The glue that holds it all together

When a team outgrows individual performance and learns team confidence, excellence becomes a reality. (Joe Paterno)

Put six people in a room, provide them with post-its, a team board and a common goal and - voilá - here comes your Scrum team! High performing, creative and innovative, delivering a shippable product increment every two weeks. Sounds easy. But…

You know, of course, that it’s not that easy. But still, are you really aware how much “work” has to be done until a bunch of people is a team? As Stephanie Borgert stated in her last post Haufen oder Team? (Heap or Team?): putting together a group of people does not automatically generate innovation or more output. There is a magic ingredient missing, the glue that transforms individuals into a single body moving towards high performance.

Into the wild

I like to travel and I like nature. Hence, I participated in several so called “organized trips”, which throw together about 12 people and send them on a camping and hiking excursion into a remote area on this planet. As I found out, this is an excellent opportunity to “study” group behaviour and how a team evolves.

On these trips, most of the times, you’ve got two or three couples who know each other already and the rest are total strangers with different backgrounds and expectations. There is a common goal though: get to know the new country, enjoy nature and have fun. You could also state the vision as “Have the best holiday of your life and return everyone safely”.

And, of course, there is the tour guide as a key person. The style and attitude of the guide has a huge influence on the success of the trip. He might either try to accommodate the needs of all participants and, if necessary, adapts the schedule or he considers himself as the guardian of the plan and makes sure nobody deviates from it. In addition, he also acts as a coach, organizing and facilitating meetings (such as tours to a cultural site or the evening at the campfire). And, finally, he needs to solve conflicts which are natural when a group of people who don’t know each other spend three weeks together under sometimes demanding conditions (pouring rain for days or sharing a tent with someone you’ve never seen before, for example).

Storming and Forming

In the first days, you try to get to know your teammates. Their personalities, strengths and weaknesses: who is the one always helping the others after putting up his tent, which guy is constantly late making the rest of us wait. Which ones are the talkatives, telling you their whole life on the second day, and who is the one to walk side by side enjoying the silence. Sometimes, there might be tension between you and the girl from Berlin because you accidentally said something she took as an offence. And you discover that the guy from Munich also likes photography and has some interesting tips to share.

In case you are familiar with Tuckman's stages of group development you could compare these first days with the Storming and Norming phases of a team: the team members meet, get to know each other and learn about the challenges to be mastered. Participants form opinions about the personalities and characters of others and conflicts arise, which must be solved.

Norming

During the second week, usually some kind of routine emerges and certain members of the groups carry out special tasks. You know which one is always first to rise in the morning and gets the fire started. And the one who brought the solar panel is responsible for recharging all the empty camera batteries. Someone is the master of the campfire and the youngest member of the group volunteers to carry the buckets of water from the river each evening.

You already experienced some failures and successes together, such as building a rain shelter and getting soaked when it collapsed or successfully navigating your tiny rubber boat between huge ice blocks of the glacier without getting crashed. You start to trust each other. A feeling of “we” develops and you are ready to forgive the snorer who keeps you awake at night because he is such a strong and helpful guy, pulling and pushing you up the steep slope when you are struggling to keep up with the others. Self-organization takes place when you have to load your boats in the morning to get ready to depart - given that your tour guide is not the command-and-control type.

Performing

At the end of the third week you are a team (of course, there might be exceptions to this when there are especially “difficult” personalities in your group). You know each other quite well, may have a short discussion on how to light the fire this evening or where to set up the tents, but you usually come to an agreement in a fairly short time. You even found out that the one being always late just needs a friendly reminder to make it on time. You might not be friends with everyone in the team but you respect your peers and rely on them, because you know they all worked hard to make this trip the best one you ever had. And you can laugh together about the adventures you survived: “Do you remember when the guide’s tent almost got blown away while he was busy getting the bear out of our camp?”

Forming the glue that sticks

We all know that three weeks are a very short time and camping in the wilderness is far less complex than developing great software. However, this simple example shows that you need a few more ingredients than just a bunch of people in a room to form a great team. Team building events might be part of it, but a team also needs to experience failure and to celebrate success in their daily work. Management can support this by giving them the time and the opportunity to learn from failures and by providing a good Scrum Master or coach who guides the team through conflicts and helps to resolve them.

Give them room, show confidence and expect the best. But don’t expect it too soon, be patient. And keep in mind that every team is different: most of them will survive in the wild, but each one will find its own special way.

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