How to Build Super Teams

In my role as a consultant Scrum Master, I am often faced with a client request to have Scrum team members rotate in and out of teams.

The reasonings come from places of misguided but genuine concern (“it gives everyone a clear understanding of what is going on”) or the slightly bizarre (“it gives everyone chance to be on the ‘fun’ team”), but as well-intentioned as the requests might be, team rotation undermines the spirit of Agile and risks negating the benefits you would get from adopting Agile.

How do Teams Form?

Team dynamics, formation and performance is a huge subject in its own right, but as a servant-leader, a Scrum Master, an Agile coach, a project manager, a team lead — anyone involved in the operation of a team — you need to know at least the basics.

Most people have, at some point in their lives, been a member of a new team.

Think back to how you started: probably quite formal and polite with one another, unsure whether you can crack jokes or what TV show you all watched last night. Maybe there are different languages, cultures or ages across the team. Maybe you all have different professional expertise. People tiptoe around each other and collaboration can be awkward or stilted.

Now think to three, or six, or twelve months from that point. Think about the easy conversations, the understanding of how each other works. Maybe you’ve even become friends, going for dinner after work, or even on holiday together.

This evolution is vital if you want a team to become truly high-performing.

In 1965 Bruce Tuckman, an educational psychologist working at Ohio State University, developed his model of team formation. In it he identified four stages (later adding a fifth and final stage for when teams disbanded) that most teams — if allowed to work together long enough — will follow.

Forming

Team members meet and agree their goal and start to work on tasks. During this time individual team members will work autonomously. They will be on their best behaviour and focused on themselves rather than the wider team. If you are a Scrum Master, this early forming stage is when you will likely see retrospectives focusing on individual problems rather than focusing on improving the team.

Storming

Not all teams will enter a storming phase; some will skip from forming straight through to norming. However, for those teams that do, the disagreements and personality clashes that arise during this phase must be dealt with before the whole team can reach the norming stage. If distrust is ever-present then teams may never be able to break out of the storming phase. Storming is often encountered when there is a dominant personality in the team, or when an individual is perceived to be not pulling their weight.

Norming

Once a team has moved into norming, we start to see focus shift from individual to the team. Co-operation flourishes, and team members take responsibility to work towards the success of the team goal. Team members are more tolerant of one another and keen to keep the peace. However if a team sticks in the norming stage, they may be too focused on preventing conflict to share controversial ideas.

Performing

This is the stage we aim for with Agile teams. In a performing team, the team will be self-organised and making most of the decisions. They will be competent and autonomous individuals; motivated and knowledgeable. However, once a team reaches this stage it can still revert back to earlier stages as they react to changing circumstances such as a change in leadership or team setup.

Adjourning

The final stage was added in 1977 following further research into team dynamics. Adjourning is when a team completes their task and subsequently breaks up.

Super Teams need Time

Tuckman’s model doesn’t just apply to newly forming teams however. Every time you add a new team member, swap a team member, or remove one completely, the team will revert back to the forming stage. It then has to evolve through the cycles again as a new team until it hits the performing stage.

For an Agile team to become a super team, you need to give them time together, a safe environment to flourish in, and a good team coach to guide them along the way.