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In today’s divisive climate, people often identify with a group, but rarely act as a team. When it comes to development, the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” isn’t automatically achieved. It takes a team to make something greater than the individual contributions. In a group, if anything is delivered, it will often miss the mark or will just be mediocre. This article looks at why groups fail and where teams achieve.

Why is a team important?

When you think of where you work, do you consider yourself a part of a team? By team, I don’t mean the hollow, empty term that often gets applied to a group. Often people are called a team when they are working on a project or within the same department. But this term, in how I view it, is misapplied. People in the same department are always a group of people, but not always a team. A company is always a group, but rarely a team.

In the Scrum Guide, one of the central tenants of this agile framework is the concept of a team. In the section, “Uses of Scrum”, the scrum guide has this to say:

The essence of Scrum is a small team of people. The individual team is highly flexible and adaptive. These strengths continue operating in single, several, many, and networks of teams that develop, release, operate and sustain the work and work products of thousands of people. They collaborate and interoperate through sophisticated development architectures and target release environments.

Teams vs. Groups explained

Without a team, Scrum, and many other agile frameworks fall apart. But, I would also like to challenge the notion that people working together makes them a team. Just because you have a daily stand up meeting, or share work on a project together, doesn’t move you away from just being a group of people. You can perform all the ceremonies and practices of Scrum, XP, Kanban, etc., but your performance will not reach the level idealized in the Scrum Guide. You may produce releases, you may meet deadlines, you may even have a successful project here and there, but the transformative potential of a team will never be attained.

Highly flexible, and adaptive; that is how the Scrum Guide characterizes a team. Groups are not adaptive nor flexible. When a challenge comes to a group, individuals hide behind titles, reinforce divisions of labor, and do whatever it takes to keep the challenge, or a supervisor, off an individual’s back. Rigidity can easily be seen and is often reinforced in a group. In a broader sense, groups do not expand their skills, seek new insights, or embrace change. It is the very reason why the term “group think” exists and the opposite of what is taught within agile frameworks.

Teams evolve, adapt, learn, and become better over time. The longer a team works together, the more efficient it becomes. Teams embrace diversity, overcome challenges through collaboration, and perform for the good of the solution rather than for an individual’s preference or aspiration. This is where the transformative, positive results happen within an organization, on self-motivated, focus-oriented, learning-based teams.

Trust is key in teams

One key element to an effective team is that of trust. High performing teams have to extend beyond their skill levels, comfort, and limits to create great outputs (software, products, etc.). That type of performance and working environment cannot be achieved without a good level of trust within the team and external trust for the team. So, if you are looking to move from a group of individuals, to a performing network of people within your organization, you need to establish trust. Communicate a vision, make the obstacles transparent, and invite people to solve it, and let them make the end decisions for solutions.

Internally, within a group aspiring to be a team, you need to build trust through collaboration where all voices are valued and heard. You need to make work transparent and then aid those that may be struggling to initially perform (also known as coaching). You need to value mentoring, and set time aside for that specific activity within the team.

When trust is established both externally surrounding a team and internally, then you have the workings of a fully flexible, adaptable, and performing team.

Leverage team work not group work

The take away for this article is to be team-focused. This requires more work than just grouping people together or being in a group. Teams have something to work towards. So, do you have a shared vision for what you are working toward? Do you have a visible backlog of work that your team can see? Have you even thought about building trust within the team? If you’re not team-centric yet, get on it. Great things can come about with even just one or two agile teams.

Agile ↑

Thanks for reading,

David Bjarnson

Looking for another place to start? Try reading about Focus.

David Bjarnson

David is an agile practitioner for 6 years in various capacities working specifically on software development for a number of different companies. David has his CSM, CSPO, CSP-PO, CSP-SM, and PMI-ACP certifications.

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