are below:
- Teams find themselves in a feature factory, building off tickets in the backlog. They have limited understanding of their customer. They are not consulted on how to solve customer needs.
- Teams have functional instead of cross-functional composition and collaboration.
- Teams march to an externally imposed plan and a deadline versus a meaningful, valuable goal.
- Everything is a high priority.
- Starting is the preference over finishing.
“I think people get satisfaction from living for a cause that’s greater than themselves. They want to leave an imprint.”
— Daniel Pink
Purpose keeps teams grounded and focused. A guiding purpose provides a goal the team can navigate towards. Using a purpose as a guide allows the team to innovate and pivot to meet their objectives. This is magnitudes better than relying on outside instruction.
Below are some powerful ways you can form purpose for your teams:
Use Sprint Goals–Co-create and commit to a Sprint Goal instead of committing to a Sprint Backlog. The Sprint Backlog is only a forecast. Stop treating it like a contract. Embrace continuous inspection and adaptation to meet it instead.
Involve the team in everything–When teams engage in both Discovery and Delivery, they gain empathy for customers. Involving them in the entire value chain increases their shared understanding of purpose. This drives teams to better deliver what their customers need.
Form small, cross-functional feature teams– Creating a small, feature-focused, dedicated team of cross-skilled, diverse individuals enables purpose. Small teams find it easy to rally around a common goal and collaborate as a team to achieve it. And a self-sufficient team removes dependency waste and strengthens its identity.
№2 — Create the conditions for team autonomy
Without autonomy, the life and energy of a team evaporate. If you decide everything for your team, it will place ownership on your shoulders. And the team will only act when you give instruction, ceasing to make decisions on its own.
Below you will find some behaviors that cause team autonomy to reduce:
- Someone external to the team orchestrates what the team will work on and decides how the team will deliver.
- Team members have individual task goals rather than user outcome-oriented team goals.
- Documentation is the main communication method.
- When a team asks for help, the team is provided a solution versus coaching that helps it solve the problem for itself.
- Rewards result from following the plan and process over inspection and adaptation.
- Teams are not involved in decision making.
- The team is not involved in estimating its work.
- The team is expected to have stretch goals and work is pushed on it.
“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”
— Daniel Pink
The obvious antidote that increases team autonomy is to stop or reverse the above behaviors. But I like to bucket autonomy-building behaviors as follows:
Let the team decide–The team is closest to the work and it is members are professionals. Letting decisions happen by the team builds problem-solving capability. So show vulnerability, and let the team make decisions. This will allow the team to learn from its mistakes and successes.
Ask questions, don’t give answers–Stop providing solutions, and team autonomy and problem-solving capability will soar. Instead of providing answers, ask questions. You will find the team often knows what to do. By getting curious, you will help the team build problem-solving confidence.
Allow the team to pull and swarm–Instead of pushing a team to stretch and do more, prioritize the backlog. Allow the team to pull one piece of valuable work as they are ready and swarm on it to completion. When swarming, a team stops starting and starts finishing increments of potential value.
№3 — Show Agile Leadership and support the teams
When teams have a deadline and march to a plan, they often will keep their heads down and not talk about problems. They become reliant on the waste of wishful thinking. Problems get pushed to the side with the hope everything will be alright in the end.
When problems get covered, transparency declines. Management realizes there is a problem too late and can’t provide proper support.
The result is a reduction in inspection and adaptation. The team does not improve over time. And they are unable to gain mastery in the way they deliver.
To stop this treacherous dance, managers must become Agile Leaders. Agile Leaders engage, empathize, and serve the team at the place of work. Instead of relying on status reports and plans to control, they support inspection, learning, and adaptation.
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”
— Daniel Pink
This requires the managers to get out of the office and go to the Gemba¹ — the actual place of work. Going to the Gemba allows managers to see delivery first-hand and identify obstacles. Removing these obstacles serves the team. It is the best contribution an Agile Leader can make.
The biggest benefit of Agile Leaders serving the team is the increase in trust. This increase in trust breaks the chains of traditional command-and-control management. And it accelerates team autonomy.