There are signs something’s not going to work before failure occurs.

A recent note from a reader asked: When is a team dysfunctional, and what does it mean to to reboot a team? It should be noted that The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni is a great source to sources and solutions for team dysfunctions (check out the Re-read Saturday feature).

When is a team dysfunctional?

The simplest answer is that a team is dysfunctional when it can’t deliver on its commitments. The problem with that answer is that it would be better to see the problem before it impacts commitments.  A more useful question might be: what are the attributes of a potentially dysfunctional team that can be used diagnose problems before they fail to deliver? Three common dysfunctions and some ways to identify them early are:  

Lack of cohesion.  Team cohesion is the degree to which team members contribute to the group’s ability to continue as a functioning unit.  Teams with a tangible goal or mission are generally more cohesive.  A team that lacks cohesion is merely a group of people that report to a single person.

Questions and Observations that can diagnose lack of cohesion:

    1. Observation – Do team members seem to like each other?
    2. Observation – In down times, what is the tenor of the side conversations?
    3. Observation – Are individuals cut out of side conversations or team activities?
    4. Question – When was the last time team members ate lunch with each other?
    5. Question – What is an example of teamwork you observed last week?
    6. Question – Can you introduce your team members to an outsider and provide some personal background for each member? (this is a useful question for distributed teams)
    7. Questions – Can you describe team members that are not co-located?   

No work entry control. How work gets to the team and individual team members can cause dysfunction.  Most high functioning agile teams funnel all work to their backlog where the work is prioritized and members draw work based on capability, capacity, and priority. If work reaches the team and team members without the checks and balances of a backlog process (or equivalent process) it will be very hard for teams to meet commitments and to pursue a goal.

Questions and Observations that can diagnose problems with work entry:

    1. Observation: At standup meetings, are team members working on “things” that are not on the team’s backlog?
    2. Observation: At standup meetings, are team members having a hard time explaining why they are not making progress on agreed upon work items?
    3. Question: Can you walk me through all of the ways work gets to you?
    4. Question: When the phone rings and the person on the other end has a change request . . . what do you do?

Inability to make decisions.  Teams are decision-making machines or at least are required to make decisions on a nearly continuous basis.  Most the decisions are small, but a subset are large and/or critical.  A team that can’t make decisions has two basic options.  The first is stop and wait for decisions to be made for them.  The second is for decisions to make based on individual knowledge and biases.  The problem with the first option is obvious, while the problem with the second option is less obvious.  The problem with the second option is that an individual can rarely understand the nuances of the work the whole team is performing and can fall prey to problems communicating decisions.  Option two often leads to re-work.
Questions and Observations that can diagnose problems with decision-making:

  1. Observation:  Sit with the team for a day and watch how the team interacts and makes decisions.  (Note: this technique is also useful for judging cohesion.)
  2. Question:  Ask individuals (and the whole team) to describe how decisions are made. (Ask about decisions that the team would not typically empower an individual to make a major architectural decision as well as smaller decisions).
  3. Question: Ask what type of decisions individuals are empowered to make.
  4. Question: Ask what type of decisions the team can make with approval.

Software development, enhancement, and maintenance are usually a team sport.  Other than the rare instances of one person operations a team is needed to get work done effectively and efficiently. Everyone involved with teams should be on the lookout for problems so the team can mitigate the problem before they cause bigger problems.  That said, there are times when a team has a big problem and screams to be recognized.  Once recognized the next step is deciding what to do about the problem.