Posts tagged team
Are Hyperproductive Teams Real?

We have all heard the story of the hyperproductive team. That beautiful creation that is 400% more effective that regular teams. The team that never stops getting better. But how many of us have actually seen such a thing in the flesh? I have been lucky enough to see one or two but most teams never reach those lofty heights. Why? Is it because we have the wrong people? Not smart enough? Not talented enough? Not committed enough? I don't think so. I have seen very talented teams struggle while teams that had much less raw talent went on to do great things. Although talent helps, there is no guarantee that a talented team will become hyperproductive and a less talented team will not.

Is it the methodology they use? Is scrum the recipe for hyperproductive teams? Is it Kanban? Crystal? SAFe? Less? Again, none of these things seem to matter. I have seen teams struggle and succeed with all methodologies. So what is it then that allows some teams to become hyperproductive? In my experience, there is one thing that allowed my hyperproductive teams to become hyperproductive - they are parts of hyperproductive organisations. The hyperproductive team is a myth.

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Teams As An Ideal Gas

I have a confession to make. I'm a bit of a physics nerd. Actually that's not true. I'm a huge physics nerd. I'm not a trained physicist, I'm an engineer by training (which is pretty close...BTW that loud noise you just heard was a bunch of physicists' heads exploding at the thought of being compared to an engineer) but I have always loved physics. All that sets the stage for my next sentence - I was reading an article the other day on ideal gases (as you do) and suddenly thought that gases make a great metaphor for our teams. Stick with me on this...

An ideal gas is a construct physicists use to better understand the behaviour of real gases. Real gases are messy and awkward and do some strange things (like heat up when you compress them) which make studying them difficult. An ideal gas is a conceptual model of a gas that you can use to infer the behaviour of a real gas. In an ideal gas, you assume that the particles that make up the gas are free to move without impediments and when they interact, they do so in a perfectly elastic collision - both particles rebound and go about their business with no loss of energy. The speed of the particles is related entirely to the temperature of the gas. The hotter the gas the faster they move. This also makes an ideal gas a model of an ideal team.

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Pirate Teams

A few months ago I saw a meme floating around contrasting a good agile team with a group of cowboy coders. Their chosen metaphor was a nautical one. The good agile team was the navy (age of sail style) - disciplined, focused, effective, working together for a common purpose. The bad team was, of course, pirates - rough, undisciplined, attacking stuff at random, scary but ultimately ineffective.

I looked at that, and knowing a little something about pirates (real ones, not the Long John Silver/Jack Sparrow/Captain Hook type Hollywood ones) it didn't quite ring true. In fact, if you look a little deeper, the age of sail navy is actually quite a good metaphor for traditional organisations and pirates actually make a great agile team. Since this is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, heave to for a moment ye scurvy dogs and let me explain.

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Don't Wait To Communicate

A nice short post this time to ease myself gently back into the business of blog writing in the new year. I hope everyone had a fantastic holiday season filled with as much of your chosen way of celebrating as you could handle without doing yourself lasting damage.

How many times have we seen this situation - it's standup time and the team are gathered around the board sipping their morning coffees. "I need to raise a blocker" says one of the team. "I need some help with the design and I've been stuck since lunchtime yesterday so can anyone help out this morning? I probably only need 10 minutes". The team discusses the problem, tasks are rearranged and the team works out how to get the job done. Sounds great doesn't it? But there's a problem here. Can anyone see it?

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The Limits of T Shaped Teams

We talk a lot about T shaped skills in agile teams. For those who aren't familiar with the terminology, think about a capital "T". The vertical line is the team's core skill, they have deep expertise in that. The horizontal line is all the other things the team is capable of outside its core skill. A good team should have skills that are T shaped (broad as well as deep), rather than "I" shaped - deep in one area with no ability to work outside that (like traditional silo teams). We don't want a team that can only work on the back end of the website, we want teams that can deliver end to end. We don't want teams that can only deliver on the shopping cart, we want teams that can deliver in other areas as well.

