The Dysfunctional Team IV: Commitment

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series The Dysfunctional Team

This series of posts covers a fictional struggling software development team. Use the navigation (on the right) to jump between the various chapters of the story.

Four weeks after Max presented his plans, the team is well underway refactoring parts of the app and implementing new features. It seems everyone is really committed to this way forward, or are they?

Not my cup of tea

Bob walks out of the pantry back towards his desk with a cup of fresh mint tea. His favorite. He runs into Sally in the hallway. She covers her nose with her elbow.
“Yuck, mint tea.”
After a short awkward silence, she continues.
“… anyway, how’s it going?”
“I am okay, I guess.” Bob shrugs. “Sally, I have been meaning to ask: how will we handle the back-end refactor of the code?”
“As in? We’re handling it, right?”
“Yes, but it was sort of a secret thing, and now that it’s nearly finished, we should probably share it with the rest?”
“I’ll handle that, no worries.”
Bob winces, then nods.
“Okay, sounds good, I guess.”

“Look, don’t worry. I am talking with Paul in a minute, okay?” Sally says. “I’ll raise Max as issue. I have seen nothing but incompetence. This project deserves a better product owner.”
“What about Joseph, our new coder, can we share the back-end refactor with him?”
“Nah, I am not very happy with the quality of his code so far, also something I want to discuss with Paul. He’s supposed to be a senior you know, I’d expect more from someone his level.”
Why don’t you raise it with Joseph himself first? Bob thinks.

Ambiguity

Several hours pass. Bob is at his computer. Sally sits at her desk behind him, headphones on, hunched over her screen. It is almost the end of the workday. Most team members already left. However, Alice is still here and walks up to Bob.
“So, will there be a cross today?”
Bob realizes Alice refers to the insight whiteboard. They marked each day without performance problems with an X.
“Unfortunately not, we had an outage late this morning.”
“Ouch, that’s a letdown. Hopefully, we can improve stability soon.”

Bob tilts his head. “Maybe Tim is right, you know. Maybe we should do something radical like switching to a different cloud setup.”
“I think Max already decided against that.”
“I know, but Sally and Tim say he isn’t really doing his job well,” Bob responds. “Also, when I ask Max what feature is most important he does not have a clear answer, and when he does he changes his mind the next day. It’s not clear to me what should be finished when.”
Alice lets out a sigh.
“I have worries about this too, we are working on building many features with unclear business value on an unstable foundation.” She points to the whiteboard.

Bob leans forward. Perhaps she can change things.
“So, you agree? Max should go, right? Maybe Sally can take the lead. I know she wants to.”
Sally, sitting behind them, is fully in the zone and does not seem to hear them.
“I share your worries, Bob. However, I think we should support Max. He is better aligned with the commercial interests.” Alice shrugs. “I have to leave now for yoga. You know what, let me try to talk to Max tomorrow, okay?”
“Thanks. See you tomorrow!”
Bob smiles. It’s always nice to chat with Alice.

Regrets

Sitting at his desk, Bob takes a moment to reflect. Maybe, he shouldn’t be so eager to jump on the Max-should-leave bandwagon. On the other hand, the project is not going very well under his leadership.

Bob, like Sally and Tim, had agreed to Max’s plans. Though, no less than the others, Bob had second thoughts about the priorities. I have to deal with the fall out every day together with Tim, this constant plumbing is not what I signed up for, Bob thinks. This is going nowhere. Yet, during the planning meetings thus far he had kept to himself.

Bob is having second thoughts, especially about working on the back-end refactor with Sally. After the conversation with Alice, Bob thinks they should really have involved Max. It’s too late for that now. Bob re-opens the back-end code and continues to work feverishly. Maybe if we get it perfect he will be happy we picked it up.

Clandestine Work

After Alice leaves, Bob and Sally remain alone in the office. Until now. Max arrives. He seems in a rush.

Max crashes into his office chair, right across Bob. Please leave me alone.
“Phew, I just had the worst ever stakeholder meeting.”
Max rubs his cheeks with his hands. Please stay seated.
“I could use a diversion. What are you working on?”
Max gets up and walks around to look at Bob’s screen. Please don’t.

