What stage does your agile team gravitate around? Are you leading a Stage 2 team where the center of gravity is life sucks? Or are you in a tribe of high performing Stage 3 achievers that do not play well together? This week, as part of my continuing series of articles supporting my Tribal Agility talk, I will present some easy signs to help you identify the current stage of your Agile team. To learn more about these signs, you will have to read on.

Before I start, I realize that eventually I need to write an article around these five tribal Stages I keep talking about in these articles.  Time is a very limited commodity right now, so instead, I will refer you to table 1 below which gives you an overview of the five tribal stages.  As an alternative, I invite you to visit the Toolbox section of the CultureSync website to learn more about the stages.

Table 1 - The Five Tribal Stages

Table 1 – The Five Tribal Stages

When I present the stages to people, they typically believe they absolutely need to reach Stage 5 where “Life is Great!”€ The reality is that reaching a stable Stage 4 environment where teams collaborate well together or even just moving out of a Stage 2 where negativity and sarcasm rule can be a big step forward for a team.

Every stage serves a purpose and has both a healthy and unhealthy side so understand that teams cannot just skip over a stage, instead, they need to find ways to grow through them together.  Accepting the current stage of your team and deciding together where to go next is much healthier than just desperately trying to reach the —better stages”€.

The tribal stages and agile teams

Often, the teams I coach are new to working using Scrum and after a few months working together, I find it useful to step back and look at how the team evolved since their first sprint working together. Agile teams do not necessarily start at Stage 1 and move their way up to Stage 4, they typically start at the stage where most team members are gravitating around.  A team with many individualistic overachievers will increase the odds of having Stage 3 team right from the start but what does this mean?  When you look at the various meetings in Scrum, how do teams or even individuals at the various stages typically act?

Please note I may exaggerate my examples at times by creating stereotypes or caricatures to help you better understand the differences between the stages.  Also note teams produce their own gravitational pull which pulls team members at different stages than the dominant stage up or down into that center of gravity.  One variation to note is that stage 3 is symbiotic with Stage Two, so while there is a center of gravity around Stage Three it will invariably include Stage Two members. I will begin by referring you to table 2 below to show you the various meetings in the Scrum framework and what teams use them for.

Table 2 : The Scrum Meetings

Table 2 : The Scrum Meetings

Signs of Stage 2 individuals or teams

Stage Two Agile teams are all about the lack of commitment and accountability.  Typically, these teams look disinterested, bored and do not believe in what they are doing.  They love using excuses for their failures instead of taking responsibility for finding solutions to overcome their challenges.  From the outside, they sometimes look like a group of people that do not want to work together.

As with many other team meetings, the Sprint Planning meeting will probably start late.  During this meeting, they look disengaged, bored and they keep collaboration between team members to a minimum.

On teams using post-it notes to track their tasks manually, the hard core team Stage Two team members will refuse to write their own tasks and will typically let others do it for them.  They will also precede any time estimate for their tasks by a disclaimer or excuse surrounding the uncertainty surrounding the task.

Speaking of tasks, when breaking down a backlog item into smaller tasks for the sprint, a Stage Two team lingers and argues on every detail.  They seemingly also work really hard to ensure they cannot come to a consensus on the work they need to carry out.

At the end of the sprint planning meeting, the team meets any confirmation attempt of the planned workload for the sprint, with some well placed sarcastic comments and they will make commitments they do not believe in from the start.  They commit because they strongly believe they have no choice in the matter.

In the daily scrum meetings, members of Stage Two teams still look disengaged and this meeting may not even happen on days the Scrum Master is not around.  This meeting is all about self-organization to meet the sprint goal but Stage Two team members do not care because they are going through the motions in the sprint.

Certain dysfunctions, such as not listening to one another or not making clear commitments for the day are rampant in the daily scrum meetings of Stage Two teams.  Team members will also ensure they raise any excuses they can for not completing their planned work.

In the sprint review meeting, Stage Two team members will seemingly not care about whether they complete their work or not at the end of the sprint.  Instead, they focus on why they cannot finish their work in the next sprint.  They question why it matters instead of questioning what they could do differently.

In the sprint retrospective meeting, Stage Two team members do not discuss real issues because doing so may force them to be accountable for finding a solution.  Even when these teams have some tensions within them and people will snipe at each other, they never openly discuss their personal issues to address them.

Stage Two team members never seem to be able to find solutions for their problems as well in a retrospective.  Fortunately they can identify all the problems they are facing but unfortunately there is no possible solution to address them.  The other challenge of these team members is that even when they identify solutions, their commitment to putting these solutions in place is usually pretty weak.

In a sprint retrospective, Stage Two team members do not focus on nor do they understand the meaning of the word “€œTeam”€.  Any discussion around the subject will cause discomfort and silence.  Silence is the perfect tool of a team or individual gravitating in Stage Two as it allows team members to avoid hard discussions and accountability.

