One of the best teams I’ve ever worked with was a small, dedicated, self-sufficient software development team at a high-growth startup. You may recognize those descriptors as the same ones we call out in our book, Lean UX, as the key components for a successful, continuously learning team. There was one other key factor that this team had – trust. We understood each other’s skills, strengths, needs and equally as important, vocabulary. We built a group of individuals who trusted each other to not only do their best work but to raise their hands when that wasn’t happening.
Trust takes time
That kind of camaraderie and collaboration doesn’t happen overnight. You can put together the best folks in your company but it will take time for them to build trust. How much time though?
In my experience, there seems to be a tipping point for team collaboration and productivity around the 6 month mark. That may seem like a long time but considering that many companies are only releasing software to production once a month or, in many cases, once a quarter, this gives the team a relatively small number of cycles to work together. Each cycle builds shared understanding. It also builds shared vocabulary. The team gets an increasingly better focus on their goal and deeper understanding of the customers they are serving.
These deeper levels of understanding of the work and how the work is getting done allows the members of the team to make better course corrections after every retrospective. It allows them to ask their colleagues for better feedback, communication and support. Each time these requests are made, trust grows and the team gets more productive.
How long should the team exist?
You’ve put a great team together. They’ve been improving their ways of working for 6 months and are improving regularly. Congratulations! Now, how long should that team continue to work together? If they’ve built trust and cohesion perhaps we consider keeping them together as long as possible?
The basic instinct to maintain a productive collaboration as long as possible is natural and, in most cases, the right one. After all, they’re doing good work and continuously improving. However, there are benefits to changing the makeup of the team after some time.
One option is to bring on new team members, slowly, to help them learn how to work like this team. It’s an effective way to onboard new employees and to demonstrate the values you’d like to instill more broadly across the organization. Increasing the size of the team starts to wear on its ability to move quickly and make decisions but the benefits of training other staff with this approach supersedes that concern.
Another option is to cross-pollinate the success of this team by sending a member or two to join other teams. This person brings their experience and practical approaches to improving the ways of working of other teams in the company. The loss of that person from their original team however can certainly have detrimental impacts on it. Combined with the first option – to onboard someone first – we can mitigate some of the negative impacts.
How long is forever?
Regardless of whether you’re onboarding new team members to an effective team or sending out individuals to help other teams, the permanence of the team is ultimately variable. If it takes 6 months to get them to a state of trust and collaboration then it would make sense that each 6 month cycle should bring on a new level of improvement. The only way to know for sure if team members are burning out, losing their efficacy or just simply want a change in what their doing is to run retrospectives regularly. Give teams the option to keep going for as long as they’d like but ensure that they’re able to maintain the qualities that have made them as successful as they’ve been to date. And, if the time comes to break up the team, all that goodness they’ve learned will be distributed across the company and will likely sprout better teams in the future.