There’s No My In Team
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It’s a trite old saying, but there’s no I in team. Whilst that’s true in a literal sense, there is no letter I in the word team, I don’t believe it’s actually that helpful, especially not for agility. Teams are fundamentally composed of individuals, that can’t not be, and if you merge yourself entirely into the idea of the team, you’re actually setting up some pretty unequal power relationships, saying that the good of others is more important than your own good. Taken to its extreme, that way madness lies, and besides, agile is far more about equal power relationships within teams than unequal ones.
However, I do strongly believe that in agile, there’s no my in team. Let me explain.
Every time someone refers to a collection of individuals as ‘my team’, I twitch. Typically they see themselves as responsible for the team, accountable for it, and most of all in charge of it. They speak as if a team is a possession, and more to the point, their possession. It sets up a hierarchy and unequal power relationship that is counter to agility for a number of reasons.
First, the agile manifesto is clear that the ‘The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams’. Now self-organizing is obviously a term that can mean different things in different situations, but one thing it doesn’t mean is that one person should take it upon themselves to organise the team, to tell them how to do the work, or even dictate which of them should undertake which pieces of work. The more someone sees a team as ‘their’ team, the more likely they are to start to interfere in these ways.
Not only this, but another principle of the agile manifesto states that you should ‘Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done’. Again we see the problem that occurs for agility if people start dictating how teams should work. The more someone dictates to a team, the more they’re making it clear that they don’t trust the team to do the rights things or do them the ‘right’ way. Even worse, if you don’t trust your team, they tend not to trust you in return. Their work starts to suffer, so in frustration you start to dictate to them even more, ending up in a descending spiral of mistrust and unhappiness.
On top of both of these issues, is the fact that if someone sees a team as ‘theirs’, they can easily start to become a blocker to the team doing its work. If you a see a team as yours, then you feel accountable for the work it delivers. Once you’re accountable for someone else’s work, you start to get nervous about it, as you’re accountable for something that’s not fully in your control. So to deal with your fear, you start to demand a greater say over the work, ending up in a situation where you need to ‘sign off’ the work the team produces. Only you’re busy, and sometimes take time to sign things off, so the teams’ output starts to stack, waiting for your approval, and delivery starts to slow down. Often, the team finds surreptitious ways around the blocker you’re turning into too, and the open and honest two-way communication, so essential for agile, starts to suffer too.
So what’s the answer to all of this? Well, in an agile approach, it involves using leadership rather than management , and using agile servant leadership at that. You can read more about those things in the links I’ve just given, but for now remember one thing.
A team does not belong to you, a team belongs to the team. Leaders serve their teams and help them be great, whilst managers mistrust, frustrate and block the team through fear of accountability and desire for control. If you want a team to be agile, you have to let the team itself be in charge.
In short, in agile, there’s no ‘my’ in team.