“Is this part of the front-end refactor?”, Max asks.
“No, ehm … it’s the back-end.”
“You are refactoring the back-end? That’s not what we planned together! Who is in on this?”
Bob shrinks in his chair and start to stammer.
“Just me … and Sally,” and Alice and likely Tim, but let’s not drag the entire team into this, Bob thinks.
Sally turns around on her chair and takes off her headphones. So, you were listening! Max now starts to talk to her directly.
“You’ve rewritten the entire back-end without involving anyone?”
“I involved Bob.”
“You know what I mean …” Max says.

Max turns around, fist clenched and chest expanding. Then he turns back to face Sally.
“Goddammit Sally,” Max shouts. “We’re on the same team here!”
“It sure doesn’t feel that way!” Sally shouts back.
Bob’s hands start to tremble. Unsure of what to do he remains pinned to his chair and shrinks even further. I knew this was coming, but I don’t want to be here right now.
“You can’t just go behind everyone’s back and waste precious time! We already missed a deadline. I am working my ass off trying to appease the stakeholders. I am out there e-ve-ry single day, defending what we’re doing here, begging for more time.” Max shouts.

Unraveling

Bob clutches the handles of his chair as he observes the spectacle unfold. Sally continues: “I sure as hell can decide what I can and can’t do! Especially when it’s in the interest of the project. Let’s face it: I am not the one wasting time here.” She points at herself. “Besides I checked it with Paul,” she adds vindictively.
“You went over my head?”
“I tried to find someone who would actually listen to me. I don’t agree with what we do! Our priorities seem to shift daily.”
They sure do.

Max closes his eyes, locks his jaws, breathes in, out, then continues.
“Do I have your word that from now on, you’ll first come to me before you start a complete back-end refactor?”
Sally crosses her arms.
“Not if it’s not in the interest of the project.”
Max starts gesturing dramatically.
“Sally, come on, give me a fucking break here. I am not the enemy.”
“Look, you did not involve me in the actual decision making, ever.”
“I asked you explicitly for your input, we spent an hour together refining our plans.”
Sally gets up from her chair and starts to shout very loudly.
“Your plans, Max. Your plans! You ambushed me. I am just trying to do what is in the best interest of the project!”
“I heard you the first time!” Max fumes.
Please make it stop.

Commitment

“You know what,” Max continues. “You’re haven’t been committed to this from day one. Stop second guessing me Sally. What I need from you is to just sit down and do your job!”
“This is my job. Besides, I wouldn’t have to second guess if you’d just share what you were doing.”
“Fuck that. I have better things to do than hold your hand. Yes, I am accountable, but certainly not to you.”
“Fine.”
“Fine.”
Why do people keep saying fine, when they really aren’t?
Both of them stop speaking. Sally sits back down and puts her headphones on, Max starts aggressively packing his bag. Bob continues to type as silently as he can.

The Outlet

After Max leaves, Bob takes out his phone and texts Alice.
“You never believe what just happened.” he writes. When she does not respond, Bob texts Joseph. Instead of getting a text message back, he receives an incoming call from Joseph. He is greeted by his booming and warm voice.
“I am still in the car and saw your message, what’s going on?”
“Give me a minute.”
Bob closes his laptop, takes his bag and walks down the stairwell into the parking lot. I need a place where I can speak freely.
Bob’s voice shakes and hands tremble as he tells what just happened, but he finds he becomes more calm as the conversation goes on. He is relieved to experience that Joseph takes the time to hear him out. Fifteen minutes later Joseph is almost home.
“I understand this must have been a very upsetting experience for you.” Joseph says. “It’s probably best if you go home now, let’s talk more about it tomorrow.”

Reflection

What we see in Bob’s conversation with Alice is second guessing previously made decisions, like the cloud setup. Bob, like everyone in the team, suffers from a lack of clarity from leadership. Max is perceived as having problems making decisions. He does not ask the team for help either. As a result team members become both suspicious and uncertain. Thus, it feels like no-one is really steering the ship. In the ambiguous vacuum everyone tries to anxiously grab the wheel and simultaneously get rid of the captain.

