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The Roar on the Other Side of Silence

May 2nd, 2010 7 comments

I love to watch television shows about the natural universe.  The content of these television programs simply fascinates me at a visceral level I don’t experience with other subjects.  I wonder at the possibilities of the cosmos, the history of the universe, the beginnings of consciousness in pre-historic humanoid brains, and the other organisms we share this planet with.  I think about how humans may be connected with animals, how our culture and community may be connected with our past, and how each of us may have more in common with each other through a shared historical experience than we allow ourselves to believe.  I love to ponder about the nature of simply being.  I think about this topic because on a regular basis I get to see a wide variety of people and get to see how they relate to job and their team, how they choose to exist professionally.

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I frequently work with teams of people from a range of companies, industries, and backgrounds, and its during these sessions that I think back to those larger thoughts about how we experience our lives as individuals and as members of teams.  What makes some teams click, thrive, and deliver?  How do some groups of people truly share a common goal and work creatively to achieve it?  Why do some groups of people seem to only suffer through projects and then deliver dismal results, consistently?  What is the definable difference between the experiences of these different groups?  Why are some people happy with their job, their company, their project, their healthcare, their family, their car, their house, their spouse, their life, while others would seemingly choose to be dissatisfied no matter what they may be blessed with?  Where are the connection of neurons responsible for our ability to be happy and productive on a team?  And does this ability to choose happiness relate to better relationships and results at work?  How do I grant the gift of effortless success and indomitable growth to teams that struggle endlessly to achieve even modestly positive results?

To help me answer these questions, I turned to an insightful book The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. In the book authors Katzenback and Smith define a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and a common approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”  Although I agree wholeheartedly with their definition, the book did not satisfy the curiosity I had about what components make certain teams tick and others tock.  I needed an understanding at a deeper level, I needed to examine the DNA of teams.  So instead of reading more about teams from a business perspective, I instead looked into those double helixes that seem to determine everything about us, our very own DNA, to see if any insight could be found.

The human genome project promised to finally unlock the secret recipe for what makes us who we are.  And like so many other great scientific promises of the past, it failed to yield an answer to everything, but rather provided a perfect foundation for even greater questions.  Although our DNA provides the building blocks for our physical being, it cannot alone explain the curiosities of individuals, from our personalities, to our attitudes, to our propensity for success, or our ability to trudge inexorably to failure.  This mysterious exclusion is expressed effectively in the observation of identical twins, where the DNA encoding remains identical, but where nearly all else is unique, especially when the brain is examined.

Like our DNA, we often cannot choose the members that make up our team, but equally similar to DNA, it is not simply the members of our team that pre-determine our possibilities.  Too often I hear individuals complain that consistent success would be possible if only they were assigned to the right team or if the right team were assigned to them.  This superficial failure of perspective can often become a self-fullfilling prophecy, yielding the expected negative results as a consequence of subconscious actions driven in support of the consciously expected outcome.  As with many mysteries of life, perspective and belief are more powerful than we allow ourselves to consider.  We seem to be more content to apply unreasoned reasons to our perceived consequences rather than seeking to drive meaning from those things for which we could have affected the outcome.

Recent discoveries in the world of science confirm the notion that we are more than our parts, both on the individual and team levels.  These scientific revelations point to a beautiful aspect of life that affirms that we are not limited by our structure, but are allowed infinite possibilities through the wonder of chaos; an inability and impossibility of perfectly predicting results based solely on observing conditions, thus free will is born and an infinite number of possible minds follows.  Author Jonah Lehrer states “that [this] is the triumph of DNA; it makes us without determining us.  The invention of neural plasticity, which is encoded by the genome, lets each of us transcend our genome.  We emerge, character-like, from the vague alphabet of our text.”  And as is true for individuals, it is equally true for how effectives teams can be, regardless of their own DNA, regardless of the individual components of the team.

Supporting these ideas, in a 2002 Science paper entitled “Stochastic Gene Expression in a Single Cell” Michael Elowitz of Caltech demonstrated that biological “noise” (a scientific synonym for chaos) is inherent in gene expression.  His results further solidified the unfolding scientific belief that it was this “noise” that held most of the possibilities for emergence in design for organisms, which contradicted the earlier collective belief that natural selection alone held this potential.  These discoveries, by extension, illuminated the idea that without this inclusion of chaos, then every cell that was created by the same DNA would operate, behave, and produce the same results, but we know that this is not the case.  In fact, without this beautiful inclusion to our evolution, we would not experience the diversity of life that we do.

Digging more deeply into what constitutes success in these complex adaptive systems (organized as teams), yields the result that diversity in experience, knowledge, personality, and drive is what allow them to truly excel.  The equivalent in nature was captured by Darwin when he wrote that ”the more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution, and habits, by so much will they be better enabled to seize on many and widely diversified places in the polity of nature.”  A team’s diversity is one its greatest strengths, so long as the diversity is expressed and exercised regularly.

