Agile & Digital / Virtual Teams

Durable teams: more than a series of sprints

How can we keep longer term perspectives and a sense of team spirit among the rise in short-term project sprints? The answer, according to tech giants, is durable teams.

Software teams have long been used to Agile ways of working: forming a small multidisciplinary team to solve a mission critical problem that can be broken down into chunks and focused on for a number of 2-4 week “sprints”.  These teams typically then disband and reform a new agile project team to tackle the next challenge.

As digital working becomes more common, more areas of business are now organizing around fragmented, multiple and transient projects and activities – many of them only existing for a short time. These teams are enabled through technology and often cut across the traditional silos and boundaries of organizations.

A challenge in working in agile teams, particularly when working on short-term or multiple teams is the difficulty in building an enduring sense of community and team spirit. When I was last in Silicon Valley a tech company there commented on the old Tuckman team development model “form, storm, norm, perform”, saying “we don’t have time for any of that; we have to get straight to perform”.

With a very short-term deliverable, agile activities in isolation may not require much trust or team spirit. However, working on a series of these sprints with different people and with little opportunity to build trust or a sense of the broader context of the work can create alienation.

To counter this, US tech giants such as Mozilla and eBay are forming “durable” multidisciplinary teams.  As with any horizontal working, these ensure there is representation from the appropriate lines of business at the onset (e.g. sales, engineering, risk) so that there is input from all sides at the beginning and no surprises at the end.

However whilst these durable teams or digital pods may initially form to tackle a specific business challenge, rather than disbanding when the challenge is complete, they stay together and work on multiple projects with minimal changes in members over a long period of time.

This way the bonds and efficient ways of working that have been sculpted in the first project are not lost, but can be capitalized on for future projects. Teams with high levels of group memory know where different knowledge is held in the team and how to access it, which has been shown to improve productivity.

A sense of community is built, whilst still working cross-functionally across the business.  Indeed, empirical data shows that stable teams are 60% more productive and 60% more responsive to customer input than teams that rotate members.

Part of the reason for this reduction in efficiency in multiple and fragmented teams are “switching costs” which involve learning about new team members and ways of working.

Durable teams need a clear contracting process to state what they are capable of doing and visibility so they can attract suitable work.  Others borrow from Agile methodology, and have a team initiative or product owner who “uses design thinking or crowdsourcing with key stakeholders to build a comprehensive portfolio backlog of promising opportunities.  He or she continually and ruthlessly rank-orders that list according to the latest estimates of value to internal or external customers and to the company”, according to one of the founders of agile scrum working (and buzzword fan), Jeff Sutherland.

Durable teams are an interesting approach to some of the challenges of fragmented working. A team, or a business, is more than the sum of its tasks. People need to understand the context of their work and to build longer term relationships and community ties to the organization as well as the team. It is also true that not all activity can be organized around discrete short-term sprints, so agile working does not work for all kinds of teams.

To some extent we can argue that this is just a normal longer-term team, however the durable team operates in an environment where rapidly changing project deliverables are the norm, rather than the reasonably consistent stream of activity that characterises a traditional team.

At first glance, the word ‘durable’ seems out of kilter with the fast-paced, fragmented, digital world we now exist in. However it could be part of the solution to harnessing the benefits of horizontal, multidisciplinary working AND the plus points of high team spirit and a longer term perspective.

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