Heath Brothers on Team Dysfunction - An Agile Perspective

In the end, this is all about people. I recently read somewhere that people make up teams. People make up companies.

Right or wrong, people have emotions. This also means that emotions will play a part in teams and in decision making.

Companies struggle to define team behavior and ultimately the aggregate measurement of many teams creates a culture - or, defines one.

What does it all mean from an Agile perspective?

Teams win
Teams that figure it out ahead of others generally win in the market and produce better outcomes.

Why does Agile work?

Why does Agile focus so much on teams?

It has something to do with the way individuals react and respond to common challenges.

In software, there is talk of "Patterns". That is, common situations occurs so frequently such that a solution emerges which is bound to a source challenge - so a pattern emerges.

Common problems are combined with common solutions. Yes, this has been around for 1000's of years - humans are problem solvers. And, more often than not a team of very smart people can outthink a single very smart individual.

Here is the obvious, but overlooked punchline:

There are common instincts at play and Agile taps into them. Tyrants and corporate dictators can try to ignore these instincts. Fear of getting fired can suppress most of it most of time, but in some deep irony - it will all show up in the bottomline sooner or later.

Rule by fear too long and then the smart and talented flee - what is left? A population of the fearful and obedient. If only the market rewarded the most afraid and the most obedient.

Problem solvers are clever - they figure things out and they know how to read situations much better than most leaders would like to believe. What's more - we are engineered to detect dishonesty as individuals. This is another survival skill that Agile embraces.

A team that trusts is a team that performs.

Simple right? But, I bet you really didn't think about Genetics or anything terribly scientific or biological - I mean this is a business article, so why would you?

Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately - we are on the cusp of tremendous science and this is what the Heath brothers are making a nice living off of - educating folks like us trying to figure out how to get the most out of our teams, our work days and our careers.

If you are a person, then you have a brain and if you have a brain, then you have some cognitive patterns which are explored by a few things that are making their way into pop culture and into modern management circles.

The Heath brothers are pointing to these things and Agile also knows a thing or two about people. Here is a simple illustration, this is why at the end of each iteration or sprint we check in with those stakeholders ... just to make sure their fickle minds do not lose sight of what we all were so certain of and what we agreed upon several weeks ago.

Wait, this is what you thought I asked for?

Right, this is why I am showing it to you now so we confirm what we think we know. Plus, we now have time to get back on track - saving time, money and a whole lot of drama and aggravation down the road when emotions get really high when those deadlines loom - just in case we are wrong or misunderstood those cryptic requirements that we had to use in order to hit that equally ridiculous date ... Does this sound familiar?
Agile does a good job of landing it all back to where it begins and where it will end - with people - with trust - sorta need those things to have teams or good ones. People are smart - especially well paid smart people in IT. It is really silly now to think how a few misguided leaders can try to fool a whole organization of smart people.

Enron tried that once me thinks ... but I'm not as smart as those folks.

The list goes on and on about the cost and toll of corporate hubris. Now, more science will emerge to paint a clearer picture as to the true cost of toxic culture.

And a bonus if you read this far ... don't take my words for it .... read on to hear a bit from the Heath brothers. Just remember - Agile is easy because it focuses on people and that is why it is so powerful and universal. Agile is hard to discern if you are looking past individuals and past teams while you seek that Agile Magic... you deserve failure if you are seeking Agile Magic. Or, I bet you will be looking for a very long time and your frustration levels will be off the charts.

Before you read the original text - here is my quick take on each Agile talking point per each dysfunction:

Dysfunction 1: Mass confusion. (Nobody knows who’s in charge.)

Agile Scrum does not really focus on who is in charge, but relies on problem solving as a team. Even though roles have some authority the whole emphasis lands on the team. Thus, how can a whole team be confused if they are practicing Agile Scrum basics? The corporate culture is a different story.

Dysfunction 2: Faction fever. (We’ve splintered into groups and we spend all our time advocating for our own ideas.)

Fear should be absent in the presence of trust. Fear and trust have a very hard time co-existing in any context - team, department or company. What rules in your organization? Excellence and performance or fear through the illusion of everything else?

Dysfunction 3: Hail to the Gut.
Those silly primal brains we still have - read anything on Behavioral Economics to learn why our brains have some bad software - we just love to lie to ourselves as individuals. We just have to be right when stakes are high - we are overachievers - we are smart - we are paid well - we have to put on the act to pretend we have all the answers ... silly reptile brain on the bottom of a monkey brain. Agile focuses on the team and not on the one person with all the answers.

Dysfunction 4: Frozen by anxiety.
This sounds like fear to me ... see comment on 2 about Agile, fear, trust and teams.

Dysfunction 5: Death by consensus. (The need to get everybody on board makes us excruciatingly slow to make decisions.)

Agile is about problem solving as markets reward good solutions that solve painful and costly problems. Agile is not about agreement for the sake of checking boxes so we can make it to another weekend and collect another paycheck. Teams that do that long enough run companies into the ground. Again, smart passionate individuals will not let themselves hang around too long on teams or around cultures that do not share their same values centered around achievement and problem solving.

