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How to fix the “Failing” Team

Do you have a failing team? Why is it, in your eyes, failing?

  • Too slow to deliver features
  • Always distracted by production problems
  • High turnover of staff – particularly domain experts or leads or anyone who has been there a while
  • Unable to refactor or redesign due to continuous firefighting

Sometimes this seems like an intractable problem. The team is failing because it doesn’t deliver, and yet all the (few) people you have on it are busy firefighting. Everyone appears to be doing their best. You may have tried:

  • Adding a full-time Scrum Master or an Agile Coach to help structure their work better
  • Having workshops as a team to agree on a way forward with working practices
  • Adding or taking away people to the team to try and improve the flow of work
  • Making architectural changes to try and reflect the split of work over members of the team
  • Instituting a “focus time” for team members to keep them from being disturbed so they can implement new features.

These have had little or no effect. You might have created a temporary shift in focus but you’ve not fixed the underlying problem: not delivering enough, quickly enough.

Individual, Team or Organization?

Who is at fault in this so-called ‘failing’ team?

Is it the individuals? Usually not. If they are committed and professional and know how to do their job, then they are already doing enough. If there is a lack of specific knowledge (developing, testing, leading, mentoring etc) then provide them some training or support.

Is it the team themselves or their leadership? Does the team decide how they want to work and interact with other teams? Do they decide on the priority of their work and is this entirely independent? Do they have access to all they need to do their daily work? If the answer to those three questions is “yes” then there is probably nothing wrong with the team.

Is it the organization? Organization means the wider arrangement of the environment of the team and how it interacts with other teams and the rest of the world.

Typically you see that the team is struggling because of where it’s placed and how it interacts with the rest of the organisation. If the team is not able to define how it works and what it does day-to-day, then it becomes easily distracted. If a team is always fixing and fighting and trying to get things working then it won’t be able to sufficiently focus on the things that will actually help it longer term.

This is an unhealthy pattern for the individuals in the team to experience. If they continuously jump from crisis to crisis, this will cause stress, eventually burnout and anxiety. If the team is being kept away from doing the right things, it’s a double whammy. Continuously fire fighting, unable to progress the things that the team wants to progress.

How our reaction is important

We are creatures of attention. We look to find things that are moving or not moving. Looking for something that is a pinch point, something to optimize.

When dealing with a team that we think is “failing”, our reaction is important. If we change team structure, impose new ways of workings, and then walk away, we’re not supporting them as leaders. We are not giving them our attention, we are just hoping that a few tweaks will help.

But fundamentally, if you’ve tried changing things then this is a symptom of a bigger problem.

If your team is failing, then you are failing the team.

So how can you turn this around?

You can support a team by listening to their needs and providing space and time to heal. A good leader will ensure that a team is motivated, and motivation often comes intrinsically through the availability of interesting work and an environment conducive to doing the work. See Daniel Pink’s work on intrinsic motivation.

As a leader, you must ensure the team has time and space to do the things important to its continued success and future. These include:

  • Having time to fix technical debt
  • Having time to ensure good quality of code.
  • Having time to experiment with new features using new technology
  • Not always being the go-to people for outages (ask yourself how this risk can be mitigated)
  • Having plenty of time and encouragement to grow and learn together

Rather than leaving the team to find time for themselves, you can ensure that your habits support this. If you regularly pull team members out of meetings to firefight, how are you helping build trust between you and the team?

According to to research (Forbes, McKinsey and plenty more agree) we know that psychologically safe teams are high-performing teams.

Therefore, the good news is that you also hold the keys to unlocking your team’s potential. Like so much in leadership, this process is a balance. It takes time and effort. However, you can turn any team around by finding space, showing trust and giving support.

For further reading, I recommend Team Topologies about intelligent organisation design, psychological safety and encouraging positive, team-centric behaviours.