The Final Countdown; Adjourning Agile Teams


When introducing agile  I’m sometimes asked to assist with the creation of teams, I’ll be asked questions like:  how many testers do we need?  Is ten people enough?  Who manages performance?  Should they wear shorts?  These are predominantly valuable questions, lucky covered at length elsewhere.  Something that’s very seldom planned is what happens when these teams disband.  And yet, without due care team members may end up demotivated, disappointed or feeling unappreciated.  In the age where everyone is fighting to retain smart people, and to transform their organisations, at the expense of a little forethought, it seems a high risk to take.

New teams are recognised  to move through similar phases, regardless of their domain.  Tuckman’s stages of group development is the ubiquitous cycle, suggesting that teams move through the following stages as they gel and become productive:
Forming – When a team gets together there is a buzz, there is expectation, and caution as they figure out their mission and their colleagues.
Storming – The team realise what they are up against, both from their mission, and each other, there is vying for position, conflict and resistance.
Norming – The team start to behave as more collaboratively, making progress towards goals, and developing team relationships, they are increasingly effective as a group.
Performing – The team is stable and performing its best, there is respect, understanding and a strong sense of shared purpose.

The sequence provides a useful heuristic for what to expect as a new team gets together.  Of course progress isn’t strictly linear, and teams iterate through these stages.  Something as simple a desk swap may prompt a little storming, with care though the overall trend remains towards performing.

Having studied and developed the concept, a decade later Tuckman added a fifth stage.  It is sometimes referred to as ‘mourning’ although I suspect that’s largely due to rhyme compatibility with the other stages, Tuckman named it ‘adjourning’.

Imagine this:  you go on a sunny holiday with a bunch of  new friends, sure the journey was a bit fraught, it took a while to get used to the new place, pace and lifestyle, there were some heated words along the way, in the end everyone is getting along, doing their thing and generally having a good time.  The holiday peaks when everyone gets together, sharing experiences and ideas, the energy is tangible.  Then one day you notice someone has left the group; “needed elsewhere” apparently.  Next day the hotel barman disappears, then you notice no-one is organising activities anymore.  The swimming pool is turning a curious green hue.  Two people wonder off because ‘there’s a more interesting holiday going on over there’.  The kitchen runs out of food – the chef is only there once a week, mumbling about “other priorities”.  The manager who used to stroll over enthusiastically and ask; “how can I help today?” now seems afraid to look you in the eye.  Slowly people drift off until the sense of fun and bonhomie are lost.  Triumphs forgotten, you kill time until the holiday reaches its end date.  A sense of loss and a slow fade to boredom becomes the overriding memory.

The adjourning phase in teams is important because it sets up the attitude, enthusiasm and levels of energy taken to the next team.  What is carried forward is largely based on the emotional response someone has looking back at the project.  The final weeks are particularly important because we are recent creatures, more recent negative experiences will replace older positive feelings.

Sensitivity to the adjourning phase is especially important during an agile transformation, and when introducing change in general.  In those early days a change initiative needs allies and evangelists to support and promote it.  Peer to peer recommendations are particularly respected, and people who have enjoyed a project help form a cohort of change agents.  The opposite is also true, word of a poorly handled team will soon spread, and be seen as part of the ‘new way’.

So you need to make sure that a team has a positive emotional response when they think about the project otherwise, regardless of what ‘facts’ or ‘reasons’ are given, it’s the emotional side that will determine whether a similar initiative is supported, or resisted.  I’d suggest the following:

Mark The Occasion – Lunch, cakes, a flaming aquatic Viking burial for the team board, anything that underscores that the project is done.  No need for speeches, but be sure to say thanks, recognise achievements, and just mark the last time the team exists in this form.  Often it feels more useful to do when the whole team can attend, rather than the calendar close date.

Close it down – Agree what work should be completed, rather than allowing that nagging unfinished, lost opportunity feeling.  Consider the tasks that will make it possible for other teams to work with product when handed over.

Retrospect – There are two motivations for this, firstly to gain learning and insight for future projects, secondly so team members feel like they’ve been heard and that things will improve in future projects.  A good option is to hold a ‘futureospective’ focus the retro on the future, asking each participant to choose a couple of initiatives they’d introduce to their new team.

Communicate – Often team changes are requested by outside influences,  it is good to soften the feeling that team changes are being ‘done to them’, especially in an agile environment which encourages self organisation and team responsibility.  If the team faces a slow wind down with people moving over a few weeks, explain why, ask for input into how the team’s remaining commitments and assets should be managed.  Again you’ll uncover solid ideas and increase engagement.

In the aspect of adjourning agile teams are no different to any other, except perhaps that they are expected to move through the stages of group development more often and more rapidly than their counter parts.  We should be mindful that our search of agility does not lead to disenfranchised groups and teams that never truly form due to prior poor experiences when disbanding.

Compared to the effort we put into forming a team the effort required for a successful adjournment is small, and the rewards are high; raised enthusiasm, engagement and even increased support for transformation.  So let’s not short change our teams, lets facilitate the closing phase of team life with as much thought and attention as the beginning.

Before we learn, must we first unlearn?

