On The Benefits of Long-Standing Teams

Anthony Mersino
July 26, 2016

If your goal was to create a high performing team, how would you go about it?  Would you keep changing the team members or would you keep the team members stable?

Most organizations take the former approach. They move people around from one team to another without much consideration for the impact on team performance. Or they assign the same person to multiple teams. They don't treat teams as more than the sum of their parts.  And they underestimate the time it takes to build a high-performing team.

Consider Dr. Bruce Tuckman's stages of Group Development, which define a set of stages that groups of individuals must go through to become a team that deliver results. Most people know these as forming, storming, norming, and performing. If a team is performing and we add or remove team members, the group will have to go back through forming, storming and norming to get back to performing. Depending on the type of change, it may not take long, but there is still a dip in performance when the team regresses. You've probably seen this on your agile teams; velocity will drop when people are added or removed from the team. 

Just how important is it to keep the team together? Richard Hackman's book, Leading Teams; Setting the Stage for Great Performances includes some interesting statistic about teams where performance is critical to survival. Hackman quotes the National Transformation Safety Board database that shows that 73% of air traffic incidents occur on a crew's first day of flying together. Their conclusion: flight teams are most vulnerable when they are just starting out, before they have learned how to work best as a team. 

 

73% of air traffic incidents occurred on a crew's first day of flying together

 

 

In an experiment with flight crews, they tested crews who were either just coming off a flight (tired) or rested (fresh). The flight crews were given challenging assignments. Those flight crews that were fresh but have never worked together underperformed those that were tired but had experience working together as a team. In this experiment, previous experience as a team proved to be more important than rest.

I recently saw a news article about the US Men's Olympic Basketball Team which was made up of stars from the NBA. Coming off the end of their regular season, one could argue that the deeply talented players would dominate the Olympics without needing to practice. But that is not what Coach K did. Coach K set them up for serious training and practice games together as a team in mid-July, well in advance of their first Olympic competition on August 6. They didn't just show up - they need time to learn to work together and they need to get through Tuckman's stages of group development.  The team went on to dominate and win all their games and the gold medal.

Most organizations ignore the benefits of long-standing teams and they move people around like pawns on a chessboard. If a team is "behind", they throw people at the problem so that they can catch up. They seem unaware of the certain negative impact on team performance, and are equally unaware of Frederick Brooks' law which says that adding people to a late software project will make it later.

Some things do get better with age and team's are one of those.  If you want to create a high-performing team, then get the best people you can, help them to become a team, and then keep them together for as long as possible.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this post on high performing teams.

Image Courtesy to www.theaureview.com

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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