After a conversation with Alice, Bob does have a moment of reflection. Perhaps he should help Max. Although, after realizing this, he immediately pulls back into a fear of failure. He still is more committed to Sally than to Max, even though Sally treats him poorly consistently.

What happens next though, is something Bob has feared even more. The full on clash between Max and Sally further breaks down Bob’s brittle feeling of safety. Although, some things are finally in the open, it sets a very poor example of how to handle differences. While both Sally and Max make several good observations, they repeatedly attack each other personally. Both of them hold grudges, and seem unable to put their personal differences aside. Instead of de-escalating their conflict, they both walk away resentful.

Conclusion

In previous chapters we saw that low trust and safety lead to a lack of productive conflict. Everyone turns inwards. As we see here this leads to a lack of commitment which usually manifests itself as feigned buy in. This means people say that they are fine with decisions and how things are going, but really they are not. The roots form when team members don’t openly share their concerns and ‘commit’ to a plan they do not really believe in. This leads to constantly revisiting previous agreements, and a feeling of ambiguity with respect to where the team is going.

Furthermore, when things are not discussed in the open: the lid blows when the pressure becomes high enough. The opportunity for a candid discussion has long gone and instead is replaced by vindictive, mean-spirited arguments. Meanwhile, the team starts to miss crucial deadlines. Everybody loses.

Indication of a lack of commitment in a team are:

  1. Ambiguity about priorities and the overall direction (Bob, Sally and Alice).
  2. Feigned Buy In (Bob, Sally and Tim in the previous chapter).
  3. Revisiting Previous Agreement (Bob, Tim the previous chapter).

What could the team do to improve?

  1. The entire team should ensure there are clear deadlines for accomplishing specific milestones, discuss them, and commit to them. For example: reviewing key decisions at the end of a meeting can help reduce ambiguity about what to do and when to do it.
  2. Making a decision is better than no decision, even if it turns out to be wrong. It is better to make a decision and then later pivot if it was not the right one.
  3. While neither absolute certainty or complete consensus are necessary. It is good to listen to perspectives, and make appropriate contingency plans, so everyone is heard and fears are reduced.

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The Dysfunctional Team III: Conflict

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series The Dysfunctional Team

This series of posts covers a fictional struggling software development team. Use the navigation on the right to jump between the various chapters of the story.

Six weeks after the start, patterns start to solidify in team Phoenix. Let’s continue the story of Max, Sally, Alice, Bob and Tim.

Sunshine

The sun outside the office building shines brightly. Max exits the stairwell and enters the working floor. He passes the area where most of the team is seated. He smiles and whistles upbeat as he walks by. Team members not concentrating heavily smile back and wish him a good morning. Max takes place at his desk at the far end. He feels prepared for the pivotal meeting about to take place. It took him a full two days to prepare, so he has high expectations.

Going through his notes, Max reads some of the comments he received from team members over the past two weeks: “I am unsure of what the goals are”, “I don’t think we are moving in the right direction”, “I really think we need to completely refactor the back-end”. The list is long, Max realizes. However, he believes he found a balance that will really draw the team together. Max ponders over his plans briefly and then decides to grab a coffee.

Coffee

He walks over to the pantry. Before he turns the corner, he catches a few words of a conversation between Tim and Sally standing near the coffee machine.
“Max just doesn’t seem to get it, you know.” Sally says. “Last week Friday he more or less ambushed me, asking all kinds of questions about what I think we should be doing. I had no time to prepare or even think about it.”
“It seems like he is just pushing his own agenda.” Tim responds. “Oh well, we’ll see what the meeting brings. How was your weekend by the way?”
Max grinds his teeth. Breathe, just breathe. The chatter continues. He waits half a minute, then turns the corner. He almost runs into Tim, who is dashing towards the toilet. As Max approaches the coffee machine, Sally is about to pass him.
“How are you Sally?”
“I am fine.”
She gives him a brief glance while she walks past him. Max feels an uneasy tingle in his gut, takes a deep breath once more and gets his coffee.

Laptop and coffee in hand, Max enters the still empty meeting room to prepare his presentation. He brought some prints of his plans. He tries to affix them to the wall, but the tape does not hold. His prints flutter to the carpet. Frustrated he throws the tape on the ground. Breathe, Max. Slowly he puts up the prints using more tape this time around.