Sometimes I read something and think, this is awesome, how did I miss this one? Sometimes, I even get carried away and write more than 140 characters about it…

One such article explores the concept of ‘unlearning’, as a precursor, or catalyst, to learning. Learning feels like a common denominator across agile methods. But agile is not just about learning how to get better at building stuff, it’s about learning how to introduce and encourage change.

The article is ‘Unlearning Ineffective or Obsolete Technologies’ by William H Starbuck, currently a visiting professor at Cambridge. The article is an absolute goldmine, but Starbuck is also remarkable for having a CV that has to be one of the most simultaneously impregnable and impressive of all time.

The abstract grabbed me straight off: “Often before [people] can learn something new, people have to unlearn what think they already know.”

We’re familiar (and often lazy) with concepts like keeping an open mind, and perhaps techniques like DeBono’s thinking hats which invite other perspectives. Deliberate unlearning though, seems counter intuitive and somewhat destructive, especially if the ultimate aim is to learn more.

The article is packed with great antidotes to reinforce the messages, from how a navy spent weeks bombing aquatic mammals they believed were submarines to exploding steam boats and Sony Walkman development.

Frankly I’d recommend you stop reading this now, and read full the paper, but if you don’t have the time available, allow me to offer a summary:

Starbuck suggests that there are three key points to recognize in order to encourage learning.

1.Learning cannot happen without unlearning – current beliefs are blinkers, something is required to demonstrate that people should no longer rely on their current beliefs and methods – “Expertise creates perceptual filters that keep experts from noticing technical and social changes”
2. Organizations make it difficult to learn without first unlearning. Policies and practice are often created from individual’s beliefs, and these polices mesh together to form a kind of structure, in which it is difficult to change a small part. This creates a self-perpetuating situation discouraging change, where it becomes hard to change anything without dismantling the whole system.
3. Unlearning by people in organizations may depend on political changes. I think the key point here is that unlearning may need to be enabled by people changes. The motivation may be political or something more mundane, the change in influencer is the significant part. This is because information is interpreted by people, influential people create ways of working, culture and policies. Any modification to these may be seen as a threat to the individual and suppressed, rather than exploring suggested change. Starbuck suggests this is why senior managers are prone to overlook, and miss-interpret bad news.

I hear things that support these views time and time again, phrases like “our Agile culture was going no where until so-and-so joined, or so-and-so finally left”. Other disruptions seem to foster unlearning – particularly stronger collaboration and a better appreciation for the challenges of other teams, something very visible in the DevOps movement.

Starbucks goes on to identify methods, or viewpoints, to encourage unlearing.

Dissatisfaction – A common reason for doubting, and reconsidering current approaches, he observes that this can take a long time, presumably requiring a high level of discontent before people are motivated to seek change.

“It’s only an experiment” – There is a mind trick that goes on when we are in experimental mode; we take calculated risks, and we are more observant, we want to evaluate outcomes, rather than preferring a particular one. Often there is less to loose if the results aren’t as predicted. Starbuck puts it: “[Experiments] create opportunities to surprise”. As a side note, Cynefin recognizes the value of this, and promotes safe to fail experiments, nice post here.

“Surprises should be questions marks” – In other words when something surprises us, we should not dismiss it, or categorize it as an interesting anomaly, but look to see if it challenges any of our beliefs or assumptions.

“All descents and warnings have some validity” – Starbuck admits that this is a little over zealous, and there are sources of dissent that don’t provide value, never the less in many cases there is something to gain. Often these comments are attempts to warn or inform, and merit attention.

“Collaborators who disagree are both right” – or rather, there are elements of truth in both arguments. In these situations the art is discovering how the seemingly contradictory elements can both exist. This doesn’t mean creating a compromised win-win situation. It means challenging assumptions and seeking new models until there is understanding.

“What does a stranger think strange?” – Strangers haven’t been exposed to, or adopted, your ways of working, and therefore are more likely to challenge and make valuable observations. In my opinion this is yet another reason to pay close attention to new hires, especially if they are new to the industry or fresh from college.

“All casual arrows have two heads” – If I’ve interpreted it correctly, this indicates that we should change the way we consider flow, by recognizing that there are two directions for each path and we should seek out overlooked feedback routes. Starbuck illustrates with a great example: Mass vehicle manufacturing was once be based on accumulating inventory. Materials were shaped into components, components into cars and customers selected cars from the vehicle inventory. That’s one direction for a causal path. Taiichi Ohno saw the opposite direction and created Toyota’s just in time system, where the absence of inventory to serve customer demand stimulated flow.

“The converse of every proposition is equally valid.” – This pithy phrase is almost immediately caveated to indicate that not all propositions have a valid converse. I guess the aim is to train ourselves to explore the converse, a neat method of flipping our perspectives. Are leaders really leading their people, or just servants to them?

Summing up then, Starbuck puts forward a set of useful techniques to help us overcome our inherent biases and tendency to filter what we consider threatening or bothersome. Even if you don’t agree with the techniques it’s a useful reminder, and the goals are worthwhile. These techniques may avoid some other more catastrophic event, like being fired or going out of business, being the trigger for unlearning. The term unlearning is convenient but perhaps a misnomer, nothing is discarded, it is more a recognition that current beliefs, ways of working ,or processes, no longer serve us; that it is time to seek alternatives.