Here is the original text delivered via email


*Hat tip to Patrick Lencioni—we’re ripping off the title of his classic book Five Dysfunctions of a Team for this piece.

Dysfunction 1: Mass confusion. (Nobody knows who’s in charge.)

Political wrangling is often triggered by ambiguity: People don’t know who the decision-maker is, or how the decision will be made, or what their individual role is. As a result, people jockey to fill the perceived power vacuum. To clear the air, use a model called RAPID, created by the consultancy Bain & Company. With RAPID, you specify in advance who will play what role—for instance, someone will be specified as the ultimate decision-maker (the ‘D’ in RAPID), others will only provide input (I), others will need to agree (A) for the decision to proceed, and so on. Read an admirably clear summary of RAPID on the Bridgespan site.

Dysfunction 2: Faction fever. (We’ve splintered into groups and we spend all our time advocating for our own ideas.)

Roger Martin, author of several great business books, wrote about a time early in his career when a group was paralyzed by politics and tribalism. No one was really hearing anyone else. People were simply digging further into their own positions. He stopped the conversation and said, let’s stop arguing about who is right. Instead, let’s take each option, one at a time, and ask ourselves: “What would have to be true for this option to be the right answer?” He said what happened next was “magic.” People switched from arguing, “Here’s why you’re wrong,” to discussing, “Here’s the evidence we’d need to see for you to be right.” Read the full story here and, next time you’re in a meeting where everyone is talking past each other, ask Martin’s question and watch as sanity is mercifully restored.

Dysfunction 3: Hail to the Gut. (We pretend to use a ‘process’ but ultimately the boss’s whims determine what we do.)

In Decisive, we rant about the shortcomings of “gut” decisions. The gist of the rant is: Please don’t trust your gut. Guts suffer from overconfidence and selfishness: Guts think they know more than they really do, and they want to be “right” so badly that they ignore warning signs and contrary evidence. Here’s a great alternative: Make gut-free decisions by practicing “leadership by experiment.” That is, stop trying to guess or predict what the right choice is and, instead, set up an experiment that allows you to gather real-world evidence on the choices. (There’s a chapter in Decisive called “Ooch” that is devoted to this concept.) As Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, said, “When the bosses make the decisions, decisions are made by politics, persuasion, and PowerPoint.” (The 3 Ps!) But when you lead by experiment, the best ideas can prove themselves.

Dysfunction 4: Frozen by anxiety. (We never get around to deciding because people are afraid of making the wrong call.)

Try two things. First, instead of letting anxiety paralyze you, invite it into the open by running a “premortem.” This is a simple group thought experiment (nice summary here by the originator Gary Klein) in which you imagine all the ways your decision could end up a disaster. Then you can switch gears and get constructive, brainstorming about ways to prevent or minimize all those negative scenarios. It sounds like a buzzkill, but paradoxically, it’s usually a fun and energy-building exercise.

Second, set a tripwire. That is, pick a specific date in the future when you know you need to reach a decision. (In some cases, a metric might be a better tripwire than a date. For instance, you might delay a decision on a radical product revamp until/unless customer satisfaction falls below a certain threshold.) Agree with your team, in advance, that no decision is perfect, and that you will NOT have all the information in the world by the time you hit your tripwire, but even so, you’re committing to making the best possible decision by that deadline. Human nature being what it is, people will still be tempted to delay or revisit the tripwire, but by making the tripwire public, you will increase the social “costs” of delay.

Dysfunction 5: Death by consensus. (The need to get everybody on board makes us excruciatingly slow to make decisions.)

There are a variety of approaches to deal with the harms of consensus:
a) The RAPID model (from Dysfunction 1) can make it clear, in advance, who needs to agree and who doesn’t. That way, the group doesn’t burn time trying to win over every voice in the office.

b) The tripwire strategy from Dysfunction 4 can cap the amount of time you spend consensus-building. Rather than frame the process as “We will make a choice if/when we reach consensus,” you’re framing it as “When we reach Tripwire X, we’ll select whatever option has the greatest support at that point.”

c) “Leading by experiment” (from Dysfunction 3) could be a nice substitute for consensus-building. Think of it this way: Instead of building consensus for a particular option, you would build consensus for a particular experiment, which would yield results that would be trusted to resolve the matter. That could give you the best of both worlds: The decision would be evidence-based (rather than popularity-based), but the process would still respect the culture of consensus.

d) Finally, here’s a contrarian perspective for you: What if you don’t have a problem at all? What if slow is actually good? Decision-making expert Paul Nutt argues that while consensus decision-making can be slow, it speeds up execution, since you’ve already won over the potential foot-draggers. Versus if you made a lightning-fast autocratic decision, you’d likely then face waves of resistance that would slow down your work. Here’s a longer discussion from Decisive about Nutt’s insight.