Staffing

Fifteen minutes later, everyone has trickled into the meeting room.
“Tim, can you close your laptop please?” Max asks as he starts the meeting.
“I am just taking notes”, Tim replies.
“It’s best if we have everyone’s full attention in the room.”
Tim closes his laptop with a loud thud, shrugs and starts to stir his coffee audibly for a few seconds. He puts the coffee down, and then sits back in his chair, arms folded.

Max opens the meeting. “Alright, I heard you guys on the app not being up to par. So, over the past week I collected as much input as I could from you and a few key stakeholders.”
“Firstly, I understand we are understaffed. So, I have hired an extra senior developer to join the team, a contractor. His name is Joseph and he will start next Monday.”
A mix of puzzled and relieved faces look back at Max.
“This is what you wanted right?” He asks.
“Yes, but … did he do a coding test?” Tim responds.
Alice gives Tim a sharp look, then adds: “Did anyone in the team actually talk with Joseph?”
“Uhm, good points,” Max responds. “I will arrange introductions. I am absolutely confident it will be a harmonious cooperation though.”
Sally looks at Tim, they both roll their eyes.

Plans

Max continues: “I understand we may need more time to work on the basics. Let me present my idea on how I think we should tackle this.”

Max spends some time outlining his plans pointing to the prints he put up. To appease the team he explains there will be time to refactor the front-end and deployment. Nobody reacts to this. Max pauses briefly. Maybe they just need some time to let it sink in. He continues, with a little less confidence, and elaborates on his plans to develop quite some new features. They’ll react to that, Max thinks. However, Sally is not even looking at the prints on the wall anymore, and, goddammit, Tim has opened his laptop again.

After rattling uninterrupted for another fifteen minutes, Max realizes that nobody is saying anything. Nobody. Max’s hands start to tremble, his voice becomes raspy. I need a break. He picks up his cup and gulps down the last sip of lukewarm coffee. Just breathe.

Some Questions Please

“What do you guys think?”
Total silence. Some team members make brief eye contact and then look away, others look at their laptop or out of the window. Starting to sweat, Max feels his heart racing and, to his own embarrassment, he blushes. Did I just talk to a damn wall?

He looks at Sally, who remains silent. Alice leans forward and decides to dip a toe in the ice cold water.
“Wouldn’t it be better perhaps to focus on fewer features?”
“Even fewer?” Tim interrupts. “I think most problems can be fixed by just moving to a different cloud setup, then we can actually move on and start to roll out some of this overdue stuff quickly and …”
“Look, wait, guys,” Max interrupts. “Let’s just get along here.”
Max’s left hand starts to twitch. He quickly hides both hands behind his back.

“Tim, we already discussed the cloud setup. This is the third time you raise it. I am surprised you’re holding onto the idea. I thought we agreed. It’s not a priority right now, or ever for that matter.”
“Whatever …” Tim replies, eyes rolling.
“Alice, I already had to scrap half of the suggestions I got, so what you’re seeing really is a compromise already.”
Alice leans backwards. Tim rocks back and forth in his chair.

All Together Now

Max recalls Sally explicitly asked for back-end refactoring time, which he chose not to accommodate for in his plans.
“What do you think Sally?”
Sally purses her lips then slumps in her chair.
“Yeah, I guess it’s fine like this.”
It’s not fine, it’s not fine at all.
“Okay, if no one has anything to add, then this is what we’ll commit to. I just want us to really work together on this, as a team.” Max concludes.

One by one each team member walks out of the room.
“Thanks guys, thanks so much.” Max mutters. Smile, just smile.
After the last team member exits the room the last bit of Max’s energy evaporates. When the door closes he crashes into a chair and buries his head in his hands. As he wonders what he could have done differently, he feels a wave of sadness flush over him. His hands slowly start to feel with tears as he starts to sob.

Stand-up

Two hours, several meetings and a lunch later, Max joins the early afternoon stand-up. The team is huddled in a circle around a screen showing all tasks. The team goes through the tasks one by one, discussing each item, as well as what they are going to do the rest of the day.

