Agile Thoughts on Team Dynamics

Elise Fleischaker Neurensic Blog


I was thinking just the other day about some of my Agile teams and in particular a comment about change and reduced velocity. Which reminded me of some of the great training I have received from the Boy Scouts of America in their Wood Badge course.

We forget that a team is dynamic and goes through phases and transitions. I get very used to my wonderful team that churned out 45 story points every sprint with almost monotonous regularity – except there is nothing monotonous about seeing a great team consistently deliver great software. It is why I live and love Agile so much.

Imagine the shock to us all when that team gently imploded. Don’t get me wrong, they were all motivated and rewarded and happy people, but unfortunately a series of personal situations conspired to break the team apart.

Teams go through four recognized phases, which in my course were labelled “forming”, “storming”, “norming” and “performing”. That team went from performing to forming a very short time. By understanding team phases and dynamics we can better understand what will happen in this situation and better transition back to performing as fast as we can. And you will gain a huge sense of satisfaction by bring that team together and doing great things.

Each of these phases has different characteristics. You can find many images on the web about these phases, so good and some bad. I like to think of an image of little vector arrows. The more they are aligned then the more they add up to a big vector of force pushing in the right direction.

Forming a team has many unknowns and is just getting used to each other. At this stage our individual vectors are small and pointing in different directions, but hey! You got them all in the same room and on the same team so don’t give up hope yet.

Storming is once the team knows each other and starts to talk and contribute and sometimes feels like a low point when managing the team. Our vector arrows are getting bigger, but they are still pointing in different directions. How can I have all this noise and energy and still not be achieving anything? Don’t give up, the team achieved something very, very important and good teams often need to go through some form of this phase. You got people talking and giving their opinions! They want to help! They’re trying!

Norming is where we find the team starting to come together and make better decisions more firmly and faster. They start making larger team decisions and pulling in the same direction. Those vectors are starting to point in the same direction and when you add it up they result in the project moving in more or less the right direction. Cultivate the enthusiasm you find at this stage, it is invaluable in your next part of the life-cycle. Cultivate the respect and trust that is starting to develop and encourage open feed back in a positive environment. This is in your job description as an Agile Coach!

Performing is our goal and where, as the Agile Coach, you will feel the most reward and pleasure and satisfaction. All those vectors are lined up and the team is pulling in the same direction. Peace, Love, Harmony and Lions Laying Down With Lambs. Nirvana forever, right?

Wrong. Teams are dynamic because good teams have different personalities and leverage each others strengths. Teams are very sensitive to change, in particular change of team members. A new Product Owner? Oh Oh, who the heck is he? A new Developer? Why are they so slow? MY team just broke and velocity went out the window!

Change is good in many cases, and inevitable anyway, so Be Prepared for it (there is that Boy Scout coming out again). All it takes is to realize that change will flip your team off the Performing box and back into the process. Somewhere. As an Agile Coach your job is to recognize where they land and help move them forward. Simply understanding which phase they are in will help you bring them forwards to the performing stage. It might only be a small disruption and the team is just back and Norming. Or maybe the whole team is rebuilding itself and we are really Forming all over again. Recognize it and you will know what you are working with and can help it move forwards.

Forming. Storming. Norming. Performing. Words not usually found in your Agile book, but perhaps they should be.