Teams at a tipping point
Is there a transformational moment within a team when an individual shifts from behaviors that support only individual achievement to those that support team achievement? What observations can we make as leaders about the specific behaviors that help individuals turn towards their team and lean on behaviors that support the team? How can we nudge teams forward until these behaviors gain their own momentum? My experience in setting up agile teams to tackle complex, systemic problems has brought me to focus on the set of behaviors that are both markers and catalysts of emotional maturity. Emotional maturity matters for agile teams because it enables business value. Emotionally mature teams are resilient and innovative in the face of the setbacks and barriers that come along with complex problems.
Digging into behaviors of emotional maturity of a team can provide insights for coach, customer and product owner roles as well as making our time at work more personally meaningful. To experience a deep sense of belonging or a magical moments of breakthrough from within a healthy agile team is to truly understand how the work of teams can be transformational.
Behaviors that emerge from agile teams and that signal their emotional maturity show the gradual merging of a set of individuals into a team entity. The sequence of behaviors that emerge from agile teams with the best acceleration of velocity share a relatively similar pattern. I’ve seen the pattern hold true in teams focused on anything from fixing processes to developing IT solutions. First, moments of humor and independence show up. Then self policing behaviors emerge. Team discussions include diverse points of view with more consistency and depth. Team members start to give feedback, usually first to the process, then to other team members. Team members show greater willingness to ask for help, signal weakness or vulnerability, and take on tasks that are unfamiliar. A sense of mutual support becomes tangible and recognized within the team, increasing the strength of team bonds. At a more advanced level of teaming, conflict within the team becomes useful rather than painful or even destructive. The team starts to recognize, understand and manage different levels of conflict. And the team bounces back from set-backs or dead-ends with resiliency and deeper levels of trust. In fact, when foundational behaviors of emotional maturity are present and supported by agile processes, adversity strengthens the team because of the team’s internal processes for learning and growing as a team entity.
Early flags of team-oriented processing
I have not yet seen an agile team that does not include a least one former grade-school ‘class clown,’ and those of us that step into that role can catalyze early emotional processing within the team. Early hints of humor often show up as gallows humor, tied to challenges of the work at hand. Of course, negative or sarcastic humor can get out of hand and threaten an atmosphere of collegiality and respect – happily most early humor is usually linked to a sense of: ‘we’re all in this together; let’s have a laugh and make the most of it.’
Group self-policing is another early behavior. The best instances of the behavior were gentle nudges to align the team to agreed-upon norms or practices, often helping build integrity around Agile methods. Competent coaching is a key to this self-aware processing. Examples are: “Guys, didn’t we agree to be really brief during the morning stand-up? How about we start the practice of flagging topics that need more discussion outside of stand-up?” Comments like those usually show that Agile mechanics have been internalized and that the team is developing shared accountability to follow those the process. I’ve most often seen self-policing behaviors showing up in early sprints where following-through on Agile mechanics take significant effort (is not yet a habit or is in active conflict with old habits) but before benefits are fully evident. Time pressure and impatient team members can help trigger the emergence of self-policing.
Precursors of acceleration
Just as some self-policing behaviors show signs of team members adopting Agile, the next set of behaviors shows a growing sense of care for team members. Welcoming different perspectives, providing feedback and being comfortable with limited conflict speaks to a dedication to each other that can overcome profound barriers. All three behaviors get modeled by any team with effective Agile coaching, but these are fragile behaviors. They persist only when they are woven into the team dynamic and bring the team direct payoffs. Of these, providing feedback is the one behavior that can consistently enable others.
Feedback could show up as an articulation of a thought in the moment like: “in this discussion, we’re missing the view of a stakeholder,” or as an appreciative observation like: “What you just said was the first simple and clear articulation I’ve heard of our situation.” Feedback with emotional content that relies on a baseline level of trust and is delivered with respect is a stronger indicator that this critical competency is growing in the group. An example is a private conversation that centers around feedback like: “when you interrupt me, even though you are doing it because of your passion for the subject, it makes me feel like you are shutting down my point of view.”
Paired up with a growing sense of belonging that comes from the team, willingness to provide caring feedback is an enabler of true agility for the team since it enables personal growth for team members. Thinking about the team as an entity, feedback from individual team members can also be a starting point of the team becoming self-aware as an entity and making purposeful adjustments. In my view, ability to give and receive feedback individually and as a group is the mechanism of making adjustments on the fly and gaining true agility. In fact, the teams that view conflicting points of view or slightly painful input as conflict to be avoided can never get past this stage, missing out on the personal learning and team acceleration, dampening down velocity. Teams that work through different ideas, show personal vulnerability, absorb difficult feedback and process through conflict develop some hard-won skills and build up a reservoir of trust.
Conflict becomes a positive when the group can persist in difficult conversations with openness and respect. The feeling in the room can be one of dwelling within or facing an uncomfortable situation in order to enable new solutions to emerge. Moments of genuine breakthroughs seem to be generated by crunching through options, even bad ones, one more time to figure out nuances and to probe for new possibilities.
The last set of behaviors, mutual support and appreciation, is partly an outcome from the hard work of team members’ personal growth and adjustments. There is something magical about the moment in a team setting when an individual can let down their guard and lean on a team member. This may show up as an offer of help: “If you can show me how to do x, I’d love to help with your tasks;” where the genuine desire to serve the team overcomes any sense of vulnerability. Or, it can show up as the strong vicarious enjoyment of a team member’s accomplishment. Leaning on each other and bonding within the team seems to enable behaviors of verbalizing and expressing a sense of appreciation. Perhaps this is expressed first as an element of the team’s self-awareness and then as an individual practice. Some coaches nudge teams into expressing appreciation to build a new muscle and help catalyze a virtuous cycle.
When mutual support and appreciation are part of the team’s regular behaviors, the same diverse background and personalities that gave the team early struggles now show up as deeply valuable and complementary. Whether driven by the appreciation for complementary skills or gratitude for a team member ‘having your back,’ both engender a sense of belonging that, as humans, we all crave.
Agile methods support the development of high-functioning teams. But method alone does not engender that magical, up-ward facing exponential curve of velocity. Recognizing and fostering key behaviors that are markers of emotional maturity enable teams to gain the resiliency needed to innovate and accelerate delivery in environments of high complexity.
Using agile methods provides a practical way to develop high-functioning teams. Recognizing and fostering key behaviors that are markers of emotional maturity enable teams to gain the resiliency needed to innovate and accelerate delivery in environments of high complexity.