The awareness that lives of some people around me does not suck is the main difference between Stage One and Stage Two.  This awareness indirectly offers hope and the possibility that one day, my life can be better.

Signs of Stage Three individuals or teams

Stage Three Agile teams are all about individual performance and the lack of collaboration and teamwork.  Because these teams have high performers that do not work well together and continually argue, it produces a culture of blame, lack of accountability and lack of transparency.  Team members also hoard knowledge because in their minds, knowledge is power. Because Stage Three is about individualism, I will focus on Stage Three team members instead of teams.

In sprint planning meetings, Stage Three team members will take a lot of space in the meeting and will squash the opinions of any team member they perceive as weaker than themselves.  They will also make sure everyone knows their areas of expertise and they will try to bully the team into doing things their way

They will obfuscate tasks and estimates as much as possible when identifying their work because they believe having the wrong estimates or wrong tasks on the board could expose they are not as great as they think.  They often equate transparency with micro-management so they complain and say “Just trust me, I will get it done in time”.€

In daily scrum meetings, Stage Three team members will not ask for help.  They will claim their work is on track even though in reality, they are running late.  They will get upset and defensive about their work when team members challenge them during the meeting and may even attack the competence of the person challenging them in self-defense.

In sprint review meetings, Stage Three team members will find ways to present their work as complete, even when there is work they did not complete.  They will brush away any challenge when people suggest their work is not complete even though they will plan this extra work in the next sprint. They will blame other team members for not completing their part of the work for a backlog item if they completed their part even if their own late delivery caused the entire team to fail to deliver.

In sprint retrospectives, Stage Three team members will not accept any responsibility for their actions that cause breakdowns on the team and will always have explanations to brush responsibility away.  These team members do not understand the team concept and will always place their personal interests above the team. The word “€œteam”€ occurs to them as “€œme and my minions”.€

The insidious side of a Stage Three team member is they will feed on the complaints of Stage Two team members to build their case for their own complaints.  They will also feed the resentments of Stage Two team members to build their own support structure.  Sometimes, when they know other team members have the same complaints they do, they may even tell you others feel the same way they do in a whispered voice to rattle you with “secret” information only they have.

Because it is a stage of performance and excellence where high achievers continually seek to prove their greatness, Stage Three has a healthy side as well.  The real danger of this stage is when these achievers want to win at all cost and they ignore the collateral damage they create around them.

Signs of Stage Four individuals or teams

Stage Four Agile teams are all about putting the team first, collective results, collaboration and teamwork.  These teams focus on building their credibility by leveraging the strengths of each individual on the team to achieve high quality results.  Stage Four teams enjoy working together and they trust their teammates to always have their backs.

In a sprint planning meeting, Stage Four teams collaborate enthusiastically.  They will draw on whiteboards to build a common understanding and may form smaller teams to help speed up the process.  Stage Four teams believe in productive conflict and are comfortable challenging each other on their ideas and on their estimates.  Their focus is on delivering value to their customer, the Product Owner, by listening to his business needs and building the right solution.

In the daily scrum meeting, Stage Four team members listen to one another and offer help when other team members need it.  They use this meeting to coordinate their dependencies and make sure they can meet their sprint goal.  If they realize their sprint is in jeopardy, they try to find alternate solutions as soon as possible to propose to their Product Owner or they let him know what they feel they will be able to deliver.

Stage Four team members are also comfortable challenging one another during the daily scrum meetings on the commitments they make to one another.  When a team member does not deliver on his or her promises, other team members step up to ask them why.

In sprint review meetings, Stage Four teams take collective ownership of the results the team produced in the sprint.  Because the team collaborated with the Product Owner throughout the sprint, they know they are delivering the right solution to meet his business needs.

In the sprint retrospective meeting, Stage Four teams aim for continuous improvement.  They accept everyone made the best decisions they could with the information they had available at the time.  Team members understand there is no use in playing the blame game so instead, they accept mistakes and focus on finding solutions.

Stage four looks like a healthy stage where team members collaborate in a world full of sunshine and rainbows but it has some unhealthy sides to it as well.  For example, some team members may not bring their true greatness because they fear how other team members, unable to produce at their level, will react.  This can lead to an entire team unconsciously lowering the bar so everyone can pass instead of supporting one another to keep reaching greater heights.

On smaller teams, another side effect this can create the illusion of a Stage Four team when the team has no real center of gravity because there are not enough team members to ground the team in a particular stage.  Artificial harmony is a strong characteristic of these teams.

Conclusion

Agile teams, like any tribe, will gravitate through the five tribal stages at various times and the stage with the critical mass of team members will become the center of gravity of your team.  This notion of critical mass implies team members will be at different stages at various times.

Understanding how to read the signals at the various stages presented in this article will help you better coach your agile team.  In the next article, I will discuss ways to help you raise the current tribal stage of your team.