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From under-performing to high-performing team
How to turn around a sluggish and underperforming team?
I’m Vibhor, and welcome to my weekly newsletter, the “Winning Strategy.” Every week I answer one question from you about agile, product, roles, processes, frameworks, career growth, working with humans and anything else that’s stressing you at your office. Send me your questions here, and in return, I’ll offer actionable, down-to-earth, and straightforward advice.
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On to this week’s questions!
Q: I have recently joined a team that has missed multiple releases in a row. The team is attracting a lot of negative attention from the management. As a Scrum Master, what steps I can take to turn the team around and improve their performance?
Thanks for the question.
This is a tough but highly rewarding situation to be in as a SM.
I've been in this situation a few times, and as difficult as these situations are, they're also brimming with opportunity. If you succeed, the risk you are taking by being stuck with a low-performing team can completely enhance your career.
This is a great opportunity to show those who’re watching (your manager, executives etc.) that you are competent and reliable when it comes to handling difficult/stressful situations like these.
Having said that, here are 2 tips to make the most out of this situation:
1. Cover your back. Set clear expectations with your manager:
It's very important that your boss and other leaders understand the position you're in. In the next 3-6 months, it's possible that your team will have less business impact, and some of your team members may get upset with you, especially if you suggest hard changes. Make sure your boss and other leaders know this before you start.
2. Be patient:
When you join the team, it will be tempting to just make a few small changes on the surface and call it good enough. Try to avoid that. Set high standards for yourself and your team. Work backwards from what you think this team could become (for example, the best product team in the world), get the team excited about this goal, and don't stop pushing until you get there. When you see a bad performance, tell the person (in secret). When you see good work, talk about it with enthusiasm (and in public). Don't settle. Always insist on good work. It'll be worth it.
Before we dive deep, let’s first have a look at the boundaries you will operate in.
Understanding your boundaries.
Team performance issues can arise due to multiple reasons.
It can arise due to problems at:
Individual (team member) level
Team level, and
As a Scrum Master, you can actively take necessary actions to help your team at individual and team levels.
But when it comes to management, your role is limited to making the issue merely “visible,” and the rest is up to the management how they would want to handle it.
Let’s break the individual, team and management-level problems into more specific categories.
Individual level problems:
1. Lack of expertise:
Lack of knowledge and expertise
2. Personality clashes:
3. Lack of motivation:
Aligning with product vision
Involvement in Decision making
1. Team Structure: How a team is organized and managed
Team composition: The mix of team members, their skills, experience, and expertise. The absence of a diverse and well-balanced team may hinder effective problem-solving, innovation, and adaptability.
Role clarity: Ambiguous roles and responsibilities can lead to confusion and decreased productivity and satisfaction.
Team leadership: Ineffective leadership may result in a disorganized and poorly guided team, reducing overall performance.
2. Team Processes:
Communication: Lack of effective communication may lead to misunderstandings, misalignment, and conflicts within the team.
Goal setting and alignment: Unclear and misaligned goals can create confusion and impede collaboration and prioritization.
Conflict resolution: Unresolved conflicts can damage team dynamics and negatively impact the team environment.
Workload and Resource Management: Lack of workload and resource management can lead to team members feeling overwhelmed or overburdened.
Feedback and recognition: Inadequate feedback and recognition can demotivate team members and reduce their sense of belonging and appreciation.
Team development: Lack of training may hinder skill enhancement, knowledge sharing, and overall team growth.
3. Team Dynamics: Problems related to the relationships and interactions
Trust: The absence of trust within the team may lead to poor collaboration, restricted communication, and reduced psychological safety.
Social support: An unsupportive social environment can contribute to reduced well-being, increased stress, and decreased satisfaction among team members.
Team cohesion: Low cohesion can weaken the team's unity, commitment, and shared purpose, resulting in suboptimal performance.
Management level problems:
1. Strategic direction:
The clarity and consistency of the organization's vision, mission, and strategic objectives set by higher management impact team performance and alignment.
2. Policy formulation:
The development and enforcement of policies and procedures by higher management can influence team operations, compliance, and overall performance.
3. Resource allocation:
The decisions made by higher management regarding the distribution of resources (e.g., budget, personnel, and equipment) can have significant effects on teams' abilities to achieve their goals.
4. Talent management:
Higher management's strategies for recruiting, retaining, and developing talent within the organization can impact the composition and effectiveness of teams.
5. Performance management:
The systems and processes established by higher management to evaluate and reward team and individual performance can influence motivation, job satisfaction, and accountability.
6. Organizational culture:
The values, norms, and expectations promoted and reinforced by higher management can shape the work environment, team dynamics, and overall well-being.
7. Change management:
Higher management's approach to initiating, implementing, and overseeing organizational change can affect team adaptability, resilience, and success in navigating transitions.
These are all the factors that could cause team performance issues at the individual, team and management levels.
Having said that, “team performance” is a highly complicated subject and can be due to factors not mentioned here. If you happen to know some other factors, please mention them in the comment section below.
Knowing what “could” go wrong is one thing, but knowing “what is” wrong is more important. Let’s see what you, as a SM, can do to find “what is” wrong.
Figuring out what’s (pain points) causing team performance issues
Now that we know what factors are (usually) responsible for low performance in teams let’s see how you can figure out which factor is causing the trouble.
1. Individual-level problems:
Observe individual team members for potential skill gaps, personality clashes, or motivational issues.
