What does formation flying have to do with Agile teams?

Flying just a few feet off of the wings of the pilot in front and to the right of him, this skilled pilot was determined to keep a tight formation. And he was not alone in his efforts and highly honed flying abilities, as every single pilot in his entire squadron was similarly adept at maintaining this tight formation no matter the direction, the weather, or even the specific order in which these aviators organized. The formation would have looked impressive to anyone observing from the ground, but it wasn’t a formation used to impress observers, it was utilized because it worked. By maintaining this flying organization, each member of this flying contingent was able to benefit from the lift created by the pilot off of his wing, to the tune of a 71% improvement in fuel consumption. The exception to this economy of course was for the sole lead pilot, which did not benefit from having a lead aircraft providing a boost of lift. So to account for this, each member of the flying team would rotate to the lead position at regular intervals so that they could ensure that every member would share the burden for a portion of the total flight time. This highly skilled team of aviators recognized that they could not possibly fly as far or as long without teamwork. But this spirit of teamwork did not end with the decision to maintain an efficient formation. They recognized that in order for each of the pilots to be safe, they would need to take care of each other, even when disaster struck, which it did one brisk autumn morning…

The morning had been uneventful, each of the team’s pilots maintaining a tight formation, and a vigilant eye on the ground, because on this particular morning, they were traversing enemy territory. And even though this was a dangerous mission, this mission was much like most of their other missions, as they often were forced to travel over possibly hostile terrain. But unlike most other mornings, a trailing member of the formation was struck, by what no one could be sure, but struck nonetheless, and within moments, his ability to continue flying was affected severely: he was going down. He didn’t have a choice to eject, but rather piloted his disabled craft safely to the ground so that he could assess the damage. But as experience would show, being on the ground where he was much less maneuverable, he was at a greater risk of attack. In order to keep a member of their team safe during emergencies such as these, two fellow pilots also descended from formation, landing near the downed team member, and provided protection while repairs were made. These guardians would stay by the side of the disabled pilot until he was ready to fly again. To this fleet of pilots, teamwork meant never leaving a fellow pilot behind. After a short while, the downed pilot was able to successfully repair his vessel and all three took back to the air, rejoining their squadron. Alone, the pilot may not have survived the ordeal.

This is a true story, although it is a story that likely first took place thousands of years ago. And it is a story that continues to play out even today. You see, the pilots in the story above were not the pilots you may have been thinking of, these pilots were geese.

Geese offer an incredible example of teamwork and how teamwork enables each member of the team to achieve more, travel greater distances, and weather more intense emergencies than they would survive alone. Geese use this tool of teamwork because although it requires a commitment to something greater than each individual, it repays that commitment with many more benefits not available without this pledge of membership.

So what do geese flying in formation have to do with Agile teams?

Plenty! I would venture to guess that no company in existence would openly say that they do not believe in teamwork.  I would further venture to say that most of these companies would state firmly that their teams are very good at demonstrating teamwork in the projects they undertake.  But the truth of the matter is that most teams rarely demonstrate the type of teamwork that produces results proving the possibility that the whole truly can be greater than the sum of the individual parts.  The word ‘teamwork’ has unfortunately been reduced to nothing more than a term on the balance sheet of requirements for a group of project associated individuals; a definition never verified, never authentically encouraged by the organization, but believed to exist nonetheless.  It is a word that has lost its power.  It is routinely applied to describe a group where the group behavior does not merit its application of meaning.  It is overused, under-realized, and misunderstood because of each of these are true.  And yet only a small percentage of ‘teams’ out there truly endeavor to seek the rewards that come from achieving a level of performance and professional satisfaction that is the byproduct of individuals that sacrifice their distinction, their difference, and their dissimilarities in their pursuit of that which is greater than any one person.  They pursue the quotient that is achieved when individuals become teams.  When individual output transforms into teamwork. Agile requires teamwork in the truest sense of the word.  Agile processes reward and recognize good team behavior in the spirit that good teams can produce great results, and as teams mature, great teams can produce extraordinary outcomes.   Don’t believe me?  Then let me pose a question to you…

Have you ever been a part of a team where everything seemed to click?  Where if you had an issue, someone on your team was there to help almost before you were able to ask?  Have you ever been on a team where the work seemed less like work and more like an expression of your and your team’s passion and energy?  If so, then you are not alone, as most people have actually had the experience of achieving this level of team maturity that results in true teamwork.  If you were not able to relate, then it is up to you to create this atmosphere with your own team, on your own project. But before we can truly become a team, we have to also address the flip side of the coin, and that is the dysfunctions that can easily sink the most well-intentioned ship of individuals who set out to discover the holy land of team performance.  Patrick Lencioni did a very good job of identifying these major areas in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, so instead of reinventing the wheel (or the team), let’s use Lencioni’s model as our foundation.

