Teams are the most common grouping of people in agile. I do not think I have been to conferences, in-person or virtual, without being told how important teams are to the delivery of value. Because they are so important, organizations put tons of effort into helping and guiding teams. The problem is not that teams aren’t important or that we are working hard to make them better, but rather that regardless teams are chronically messed up.

The MIT Human Resources blog points out, “Although many groups are called “teams,” not every work group is a team.” Teams are cool, so every group is called a team. The performance of a team requires everyone to interact and play a role, together. Groups are a collection of individuals whose performance is a reflection of their specific actions. Groups are often a reflection of gathering people with like skills together so they can be managed. I once led a testing “team.” Each person was a tester but they covered different applications with different people. When we got together it was to listen to organization news and to drink assorted beverages. We were a group as opposed to a team, although at the time the distinction was not clear to me. Fast forward a few gray hairs later, recognizing a good team or a team that has most of the attributes is important to me as a coach (I wish I could go back and talk with my younger self).   There are three categories of attributes of good teams.

  1. Skill Attributes – Skills are the ability or expertise needed to do a piece of work. Individuals own skills; they are part of a person’s knowledge or experience. All good teams use skills that extend beyond the technical. For example, conflict resolution is a skill all good teams know or learn.
  1. Behavioral Attributes – These are how individuals and teams as a whole act. An example of a behavior is fun. I am immediately drawn to a team that can have comfortable, light, and intimate banter before diving into work. I listened to a team discussing someone’s new baby in a playful manner before diving into discussing how to solve a problem ticket. A communication skill translated into non-technical behavior. 
  1. Organizational Attributes – This is how the organization facilitates teams ranging from insisting on clear goals, providing tools, and fostering team culture. An example, an organizational attribute could be as simple as providing working space, video conferencing tools, or allowing teams to self-organize.

Using each category to evaluate and coach a team requires understanding the nuances that are observable when the categories are decomposed into attributes. In the next three installments, we will peel back the layers category. Knowledge of the attributes is useful when evaluating a team before providing guidance.

Returning to the definition of a team. Before investing time and effort in considering the attributes of a good team make sure you are looking at a team and that a team is important to the value delivered in the context of the work. For example, a few years ago as an internal coach, I was asked to “transform” a group by introducing Scrum. The group provides triage and first-tier support for problem tickets. Each person works their own queue of tickets. The organization was proud of the approach that if you touch a ticket, you own it until completion. Also, there is very little interaction between team members. By our definition of a team noted above, this is not a team. The performance of triaging and providing first-tier support is an individual role, not a team sport.  Implementing team-based approaches doesn’t make sense given the team context. We ended up settling on implementing kanban rather than Scrum. This drove the point home that not every group is a team and not every function in an organization requires a team. That said when a team is called for we need to help them be the best team possible, and to do that we need to go deeper into the attributes listed above.