I encounter many of these teams. Where everything is okay. Not great, but not bad. When I ask them how they feel things are going they answer: “Great, we all get along fine.” After some digging beneath the surface they confess that there are things that aren’t so great, but they don’t really want to address them. For instance, I once coached a team that had a real strong feeling “we’re good enough as we are, and we like the way we always do things”. When talking to the individual team members, some indicated that they did want to change things and try new ideas. But they didn’t speak up and share this with the rest of the team. Why? They just wanted the team to be harmonious, even though it suffered in terms of productivity.

How often as a coach do you see a team that looks like all is well from the outside, but you know could be doing so much better? And how many times do the team members not recognise this potential, or do not want to put energy into reaching it, and how many times does their manager think: “They’re okay, don’t rock the boat.”? And maybe they are right. What is wrong with getting along nicely and getting some work done? More than you might think. I’ll explore two dysfunctions that I often see in these teams: conformance and over-collaboration.

Teams can breed conformance

First off, for teams to be truly creative there should be room for diverse ideas, that might go agains the status quo or mainstream ideas. And for that to be possible teams should be allowing for and even searching for new and different perspectives. The norm should not be to conform, and the goals not just to like working with each other.

The late Professor Richard Hackman advised to have a deviant in the team. Someone who goes against the grain and can open up more ideas, and a lot more originality. In his research he found that teams that had a deviant on board outperformed teams that didn’t.

Team members should then disagree with each other more. When teams are able to have dissent while being respectful and focus on the problem, they feel more bonded, more effective and intellectually stimulated. Regular productive dissent leads to more ideas and perspectives.

Understandably team leaders often like to think that a hassle-free, no drama harmonious team is a blessing and a well working machine that needs little maintenance. Conflict resolution is time consuming and can be treacherous. And from my experience, a lot of team members themselves also like to be in a cozy team, even if that means sub-par outcomes. So as a Scrum Master or team leader you should shake things up from time to time. Make them a little uncomfortable, introduce a stretch. Try to find the deviant in the team and feed her with something new and different. Most people aren’t motivated to do the same thing forever anyway. A challenge makes them better. Even small changes can have a big impact.

There are some prerequisites before having a deviant in your team works. First of all, it is pertinent that there is psychological safety in your team. Researched by Google and replicated by Cisco, this is the most important factor influencing team effectiveness, and I am convinced a prerequisite for having healthy conflict in the team. Second, also from the research from Cisco, team members should play to their strength, not their weaknesses. When everyone is contributing using their unique power great things happen and different ideas are welcomed. A team that has a great (cognitive) diversity with people from different backgrounds and perspectives has the potential to come up with more new creative ideas. Third, clear ground rules help create an environment for healthy conflict. Besides being respectful and focussing on the task in stead of the person, listen well, bring data to support your idea, don’t try to “win” and once a decision has been made, commit to it, even if you have your reservations.

Argue like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong.

Constantly working together can be counterproductive

Studies showed that teams that always work together on a problem perform less than individuals who worked mostly alone and occasionally came together to share their ideas before going off alone again. Give the individuals in the team space and autonomy to work, trust them to do their best work, and come together when needed. Of course, the more uncertainty and complexity there is in an endeavour, the more coordination and collaboration is needed. It truly is finding a balance.

So how much collaboration is needed in a team? Two of the most important factors when looking at optimal collaboration are the degree to which team members are interdependent, and how they coordinate that interdependence. Some teams are minimally interdependent, and team results are just the cumulated outcome of the individual members. Not much collaboration needed. Then there are teams who are sequentially interdependent: tasks are done in a particular sequence, and team members when they are done hand over tasks to the next team member in line. Little collaboration is needed here. Some multidisciplinary “Agile” teams fall in this category, though this not what I like to see. Faster feedback is only possible in reciprocal interdependent teams. Tasks flow back and forth between team members and require more coordination. Most Agile teams that I see are reciprocal interdependent teams and quite some collaboration is needed to create high quality outcomes.

Still, even in Agile teams, collaboration can be a hindrance, especially where creativity is key. When working together becomes controlling, narrowing down options and mutes individual voices, creativity and original thinking suffers. Collaboration can also stifle productivity. I have had many experiences with teams that always try to do problem solving together in a way that only leads to a lot of discussion and no decision making, leading to frustration and delays.

The adagium in the Agile world is to keep teams stable for as long as possible. And it does take a lot of time for teams to get through Tuckman’s stages and really gel and perform. But they can stay too long in the same composition and get stale. Research indicates that changing one person every three to four years is optimal to maintain freshness and creativity.

Ditch conformance and foster individuals

My point is not that I don’t think teams are tremendous valuable. But I do believe that teams perform better when we recognise the individuals in the teams; and when we learn them how to have productive dissent and healthy conflicts. Go throw that baseball bat in the henhouse (shake things up a little ;)!

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