Teams are not doomed to failure as an inevitable consequence of the composition of it’s members.  Similarly, individuals are not merely limited to the sum of their specific DNA coded sequences.  And if these statements are true, how do we then affect better outcomes from both teams and individuals?  Just as individuals are formed by their experiences that shape their neurons, bringing temporary neural order to chaos, so too can teams also allow their experience to help bring consistency in results to their previously unpredictable outcomes.  But in order to make this happen, teams need two very important components in place: 1. An ability to clearly define their current state set against their preferred results (this allows the team to define the state of dissonance between reality and possibility, thus developing creative tension in the structure).  2. A mechanism that allows the team to utilize experience to shape future team decisions.

I am a firm believer that:

- Given the opportunity, most people would rather succeed than fail.
- People are very well aware of organizational constraints that limit their ability to achieve and succeed.
- Most people feel limited in their ability to affect change in their job.

So what is the answer?  How do we elicit better results from our teams?

If you are still with me this far, then it is only fair that I provide you an answer, right?  Unfortunately, as much as I would like to, I cannot provide an answer, only a direction.

The potential source for your organization’s power lies in the unexplored richness of experience and understanding held by your people.  You may believe that your organization actively solicits input and feedback, but if your organization is like most, you don’t, at least not well enough.  You will know when you have breached the barrier that separates average teams and corporate culture from their extraordinary equivalents.  You will know because you will discover the roar that exists on the other side of silence.  Do not dig unprepared for what you may find, the roar is often deafening.

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There Is No ‘I’ in Agile: How Teamwork Can Make or Break an Agile Project

July 9th, 2009 No comments

flyingformationFlying just a few feet off of the wings of the pilot in front and to the right of him, this skilled pilot was determined to keep a tight formation. And he was not alone in his efforts and highly honed flying abilities, as every single pilot in his entire squadron was similarly adept at maintaining this tight formation no matter the direction, the weather, or even the specific order in which these aviators organized. The formation would have looked impressive to anyone observing from the ground, but it wasn’t a formation used to impress observers, it was utilized because it worked. By maintaining this flying organization, each member of this flying contingent was able to benefit from the lift created by the pilot off of his wing, to the tune of a 71% improvement in fuel consumption. The exception to this economy of course was for the sole lead pilot, which did not benefit from having a lead aircraft providing a boost of lift. So to account for this, each member of the flying team would rotate to the lead position at regular intervals so that they could ensure that every member would share the burden for a portion of the total flight time.

This highly skilled team of aviators recognized that they could not possibly fly as far or as long without teamwork. But this spirit of teamwork did not end with the decision to maintain an efficient formation. They recognized that in order for each of the pilots to be safe, they would need to take care of each other, even when disaster struck, which it did one brisk autumn morning…

The morning had been uneventful, each of the team’s pilots maintaining a tight formation, and a vigilant eye on the ground, because on this particular morning, they were traversing enemy territory. And even though this was a dangerous mission, this mission was much like most of their other missions, as they often were forced to travel over possibly hostile terrain. But unlike most other mornings, a trailing member of the formation was struck, by what no one could be sure, but struck nonetheless, and within moments, his ability to continue flying was affected severely: he was going down. He didn’t have a choice to eject, but rather piloted his disabled craft safely to the ground so that he could assess the damage. But as experience would show, being on the ground where he was much less maneuverable, he was at a greater risk of attack. In order to keep a member of their team safe during emergencies such as these, two fellow pilots also descended from formation, landing near the downed team member, and provided protection while repairs were made. These guardians would stay by the side of the disabled pilot until he was ready to fly again. To this fleet of pilots, teamwork meant never leaving a fellow pilot behind. After a short while, the downed pilot was able to successfully repair his vessel and all three took back to the air, rejoining their squadron. Alone, the pilot may not have survived the ordeal.

geeseThis is a true story, although it is a story that likely first took place thousands of years ago. And it is a story that continues to play out even today. You see, the pilots in the story above were not the pilots you may have been thinking of, these pilots were geese. Geese offer an incredible example of teamwork and how teamwork enables each member of the team to achieve more, travel greater distances, and weather more intense emergencies than they would survive alone. Geese use this tool of teamwork because although it requires a commitment to something greater than each individual, it repays that commitment with many more benefits not available without this pledge of membership.

So what do geese flying in formation have to do with Agile teams?

Plenty.

I would venture to guess that no company in existence would openly say that they do not believe in teamwork.  I would further venture to say that most of these companies would state firmly that their teams are very good at demonstrating team work in the projects they undertake.  But the truth of the matter is that most teams rarely demonstrate the type of team work that produces results proving the possibility that the whole truly can be greater than the sum of the individual parts.  The word ‘teamwork’ has unfortunately been reduced to nothing more than a term on the balance sheet of requirements for a group of project associated individuals; a definition never verified, never authentically encouraged by the organization, but believed to exist nonetheless.  It is a word that has lost its power.  It is routinely applied to describe a group where the group behavior does not merit its application of meaning.  It is overused, under-realized, and misunderstood because of each of these are true.  And yet only a small percentage of ‘teams’ out there truly endeavor to seek the rewards that come from achieving a level of performance and professional satisfaction that is the byproduct of individuals that sacrifice their distinction, their difference, and their dissimilarities in their pursuit of that which is greater than any one person.  They pursue the quotient that is achieved when individuals become teams.  When individual output transforms into teamwork.

