What if there’s no ‘we’ in your team?

Leaders of project teams, so-called Project Managers (PMs), love to tritely quote the maxim: “there is no ‘I’ in team”. True no matter how literally or figuratively you choose to examine the statement. Teams typically hear this maxim from us (I have PM background) as a passive-aggressive scolding for acting counter to working as a team. The more I thought about how ineffective this type of message has been when I’ve both received and given it, the more I began to wonder: what puts the “we” in team?

It is important that I issue 2 separate disclaimers: 1. I have spent over 10 years as a software developer, business analyst and, before “converting” to agile, one of the aforementioned PMs in traditional, command-and-control projects. 2. I have drank the agile koolaide and loved it over the last 7+ years.

As someone who chooses to wear agilist as a badge of honour, I see agile’s main triumphs in the area of the team. I have seen the agile mindset put the “we” in team and want to share how it does it as well as the organizational impediments that counter it once established or prohibit it from taking root in the first place.

I will start with the attributes of the typical command-and-control organization that inhibit the “we-ness” of teams.

Compensation

It is common for organizations to reward their employees on an individual basis. How else could it be done, right?

This is the primary cause of “I-ness” in any team. How can the organization expect members to act as “we” if they incent them to act as “I”? Bonuses come from a pool. If I get a bigger bonus, it comes at the expense of yours. All that does is set up competition, not collaboration, amongst team members. Who would want to help a team-mate when their potential increased productivity comes at the expense of one’s own compensation? Call me crazy, but if organizations want their people to act for the team, then they need to incent teams as a whole, not the individuals within them. Culture follows structure.

Management

Well, micro-management really. I just wish they weren’t as synonymous as they actually are. Here’s a story … My wife decided that we were going to make cupcakes for my daughter’s birthday instead of buying them. Seemed like a lot of unneeded work to me so I quoted the Agile Manifesto principle: “Simplicity – the art of maximizing work not done – is essential”. She rolled her eyes and handed me a pastry bag (one of those things you squeeze icing out of, if you didn’t know – I didn’t). My job, because I’m detailed, was to ice the cupcakes. My wife would be in charge of combining ingredients and cooking. As I started icing (not great at first, but then perfectly), I found myself thinking that if the cupcakes tasted awful, it wouldn’t be my fault. Fast forward to the birthday party and the cupcakes were delicious. Guess who took credit? Me!

That experience proved to me that it is human nature to take advantage of any situation where someone else takes responsibility for some or all aspects of product completion. We are path-of-least-resistance beings and it is harder to take ownership for an entire product rather than a piece of it. Therefore, as much as micro-management is despised because of the disrespect it shows, we can get used to it and desire it because it makes our lives easier. That is NOT what we want to instil in an Agile team. We want them to collectively own product delivery as a team, not a group of finger-pointing individuals.

The other anti-patterns to “we-ness” include assigning resources on a project-by-project basis instead of allowing teams to be long-lived, over-eagerness to help by the coach, and not giving the team enough time to gel, amongst others. Perhaps these will be the topic of a follow up article.

If the above all destroy “we-ness”, then what actually creates it?

Understand who “we” are

The first step in creating “we-ness” is for the individuals on the team to understand what each other means when they say “team”. A good place to start is to conduct simple personality tests. Another method is to conduct team building activities like Coat of Arms and Cultural Radars.

The goal is for each member of the team to understand what it means for everyone else on the team to commit to being a member of a team and what that commitment looks like. Some teams value respect above all else while some others may value individual expression.

The role of the leader of this team is to facilitate this, often times contentious, process. It takes a significant ability to empathize and a keen emotional intelligence for the team leader to create shared understanding of “we” and to have team members understand what makes each other “tick”.

A “safe” environment

I’m a big sports fan. My home town NHL team, the Toronto Maple Leafs (please do feel sorry for me :) ), hired a storied coach in the off season who said his first order of business was to create a safe environment for the players to do their job. This is exactly what we, as team leaders, must do with our teams. We must protect them for elements beyond their conscious control that degrade their performance. This includes taming organizational politics, minimizing mega multitasking across projects, and setting and enforcing ground rules for team constructive conflict. Our teams only have us as champions and protectors of their productivity so we must take that responsibility very seriously.

Team Rewards… and Consequences

Because humans are pack animals, we react very instinctually to a group meal. It is therefore an excellent plan to reward the team for a collective job well done with a team lunch picked up by the project. There many possible team rewards. The only limiting factors to coming up with one for your team are your empathy and your imagination. Team consequences, however, are tricky. An easy consequence is to take a team reward away if the team fails to achieve a key collective goal. Whatever you chose as a consequence, make sure it is not too harsh for the “crime” and that its impact is felt equally by all team members.

Armed with some of the above ideas, I hope that the next time you are tempted to say “remember … there is no ‘I’ in team” that you take a moment to consider if you have done everything you can to create team “we-ness” before the words come out of your mouth.