Dysfunction One:  The absence of trust among the team members

I think that I can safely say that if you do not have trust, you do not have anything…at least you do not have anything so far as it relates to creating a true team.  What do you have when your team members don’t trust each other or don’t trust you?  You have a group of individuals working in close proximity, but you do not have a team.  You also have a group that is not able to focus their efforts on creating a truly great product, because they must divide their attention on ensuring that they are not going to be stabbed in the back.  Even if the distrust does not rise to the levels where your resources begin to connive against one another, you still have a group that cannot truly communicate, because true, effective, healthy communication is based on a foundation of trust.

Dysfunction Two: The fear of conflict

Great teams fight.  Perhaps the word ‘fight’ is a bit strong, but great teams are not afraid of conflict, because out of conflict can emerge true resolution.  I say true resolution, because resolution can happen without conflict, but it is not authentic because it typically is simply a result of one party giving in to avoid the conflict, rather than remaining passionate about the best outcome.  Conflict is not beneficial simply for conflict’s sake, but when teams fear confrontation and conflict, communication suffers, knowledge sharing suffers, and ultimately the individuals begin to manage their own actions from a place of fear, which never returns great results.

Dysfunction Three: The lack of commitment

We use the word commitment a lot in Agile, but in this context, the word commitment is more aligned with being absolutely committed to the team’s goal rather than our own individual objectives.  When a team of individuals is committed to achieving the goals of the team, no other possibility exists, and when faced with adversity or the risk of missing an objective, the committed teams gets creative to resolve their own issues.  Commitment does not have a back door through which we can escape when times get tough.  When a team embraces their commitments, there is little that they cannot not accomplish.

Dysfunction Four: The avoidance of accountability

The buck stops here.  Not at the desk of the project manager, but at the door of the team’s war room.  The team’s ability to remain accountable to their commitments means that creativity is likely to flow in the face of project difficulty.  I am not accidentally being vague here, I am purposely avoiding being too specific because I have seen many varied examples of how a team’s creativity in their attempts to resolve issues has surprised even them.  Keep all possibilities open, along with your mind, and allow the intelligent people you have assembled for your team to be accountable, even up until the very end.  With accountability comes the possibility of glory, don’t take this away from your team.

Dysfunction Five: The inattention to results.

In order for any team to have the possibility of making improvements, they must be able to honestly assess the effectiveness of their results.  It may be nice to sugar coat our reality, so that we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but all we are doing when we practice this soft-handed approach, is sweep under the rug the very information that is most likely to assist us in improving our future efforts.  Results are not good or bad, it is just information.  What teams do with this information will determine the character of the team.  Team’s that choose to ignore the difficult to digest results will continue to produce that same quality of results, but instead of improving their actions, they will simply develop an immunity to the effects the poor results use to inflict.  If it is painful for a team to honestly and authentically examine their results, then this is a sure sign that they need to examine them in detail.  Allow the team to feel the pain, experience any negative reaction that comes from this examination, and most importantly, use the total experience to open up the possibility of valuable conversations that will allow the team to avoid repeating it all again in the future.

Agile is all about Team, not about individuals

Individuals are great, I love having superstars on my team, but when we work together to achieve a common goal, I only recognize good team behavior, not individual efforts.  The people on your team are just like people everywhere; they will behave in ways that reflect how they are rewarded and recognized.  So if your company does not officially reward teams that perform, only individuals (like during annual reviews), start the conversation to address this.  If you don’t, please do not be surprised when all of your cheerleading over the importance of teamwork, team play, and team building are met with cheers, but then never realized. Agile requires many different areas that reflect the need for a true cultural paradigm shift within most companies, teamwork and team building being one of the majors, so get ready, it is now up to you.  Because if you have made it this far in my post, you have heard the bell.  And you cannot un-ring the bell, you know.