Should I Stay or Should I Go?

There has recently been some debate internally regarding team stability in terms of how long a given team should remain together. If you review the Agile Manifesto, and specifically the Twelve Principles, there are several references to teams but there are no specific recommendations given in terms of optimal lifespan of a team. Somewhere along the way it seems to have been decided that indefinitely maintaining a stable team is imperative in an Agile environment.

Most in the Agile community have learned about Tuckman’s stages of group development at some point in their journey. These stages clearly support the idea of maintaining stability within a team. While I agree with this thinking and it seems like common sense on the surface, I hadn’t put much thought into the longer term impacts of remaining in the “performing stage” for an extended period of time. After all, finding an opportunity to split up a team and reset them back to the “storming” stage isn’t exactly a problem that exists in many environments with the perpetual re-org being an accepted way of life.

On the other side of the coin, it can be debated that keeping a team together too long could lead to groupthink. Doing a quick Google search, groupthink is defined as “the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility”. This doesn’t sound like something we were trying to achieve at all and certainly doesn’t align with the manifesto referenced above. While overly-stable teams is likely not a pervasive problem where you have worked and you may not have been aware of it at the time, I’m sure you can think back to more than one example where this problem has surfaced.

I’m a subscriber to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, “Revisionist History”. In listening to his Season 2, Episode 5 podcast, he shared an interesting concept that further influenced the way I feel about this topic:

“The psychologist Daniel Wagner has this beautiful concept called transactive memory, which is the observation that we don’t just store information in our minds or in specific places, we store memories and understanding in the minds of the people we love. You don’t need to remember your child’s emotional relationship to her teacher because you know your wife will. You don’t have to remember how to work the remote because you know your daughter will. That’s transactive memory; little bits of ourselves reside in other people’s minds. You know when one-half of a long marriage dies and the surviving partner says that some part of them has died along with their spouse? Wagner has a heartbreaking riff about how that is actually true. When your partner dies, everything that you have stored in your partner’s brain dies along with them.” -Malcolm Gladwell

I happen to believe, as with most things in life or business, the optimal goal is actually something in between indefinite stability and continuous ’storming’.  However, this notion of ‘transactive memory’ nudged me even closer to valuing long-term stability.

Accepting that change is inevitable, maybe the best we can realistically strive for is a predictable cadence of change while keeping those team members who we’ve stored our ‘transactive memory’ within close by and accessible when needed.  Who knows, maybe it’s also possible that those ex colleagues would still reside somewhere within your company walls had they experienced that desired change of scenery… as would those invaluable memories you stored within them.

What has your team stability experience been while working with your Agile teams?

Tag(s): Agile

Calvin Horrell

Calvin started his career as a developer, eventually transitioning to identifying and placing technical talent at clients. He now is responsible for finding and hiring talented people at Sketch who then help co-deliver solutions to our clients’ complex problems. He touches a lot of our activities here, from engagement...

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