“So, with the new plans of this morning, should we reshuffle the tasks?” Alice asks.
Max intently stares at the screen, then unlocks his jaws and makes a jarring motion with his head.
“I will re-prioritize before Monday, so during the next planning session, we can put things in order.”
“Need any help with that?”
Max shakes his head, still keeping his eyes fixed on the screen. I don’t need any babysitting, certainly not from you.
“I can manage.”
Alice raises an eyebrow.
“So, next week we’ll have some time to refactor things, is that the idea?” Sally asks.
“Indeed, if you wish.” Max replies. But, definitely not for the refactor you had in mind.

Priorities

The stand-up continues. It’s Tim’s turn to speak.
“I am going to work on refactoring the deployment today.”
“Is that really what we need now, wouldn’t it be better to do so next week since we just heard next week there will be room for that?” Sally asks.
“Why wait?” Tim shoots back.
“Because it’s not in line with the plans?”
“The plans you agree with?”
“I am not saying that, that’s completely besides the point!”
For god’s sake, not this again. Max interrupts. He feels sweat break out.
“Okay, let’s take this out of the stand-up.” His left hand twitches.
Why can’t they just get along and keep things peaceful? I really need this team to be stable, predictable and reliable, so they can finally start to deliver. The stand-up continues without any other discussion between team members.

After the stand-up Max takes Tim and Sally apart.
“Look,” Max says. “I really prefer to work in harmony, we should all work together.”
Tim and Sally remain silent.
“Can I count on you to make that work?” Max asks.
Tim loudly exhales. Sally looks unfazed.
“Yeah, sure Max.” Tim answers.
Sally nods. God, I’ve never worked with someone more difficult.
They both walk back to their desks.

More Coffee

Max grinds his teeth. He walks to the coffee machine in the pantry, Bob follows him.
“Hey, how is it going for you?”, asks Max.
“Yeah, I am fine”, Bob says.
“It must be difficult for you working with someone like Sally.”
“It’s okay.”
“Maybe she won’t be around for long. If you have good ideas of your own: simply push back on her, okay?”
Bob bites his lip, and remains silent.

Reflection

Let’s take a brief look and reflect on Max.

Max does not comment on Tim and Sally’s conversation. What may have helped is to open the dialogue with Sally to find out what bothers her. This could clear the air. Max should prioritize improving their strained relationship, not ignore it.

The meeting that Max prepared turns out to be surprisingly bland. The team seems disengaged. There is little discussion or conflict to speak of. When Alice suggests to cut down the number of features, Tim steps in with his point of view regarding the cloud setup. This could be the start of an interesting debate. However, Max immediately squanders the opportunity. He even ridicules Tim. It would have been better if Max allowed the conflict to unwind naturally. He could also dig deeper to actually understand Tim’s idea. Due to his own actions and the state of the team, Max is left feeling terrible. He is unable to share this and thus has to deal with it alone.

Something similar happens during the stand-up. Max refuses to accept help with prioritizing, because he perceives the team members as a threat. While having an actual dialogue could help the team better understand the business priorities and Max better understand the technical impediments. Additionally, Max interrupts a disagreement during the stand-up. This is not bad, because it is okay to take longer discussions off-line: a stand-up is supposed to be short. However, instead of trying to understand the conflict between Tim and Sally and encourage them to resolve it, he simply tells them to be harmonious, because Max himself is uncomfortable with conflict.

Finally, while Tim and Sally are talking behind Max’s back at the start. Max does the same thing with Bob: trying to persuade him to speak up against Sally.

Conclusion

You may expect people to really butt heads during meetings. However, we see meetings and stand-ups are very tranquil … and boring. When a team has a low level of interpersonal trust and psychological safety, the surprising result is that there is much less visible conflict.

However, don’t be deceived, there is no open atmosphere where team members are candid, can openly disagree, and reach outcomes constructively. Hot button issues are avoided. Because of this back-channel politics, personal attacks and tribalism take hold.

We see the willingness to be open and vulnerable have dipped to an all-time low. This leads to a workplace where bland agreement leads to artificial harmony and people avoid each other instead of resolving their differences through productive conflict. A constant underlying tension can be felt in every interaction. This drains the energy of all the team members.

