Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team can help agile leads guide their team building efforts.
When team members feel afraid to express vulnerability or feel that any mistakes they make will be held against them, they will be much less likely to take educated risks, to challenge the status quo or to unleash their creativity towards achieving customer goals or overcoming hurdles. Lencioni correctly places this dysfunction at the very bottom of the pyramid as without psychological safety, delivery excellence is a mirage.
For team members who have never worked together before, trust is a fragile, slow growing crop which is easily destroyed by careless comments in early sprints. This is doubly true in corrosive corporate environments where the agile lead will need to expend greater effort to ensure that external stakeholders don’t destroy nascent trust.
But as trust begins to form, an unintended consequence might be that team members hesitate to engage in healthy conflict or to hold each other accountable. An overly cautious, politically correct team dynamic means that behavioral issues don’t get addressed and minor irritations can fester causing long term damage to team morale and productivity.
A fear of conflict can also encourage mediocre decision making. For example, designs will not incorporate the collective wisdom of the group but will instead reflect the least common denominator.
Ceremonies such as daily standups and retrospectives can provide good opportunities to identify these dysfunctions, but should an agile lead directly intervene in such situations?
If the agile lead takes too direct an approach to address this, the team’s journey towards self-discipline and self-management will slow down. In such cases, it might be better for the agile lead to act as a catalyst for bringing such issues into the open. Asking leading or thought provoking questions during retrospectives might cause one or more team members to become sufficiently uneasy that they are willing to slow down the journey to Abilene.
Without conflict and trust, commitment is superficial. If the majority of a team is willing to sign up for work items for their upcoming sprint, but one team member is uncomfortable and does not feel confident in voicing their concerns because of a fear of ridicule or coercion, they might resort to the passive-aggressive approach of appearing to support the sprint goals but not really committing to them.
When team members look at themselves as individuals and give higher priority to their ambitions, egos and agendas, they will focus on completing their own tasks rather than tackling what’s best for the team as a whole. Corporate cultures which reward individual instead of team performance encourage such behavior. Standups and retrospectives can provide evidence of the inattention to team results and the agile lead will want to reinforce the importance of collective ownership.
Understanding and addressing the five dysfunctions of an agile team will help us realize the fifth principle of the Manifesto: “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”