mmeadequoteAgile requires teamwork in the truest sense of the word.  Agile processes reward and recognize good team behavior in the spirit that good teams can produce great results, and as teams mature, great teams can produce extraordinary outcomes.   Don’t believe me?  Then let me pose a question to you…

Have you ever been a part of a team where everything seemed to click?  Where if you had an issue, someone on your team was there to help almost before you were able to ask?  Have you ever been on a team where the work seemed less like work and more like an expression of your and your team’s passion and energy?  If so, then you are not alone, as most people have actually had the experience of achieving this level of team maturity that results in true teamwork.  If you were not able to relate, then it is up to you to create this atmosphere with your own team, on your own project.

But before we can truly become a team, we have to also address the flip side of the coin, and that is the dysfunctions that can easily sink the most well intentioned ship of individuals who set out to discover the holy land of team performance.  Patrick Lencioni did a very good job of identifying these major areas in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of  a Team, so instead of reinventing the wheel (or the team), let’s use Lencioni’s model as our foundation.

Dysfunction One:  The absence of trust among the team members.

I think that I can safely say that if you do not have trust, you do not have anything…at least you do not have anything so far as it relates to creating a true team.  What do you have when your team members don’t trust each other or don’t trust you?  You have a group of individuals working in close proximity, but you do not have a team.  You also have a group that is not able to focus their efforts on creating a truly great product, because they must divide their attention on ensuring that they are not going to be stabbed in the back.  Even if the distrust does not rise to the levels where your resources begin to connive against one another, you still have a group that cannot truly communicate, because true, effective, healthy communication is based on a foundation of trust.

Dysfunction Two: The fear of conflict.

Great teams fight.  Perhaps the word ‘fight’ is a bit strong, but great teams are not afraid of conflict, because out of conflict can emerge true resolution.  I say true resolution, because resolution can happen without conflict, but it is not authentic because it typically is simply a result of one party giving in to avoid the conflict, rather than remaining passionate about the best outcome.  Conflict is not beneficial simply for conflict’s sake, but when teams fear confrontation and conflict, communication suffers, knowledge sharing suffers, and ultimately the individuals begin to manage their own actions from a place of fear, which never returns great results.

Dysfunction Three: The lack of commitment.

We use the word commitment a lot in Agile, but in this context, the word commitment is more aligned with being absolutely committed to the team’s goal rather than our own individual objectives.  When a team of individuals is committed to achieving the goals of the team, no other possibility exists, and when faced with adversity or the risk of missing an objective, the committed teams gets creative to resolve their own issues.  Commitment does not have a back door through which we can escape when times get tough.  When a team embraces their commitments, there is little that they cannot not accomplish.

shindlequoteDysfunction Four: The avoidance of accountability.

The buck stops here.  Not at the desk of the project manager, but at the door of the team’s war room.  The team’s ability to remain accountable to their commitments means that creativity is likely to flow in the face of project difficulty.  I am not accidentally being vague here, I am purposely avoiding being too specific because I have seen many varied examples of how a team’s creativity in their attempts to resolve issues has surprised even them.  Keep all possibilities open, along with your mind, and allow the intelligent people you have assembled for your team to be accountable, even up until the very end.  With accountability comes the possibility of glory, don’t take this away from your team.

Dysfunction Five: The inattention to results.

In order for any team to have the possibility of making improvements, they must be able to honestly assess the effectiveness of their results.  It may be nice to sugar coat our reality, so that we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but all we are doing when we practice this soft-handed approach, is sweep under the rug the very information that is most likely to assist us in improving our future efforts.  Results are not good or bad, it is just information.  What teams do with this information will determine the character of the team.  Team’s that choose to ignore the difficult to digest results will continue to produce that same quality of results, but instead of improving their actions, they will simply develop an immunity to the effects the poor results use to inflict.  If it is painful for a team to honestly and authentically examine their results, then this is a sure sign that they need to examine them in detail.  Allow the team to feel the pain, experience any negative reaction that comes from this examination, and most importantly, use the total experience to open up the possibility of valuable conversations that will allow the team to avoid repeating it all again in the future.

antoinequoteThere is no ‘I’ in Agile.

Individuals are great, I love having superstars on my team, but when we work together to achieve a common goal, I only recognize good team behavior, not individual efforts.  The people on your team are just like people everywhere, they are going to behave in ways which reflect how they are rewarded and recognized.  So if your company does not officially reward team’s that perform, only individuals (like during annual reviews), start the conversation to address this.  In you don’t, please do not be surprised when all of your cheerleading over the important of teamwork, team play, and team building are met with cheers, but then never realized.

Agile requires many different areas that reflect the need for a true cultural paradigm shift within most companies, teamwork and team building being one of the majors, so get ready, it is now up to you.  Becase if you have made it this far in my post, you have heard the bell.  And you cannot un-ring the bell, you know.

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