Key indicators of a dysfunctional team with respect to conflict are:

  1. Artificial harmony (Max stopping discussions, requesting everyone get along).
  2. Bland agreement (Sally agreeing without taking part in discussions, Tim giving up).
  3. Avoidance (Sally avoiding Max, team members avoiding discussions).

What could the team do to improve?

  1. Everyone should stop with mean-spirited back-channel personal attacks and instead move to discussing disagreements about ideas in the open. These debates can be frustrating and passionate, but are always about the ideas themselves, not about (groups of) people.
  2. Team members with a natural tendency to avoid conflict should instead bring to the fore hidden disagreements, and should encourage others to stick out the debate until the conflict is resolved.
  3. Leaders, like Max, should restrain their protective behavior and not prematurely interrupt disagreements, but let them unwind naturally.

Productive conflicts form the backbone of a team. The accompanying passion and frustration enables the team and its members to learn and grow.

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The Dysfunctional Team II: Safety & Trust

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series The Dysfunctional Team

This series of posts covers a fictional struggling software development team. Use the navigation on the right to jump between the various chapters of the story.

Two weeks have passed since the kick-off and team Phoenix has really started. Let’s take a look one of the first planning sessions of Max, Sally, Alice, Bob and Tim.

Follow the Leader

Alice knows she is late. Briskly she walks up the stairs, her heart racing and her hands clasped. Praying that everybody else is late too, she cuts a corner into the hallway. When she finally reaches the meeting room, she glimpses her watch. Fuck, ten past ten. She opens the door and tries to silently sneak in at the back. Clearly the meeting is in full progress. She looks at Max in the front. Did she just see his eyes rolling or did she just imagine it? He does not seem to pay attention to her and continues speaking.

“I really think that you guys should do stand-ups in front of the scrum board and walk through all the tasks on the board.”
“Why?”, Sally replies. “We have been doing it by just telling what we did yesterday and what we are going to do today, and it’s been working fine. This is a team decision right?”
“I am also part of the team, and I am saying that we should walk through the tasks,” Max responds.
“Are you saying that as a product owner? I mean the process needs to work for all of us, not just for the product owner.”

Excluded

Alice, now firmly seated at the far end of the table, scratches her throat in preparation to speak up. Everyone’s eyes turn to her. Her hands tremble as she puts down the glass of water she just poured herself.
“Look guys, I am not comfortable with you discussing processes like this without me. This is the first meeting to reshape our processes, why didn’t you wait for me to start?”
“Maybe because you have been late for every meeting over the past week?” Tim snaps back, briefly looking away from his laptop screen.
“Yes well, I was talking to a designer, he is giving me a really hard time, and without him finishing his work we can’t start to structurally improve the front-end of the app, can we?”
Tim doesn’t look up from his screen, even though Alice is clearly speaking to him. Who does he think he is? Alice wonders. He’s always buried with his head in his laptop, nobody believes he’s actually mentally attending the meeting. Meanwhile, Alice works her ass of to get this team off the ground and incorporate some actual novel features in the app.

The meeting continues. Alice thinks she may as well have spent some additional time with the designer instead, as she is rarely, if ever, addressed during the discussion. As she mentally disengages, she sits back and starts biting her lip. Didn’t she prepare over half the ideas that Max just presented? Is she not the scrum master tasked with the role of guarding processes. Why is no one asking her anything? Does she need to elbow herself into the discussion? Where is the respect?

Stalemate

Alice takes another look at her watch. The meeting has run well over time. Max and Sally are fretting over details, Tim is typing code on his laptop, Bob spent the last five minutes just looking out of the window.
“Shall we just continue this discussion later?”, Alice proposes. “I will plan a new session.”
“We haven’t even reached an agreement on the most basic processes”, Max protests.
“I know, but I don’t think we will get there if we keep going either.”
“Yeah, you lost me a while ago”, Tim adds. Bob remains silent.
“Okay, let’s continue this Thursday afternoon”, Alice adds.
Tim and Max walk out of the room with white faces, their heads hanging, their feet slumping.