The more T shaped our teams are, the more flexible we can be in organising work. If we have a lot of shopping cart enhancements, we don't have to wait for the shopping cart team to become free and deliver them all, we have a bunch of teams who can pick up the work and deliver it. This is a very good thing. There are however, a few key misconceptions about T shaped teams that I have observed over the years, that are worth pointing out and correcting.

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The Team As A Decision Making Unit

Teams hold a special status in agile. Teams are at the heart of all agile frameworks and much of the focus of the agile community is on growing and supporting teams. Not just any teams, agile teams stress things like self organisation and cross functionality. There is no denying that a really good agile team is an awesome sight to behold. The amount of stuff they can get done is nothing short of remarkable. But there are also an awful lot of agile teams that have the same properties but their performance isn't anywhere near as good. So what is wrong with those teams? Is it the people? Is it the environment? Is it the nature of the work? What stops some teams from performing where others with the same characteristics flourish?

In an effort to understand why, I have been thinking deeply about the concept of the team; why they are so effective and why we insist on certain characteristics for our agile teams. The conclusion I have come to is that it's all about the ability to make decisions.

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Coach Addiction

Agile coaches help teams. Right? Having a coach to help guide a team means they are more likely to become a successful, high performing agile team. Right? That's why organisations are prepared to pay for agile coaches. But is there a down side to coaching? Can coaching hinder a team, rather than help it?

Imagine, if you will, a team. They are on about sprint 20, you are their new agile coach, taking over after the last one left. You are observing a retrospective and they are doing what they should be doing - working out what went well, and what didn't. "Why", you are thinking, "do they need a coach after 20 sprints? They seem to be doing fine". Then they get to the "what should we change for next time" bit, and all eyes in the room turn to you. "This is where you, as our coach, tell us what to do so we can get better" they say. "Work it out", you say, "Self-organise around the problem and solve it". "No", they say, "you have to tell us what to do". Then you notice that there is no sprint planning scheduled for the next sprint. "That's your job" the team says. "You tell us what to do and we do it". Welcome to the dark world of coach addiction.

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Great Boards Have Nothing To Do With The Board

I am working with a team that has a great VMB. It's the first thing people say when they walk past and see a stand-up in progress - "what a fantastic VMB" they say. And it is indeed fantastic. It represents the team's work really well. It's clear and easy to understand. It shows obstacles and what the team is doing to overcome them. It really assists the team in their stand-ups. It facilitates discussions between the team and its stakeholders.

The next question people invariably ask is -"can we set up our board like that?" Of course they can. The VMB design isn't proprietary to the team. Anyone can use it. So they do. Copies of this fantastic board are springing up everywhere, but pretty soon they come back and say "there's something wrong. Our stand-ups don't flow as well as yours and the board just doesn't work. Have we copied something wrong?" Yes they have. They have copied the wrong thing entirely. The thing they haven't realized is that my team's fantastic board, and the fantastic stand-ups and discussions it facilitates, has nothing at all to do with the layout of the board, and everything to do with the performance of the team.

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The Responsibility Trap

The responsibility trap is a very easy one to fall into. The symptoms are easy to spot - it's 11pm, you are sitting in an empty office, buried in work up to your eyeballs. Everyone else went home hours ago. Weekends are a myth. You haven't seen your family for days. The agile principle of sustainable pace applies to everyone on the team... except you. How did it happen? The trap is a really easy one to stumble into because it's insidious. You can wander in without realising you are inside, you won't notice until you are deep inside and by then it's too late. Try to leave and the trap will snap shut around you. While anyone can fall into the trap, it's particularly easy for people in expert, leadership or coaching roles to get stuck in it.

The trap is really simple, it works like this - the team needs something done. You, as "the expert" in the area, take it on and do it. The next time it needs doing, you do it again. Now, everyone just expects you to do it. Then something else comes up and, as "the expert", you step up and do it. And so on, until you are buried in a pile of work. Your intentions were good - the team needed something done, they were busy, it was urgent, you did it. What's wrong with that?

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