Well-Formed Teams

Innovation Engines of Extraordinary Value

4 April 2008

Doug Shimp
3Back, Scrum Management Consulting & Training

Samall Hazziez
Preferred Professionals Business Group

In the agile space the notion of the well-formed team (WFT) has been discussed by Team Capital. The purpose of a WFT is to have a team thrive in a direction ideally set by business vision. When directed towards business vision, a WFT becomes an innovation engine of extraordinary value. 

A mature WFT is an indivisible unit, a self-organizing, learning engine of effectiveness, not merely a collection of individuals. Such teams rarely emerge by chance; a WFT is often intentionally formed with an understanding of the inherent value of such a team in mind. While agile provides pathways that can increase the chances of such a team forming, WFTs are not unique to agile.

Enabling the WFT

Certain processes and enablers, when applied with care, can pave the way for a WFT to form: Scrum, Lean, and XP are examples of agile processes, while from the more traditional processes come RUP, PMBOK, and Classic SDLC methodologies. Some enablers come in the form of assessment instruments for the organization and individuals, such as audits, Myers-Briggs, or agile assessments. Classic environmental enablers include things like collocated space, team rooms, training rooms, visible charts, and white boards. All of these processes and enablers have good qualities, tools, and ideas in them. However, these same processes and enablers regularly get over-complicated or misapplied. People are often loaded down with devastating amounts of information, which cripple an individual’s ability to think clearly. We can easily become burdened by frameworks, esoteric language, principles, or practices that clutter our minds and focus our attention on the wrong things.

What you focus on matters. All too often process, principles, and practices become a crippling focus. On the other hand, when processes and enablers are applied appropriately they can result in a group of people working very cohesively together (i.e., a WFT). Our goal becomes creating WFTs that are deployed to business’ needs. WFTs are how businesses can realize opportunities to thrive.

Explaining WFTs: 3 + 2

We have found some easily acquired language that helps make individuals and teams reason better collectively. We call this useful language “attractors for effective thinking.” Our goal with these attractors is to help WFTs behave more instinctively as a unit as they make decisions. The name of the game is to avoid and eliminate confusion while bringing a team’s unified, collective intellect to bear, in a highly focused manner, on business problems.

We have broken things down into “3+2” as an easy way to remind ourselves and help the teams we work with.

3 Attractors

Let the product lead

Pay attention to the needs of the product. As we consider adopting a new practice or idea from our process we ask ourselves if it serves the needs of the product. Or, said empirically, the product is your best source of reality to give you feedback as to whether you are making the right decisions and having the right conversations.

One bite at a time

Each item of work should be broken up into small enough pieces to eat. Most teams and individuals will bite off far more than they can chew. We are constantly working with teams to break the work down into manageable pieces that can get done in short time-boxed cycles. Short cycles that roll-up into hourly, daily and weekly rhythms begin to emerge as a good pattern for managing the work.

Keep it visible

This is one of the most obvious things to do yet it is rarely done well. Without visible pieces of work or a map to that work, we cannot see where effort is being applied. When we cannot see where to apply effort we flounder and do not work together. When the work is a physical thing like digging a ditch it is easy to see where to jump in with a shovel and help out. However, in the land of ideas or software work much of the work is not easily visible and therefore self-organization is inhibited.  When we make our work visible, we reduce the risk of disappearing for long periods of time and not producing anything. With visible work efforts we improve the chances that our next conversation will be the right one and make reporting on team progress a breeze. Great teams work together by keeping an appropriate amount of visibility.

+ 2 Balances

Conversation and Structure

Conversation and structure are used to achieve balance within the three attractors for effective thinking. Structure is added through process, product, physical location, and focus. Conversation requires enough structure from an established protocol so that we can communicate effectively. This communication protocol can be setup by formal or informal process (e.g. an agile process) language agreements, team location, and more. Conversation is necessary for humans to establish rapport so that we can create, contribute, and share deep, meaningful understanding. With conversation we can help each other detect if understanding is there. With structure we have an idea of what the next most important conversation to have is.

Recognizing WFTs

So, what does a WFT look like? To help answer this question we have listed some of the more common characteristics found in a WFT.

 

  • Most WFTs emerge most easily from a collocated environment. We suspect that the reason for this is that critical mass team understanding is difficult with the technologies currently implemented to achieve a WFT in a distributed manner. We simply cannot achieve the high-bandwidth communication necessary to form the deep state of rapport that a WFT will exhibit when its members are in close proximity for a face-to-face conversation.
  • WFT members show a high state of rapport and an ability to achieve that rapport rapidly. For example, they fluidly stop and start sentences as though speaking with one mind.
  • Members actively contribute thoughts and share ideas to the group and do not egotistically claim ownership for those ideas.
  • WFT members personally feel safe when the team is safe. Team members will do whatever they can for the sake of the team’s welfare.
  • Team members self-organize frequently in twos and threes as the work is broken down and pulled in by the team.
  • Team members often brainstorm as a group.
  • Members self-assign work and pull new work assignments.
  • Members have good line of sight to business objectives and work according to business value-added priority.
  • WFTs spontaneously create a personal identity.
  • Members put the good of the team ahead of their own personal goals.
  • The team behaves as a local “marketplace of ideas” by actively contributing ideas. As ideas are contributed, the team grows, polishes, augments or kills the best ideas; the individuals who initiated those ideas do not feel slighted. Team members feel not only accountable but empowered to use their creative intellect to move the end product forward.
  • Members pickup and quickly acquire new skills by helping each other learn.
  • WFT are learning engines who tenaciously seek to acquire the knowledge they need to succeed in their objectives.
  • Members do not seek to make themselves a skill or knowledge dependency. Team members will work closely with each other to have redundant skills whenever possible and share knowledge quickly.
  • WFTs demonstrate productivity rates that are four or more times greater than industry averages; they are hyper-productive.
  • Members leverage each other’s diversity to create innovative outcomes.
  • Members challenge one another to bring their best.
  • Teams are not conflict free. Instead they have constructive conflict marked by passionate struggles or learning aimed at better outcomes.
  • Energy, excitement, and passion have an almost palpable feel in the team environment.
  • WFTs move with a single purpose to focus their energy and burn holes through complex business problems.

Conclusion

Many of today’s business opportunities are in complex development landscapes; in other words much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Businesses are increasingly challenged with rapidly changing market landscapes. What we need are rapidly adapting development services. We see the WFT as the key to providing that service.

There are many agile pathways (e.g., Scrum, Lean, and XP) that can result in a WFT. No one pathway is necessarily right or wrong; we see pathways as a way to get and sustain a WFT. WFTs are basic assets that individuals, businesses, and organizations need to help them thrive.

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Comments

Craig Erdmann, CSM, 8/27/2008 9:07:49 AM
A point I have been pondering lately is if there is a generation that is more suited to the Scrum approach. Does the social based Generations Y who prize communication with friends (Yes speaking in generalities about generations here) adopt the Scrum process quicker and more fully than their Baby Boomer and Gen X counterparts. Having worked with both types of teams and mixtures, I have noticed the above trend. Furthermore, the "if it's not developed here, it's crap" syndrome seems to be more prevalent in the older generations, while the younger generation has a greater willingness to embrace open source tools by trusting the social networks ability to deliver valuable product.

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