Alice feels tenseness in her neck and shoulders. She remains in the meeting room with Sally and Bob.
“This really doesn’t give me energy at all”, Bob says. “I’d much rather actually do stuff. You know, move things forward.”
“If we just all wrote decent code, documentation and log messages in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t need to have all these detailed discussions, and things would just … work”, Sally snaps back. Alice gives her an angry look. Who does Sally think she is, taking it out on poor Bob like that?
“Sorry, I mean this feels so frustrating”, Sally continues. “Well, at least Bob and me are rewriting the back-end code. Please don’t tell Max, I am afraid he’ll freak out. He just doesn’t realize how much this rewrite is badly needed.”
They are doing a rewrite without sharing it with the rest of the team openly? Alice suppresses the impulse to shout, and just gently nods, while squeezing the edges of her chair. The walls seem to be enclosing her, she needs to get out of this room.

Emerging Grudges

Alice walks out and darts down the hallway. She overhears a conversation between Max and Paul in the pantry and slows down.
“She’s constantly blocking my proposals. I hate it, she’s trying to take over, maybe we should get Sally off the team, Paul”, Max argues. “I have enough on my plate as it is and I am not sure where to take this, I think other team members should speak up, they can’t be all on her side …”

Alice feels her tenseness turn into an oncoming headache. She goes for a quick stroll to clear her mind.

Failure

When Alice reenters the work floor, she finds Sally and Bob hovering over Tim’s desk. They look at the performance graphs for the current version of the app again. Alice’s heart sinks. She glances at the nearby whiteboard. Bob marked every day without performance problems with an X. Over the last two weeks there were only two X’s.

Alice locks her jaws. She knew this going in: the app was unstable, it was intended as a proof-of-concept, yada yada. Alice estimated this would not really be a problem. She expected the team would get actual time and mental space to fix the underlying structural issues. However, Max so far continually pushed everyone to roll out new features and deliver ‘customer value’ as soon as possible. Like customers in their right mind would use a bloated app that crashes half the time …

It seems to Alice that now the team is not delivering, Max’s concern shifts to the team not structuring their processes in line with his expectations. Because over the past week he left no opportunity unused to point out the team’s lack of organization as the sole source of slow progress. If he’d only stop with that and actually acknowledge the technical problems they were facing. It seems like everyone is eager to speak, but nobody really listens.

Being the Hero

Alice breaks out of her reflective pondering by Sally and Bob who let out a small cheer.
“Yes, you saved the day again Tim!”, Sally exclaims. A reserved smile appears on Tim’s face. He notices Alice and gestures her to come closer.
“You see this dip here?” Tim points to his screen. “That shouldn’t happen, but it was easy to fix so I made some changes and pushed them to production immediately.”
“Did anyone check your code?”, Alice asks frowning.
“Why? You don’t trust me?”
Alice looks at Sally.
“Look, I don’t know anything about this part of the code”, Sally says. “Tim is the only one who can fix this type of issue.”
Alice sighs and slumps her shoulders. She makes a halfhearted attempt to convince Tim and Sally about the need to review and actually understand each other’s code and prevent team members from overspecializing on parts of the code, but it falls on deaf ears.

Covering Up Mistakes

After the discussion, Sally walks away to grab coffee and Alice approaches Bob sitting behind his desk.
“So, what have you been working on?”
“Just rewriting some code.”
Alice looks at his screen.
“Isn’t this the same code you were working on three days ago?”
“Yes, sort of, I am just going over it again to make sure its perfect.”
He is seemingly on the other side of the spectrum than Tim.
“Perfect is the enemy of good. If you feel it’s good enough, you should let someone review it.” Alice says.
“Yeah, no worries, Sally reviews every line of code I write, but I am just afraid …”,
Bob bites his lip.
“What are you afraid of?”
“Well, maybe Sally won’t like it, you know”, he says softly.

When Alice is back at her desk, she opens up the logs for the code Bob is working on. There she can see every change made since the start of the project with annotations. She notices that Bob is contributing very little code. Reviews of the larger blocks of code Bob does contribute are littered with comments from Sally, some of them not very subtle.

Tracing back further, Alice notices that Bob made small fixes to his own code which he seemingly published without review. Reading through the logs, she concludes he surely is not making an effort to explain both the mistake and the fix in there.

