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What Encourages Team Members to Pull Together?

One defining characteristic of any team is their shared purpose. I always ask about it when I meet a new team. The answer is usually beige, something like, “We do the social media component.” Stronger teams have an identity, a vivid purpose, or an inspiring vision. Such teams ask themselves, “What must we do together that is larger than any of us, requires all of us, and for which none of us can claim individual victory until it is done?” [i] In some cases, a team will reflect their identity in a name. [ii]

Basic affinity between the members is necessary for them to want to be with each other. Some common background and shared interests are helpful, although shared values are much more powerful. Imagine you and I are on a team writing medical software. You were attracted to your job because it improves people’s lives, whereas I joined for the outstanding pay, which allows me new luxuries. We are both motivated and willing to work together, but would you care to work with me? Would you go the extra mile on my behalf, or have my back, when you know I’m really just in it for the money?
Another powerful catalyst to team growth is success. If a team follows through on a valuable commitment, they will grow stronger. As each member considers that, together, they have hit a significant target, their success becomes a reinforcing feedback loop. Agile coaches rely on this loop to get teams started on the right foot by helping them secure “quick wins.”

You don’t have to wait for big team commitments, since those can take several weeks to materialize. The same principle operates on a smaller scale. Every time a person makes and keeps a small promise to a coworker, the mutual trust level goes up.

If you and I are on a team, we are not joined at the hip. There will be situations in which I will have to make decisions and promises on our behalf. You cannot control what I say, but you will have to live with the consequences. How do you like that? This worry is the highest hurdle to teamwork — and to lower the hurdle, you need trust. Trust is the foundation of teamwork, and if I am a member of your team, it is my responsibility to demonstrate my trustworthiness to you. Here is what I would do:

Share relevant information promptly. I would share meaningful updates and new developments in a timely manner. In particular, if I no longer thought I could keep a promise, I would tell you as soon as possible.

Be authentic. Speaking the truth is only the beginning. I would not pretend to know what I don’t know, or say “yes” (or “maybe”) when I mean “no.” I would work with you, but I would not pretend to be your friend unless I meant it. I would treat you as I would want to be treated.

Pull you into conversations that affect you. If I am about to make a decision that determines your work or limits your choices, I would delay it to the last responsible moment to allow you to join the decision-making process. (Examples include iteration planning and defining our meaning of “done.”)

Strive to be a dependable colleague. If my job pulls me in different directions, one of which is our team, I would arrange my other obligations as best I can so you know when and to what extent you can depend on me. If my schedule causes me to disappear on you unpredictably, and that hurts you, I would rather leave the team.

Caution: extremely challenging advice ahead. Address issues directly. When something about our work together upsets me and impedes our progress, I would hope for the nerve to have the uncomfortable conversation with you. It would demonstrate how important our relationship is to me, and I hope you would take it in that spirit.

About the book and the author

The excerpt above is from the book The Human Side of Agile: How to Help Your Team Deliver which will be available September the 12th. With this book, Gil Broza has created a practical, universal guide to navigating the least manageable, understood, and appreciated asset in an Agile environment: its human side. Even if your customers are reasonably happy and your developers seem to be doing okay, you know your team is capable of more: delivering great products and staying ahead of ever-changing demands. You want to feel good about using Agile and to create the conditions for great results, but the skills you honed in traditional environments don’t always apply to the role of Agile team leader. The Human Side of Agile fills this gap, guiding you to:

  • Establish yourself as a confident and capable leader who adds value

  • Build and lead an engaged team that can handle almost any challenge

  • Cultivate collaboration and a continuous improvement mind-set

  • Reap the full benefits of Agile in the real world with real people

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

[i] I learned this powerful question from Christopher Avery.

[ii] A famous early example from the software industry is the Black Team, a testing team at IBM. The story is recounted in Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd ed. (New York: Dorset House, 1999).

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