No wonder Bob does not share anything, with Sally constantly looking over his shoulder, criticizing every contribution he tries to make, Alice thinks. He would rather work quietly on his own, instead of being berated by his fellow team members. Alice can’t blame him for that.

Managing Behaviors

Alice lets out a sigh and sits back in her chair. It’s late, and most of her colleagues have gone home. She wonders what she should do or say to get the team to operate more effectively. Should she share what she overheard Max saying to Paul about Sally? Maybe address the lack of reviewing and knowledge sharing in the team by Tim? Or share her findings about Bob’s fear to contribute and hiding of his mistakes? What’s the best next move?

Just as Alice is processing her thoughts, Max walks up to her.
“Can I talk with you?”
“Sure, what’s on your mind?”
“What did you think about Sally today?” Max asks.
“You mean during the discussion about the stand-ups?”
“Yes.”
“I think she had a point, but I also think more than one approach can work.”
“Nice, I was thinking that perhaps next time you can share your point of view in the meeting, so that Sally is not the only one with an opinion, you know. It’s good if everyone sees there are people who think … differently.”
As in people that think differently, but just like you, Max? Alice is not brave enough to say that to Max’s face, so instead she lies.
“Uhm, I did not feel strongly about the stand-ups, but I’ll consider it for next time.”
“Okay great, don’t stay too late now,” Max replies.
He grabs his bag and walks towards the stairs.

Reflection

Let’s reflect from Alice’s perspective.

As Alice joins the meeting, Max and Sally disagree over how to do stand-ups. Neither can know what will work best. Nevertheless, the team members, Alice included, allow them to continue to lock horns. This pattern continues throughout the meeting making it a frustrating experience. Anyone in the room had the power to notice and mention this pattern, and thereby break it. This way, the underlying tension could surface and be discussed.

Alice openly shares her feeling of being excluded, but no one acknowledges this. Instead she is attacked for (repeatedly) being too late, a frustration Tim bottled up. His reaction makes Alice turn her attention inwards and feel even more excluded. Alice could have regained herself and share that she feels underappreciated. Additionally, other team members could have noticed her shift in behavior and helped her open up again.

Alice learns Max wants Paul to get Sally off the team. He also tries to convince Alice to speak up against her. She could be open to Max about her concerns, but instead withholds. This choice indirectly allows the rift between Sally and Max to widen.

Tim saves the day, because only he knows certain parts of the code. Alice unsuccessfully tries to convince Sally and Tim this introduces a single point of failure in the team. Instead, she could have discussed her underlying worry of the team not really operating as a team. This worry is confirmed by Sally being overly loose with Tim and overly strict with Bob concerning code reviews.

Finally, Alice wonders how she can manage the behaviors of others by sharing or withholding information. We slowly start to see a closed culture emerge where team members begin to think in terms of tactical manipulation, instead of openly sharing concerns.

Conclusion

We have seen three telltale signs of a lack of trust, these are:

  1. Lack of vulnerability (Max’s pushing for a particular process, Sally’s confrontational stalling, Bob’s hiding of mistakes)
  2. Hero complex (Tim’s fixing, bypassing reviews)
  3. Working in isolation (Both Tim’s fixing and Bob’s hiding of mistakes)

A lack of trust means that team members do not give each other the benefit of the doubt (like both Max and Sally), whereas a lack of safety means that a team member does not believe another team member will give him or her the benefit of the doubt (like both Bob, Tim to some extent and Alice later on in this chapter).

What could members of the team have done to build safety and trust? Three points: Team members should …

  1. get to know each other better, personally, but also in terms of their unique skills and needs. This can be done in settings where work is not the focal point, like during lunch or at informal outings.
  2. encourage and reward feedback, both things they appreciate and things they can improve. They should not chastise or punish each other for being open [Tim], or not meeting each other’s expectations [Sally].
  3. demonstrate vulnerability by admitting their mistakes, sharing their worries and being open when they don’t know how to approach a problem [Max, Sally, Bob, Alice].

Next

In the next post we will continue to follow Max, Sally, Alice, Bob and Tim as we will look at how team Phoenix’s conflict management skills will or won’t take shape.

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