Example: One team member frequently misses deadlines and disrupts sprint progress. This suggests a skill gap or motivational problems.
2. Team Structure
Inspect the team’s composition. See if there’s a lack of diversity or imbalance in skill sets, experience and expertise.
Check if the roles and responsibilities (R&R) are clearly understood by the team.
Assess the team’s leadership (Team leads, PO etc.). Look for signs of micromanagement, lack of empowerment, lack of collaboration, lack of communication etc.
Example: High dependence on one team member for key decisions indicates a lack of diverse expertise or unclear role definitions.
3. Team Processes:
Monitor team interactions. Look for signs of misunderstandings, misalignment, or conflicts due to communication errors.
Evaluate clarity of goals. Check if the team members are aligned with the shared objectives.
Is there any unresolved, unaddressed conflict?
Assess the distribution of workload and availability of resources.
Monitor feedback practices within the team
Check if there are opportunities available for team development and growth.
Example: Frequent disagreements during sprint planning suggest that there is a misalignment of goals and there are communication issues.
4. Team Dynamics:
Assess the level of trust and psychological safety among team members.
Look for signs of support, encouragement, and collaboration among team members.
Example: Team members hesitating to speak up during retrospectives indicate low trust and psychological safety issues.
5. Management factors:
Evaluate the clarity and alignment of strategic directions.
Check if resource allocation from higher management is adequate and well-distributed.
Observe the impact of performance management practices and talent management strategies.
Assess the influence of organizational culture and change management on the team.
Example: Frequent changes in product/project priorities and deadlines (although supported) may cause stress and confusion within the team.
Use this guide to systematically observe the team. Gather signals that help you pinpoint the factors responsible for the issues the team is facing. Sometimes problems might span across multiple categories, and you may need to address multiple factors to improve team performance.
Finding a solution?
Once you know the root category in terms of Individual, team and management levels, you can tackle the issue using the below methods.
Coaching cards: A guide to building high-performing teams
Creating team analysis report for management
Using BCOM framework
1. Using High-Performance Coaching Cards
A few years back, I created a set of Scrum Master coaching cards that can be used to get to the bottom of most Team and Individual level problems causing performance issues. You can download the coaching cards below.
2. Using team analysis report for management-level problems
If the root cause of team performance issues points to management-level problems, bringing visibility and clarity (data) to the management in the form of a formal report is sufficient.
I have created a sample report that you can download here. Use it to get a taste of how it should look like and what information it must contain. Add/delete issues as required. (I have purposefully not shown any recommendations because that will depend on your context and org dynamics).
Note: Before presenting the report to the higher management, get the report reviewed by the team and get their buy-in and approval.
3. Using the BCOM framework to fix the team’s sluggishness problems
Benchmarking is the term used to define the optimal speed the team should work.
Look at what other teams are doing. Is your team working slower than other teams in the organization?
Talk to other SMs to get an idea of what's going on. In most organizations, teams have to go through a lot of steps before they can ship code. This includes manual quality assurance, code reviews, unit tests, going through architectural reviews, etc.
In general, these things are good, and in the long run, they make things move faster.
Challenging a team to achieve performance goals can pull the team out of the rut by creating a sense of urgency and purpose.
By setting higher goals and pushing the team's boundaries, you can bring out the best in each individual team member, create a good team dynamic, and get better results. Here are some ways to set challenges to drive team performance:
SMART sprint goals: Work with the Product Owner and the team to define a clear Sprint Goal. For example, if the team is working on an e-commerce platform, a SMART goal could be:
"Improve the website's checkout process to reduce the average cart abandonment rate by 15% within the next two sprints."
This goal is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound and provides the team with a clear focus and direction.
Create a sense of urgency: To instill a sense of urgency in your team, emphasize the importance of the Sprint Goal and its impact on the overall product and company. For example, explain how reducing the churn rate will lead to increased revenue and an enhanced customer experience, which in turn will make the product more competitive in the market. Share any relevant deadlines or milestones. Also, regularly remind the team of the remaining time in the sprint during daily stand-up meetings.
Track progress: Use a task board or digital tool like Jira to visualize the status of tasks and ensure transparency. Encourage team members to openly discuss any impediments they face and swarm to find solutions. Tracking progress in this manner and making timely adjustments ensures that the team remains focused on the Sprint Goal.
3. Observing, identifying, sharing and acting:
Observe: First, get the facts. Ask questions, pay attention, and keep an eye on team interactions. Sit in on team meetings, talk to team members, and look over team documents and routines. Come in with an open mind and focus on finding out exactly what is working and what isn't with the team.
Identify: As you watch and listen, write down what you think needs to change (for example, the number of hand-offs). What's the main reason this team isn't doing well? What's one thing that could be changed to make performance much better? What are the real reasons, not just the symptoms? These could be problems with the way things are done, with how people talk to each other, with the team's mission, with what people expect, or with many other things (at individual, team and management levels shown above). Make a report of the facts you've seen, how the problems are affecting the team, and what you think should change.
Share: Next, discuss your findings and recommendations with the Product Owner and any other relevant stakeholders to ensure alignment. Once you receive support, share your analysis and proposed changes with the team during a dedicated meeting. During the meeting, emphasizes the benefits of these changes and encourage open discussion. Address any concerns or suggestions from the team.
Act: Finally, after getting the approval on your recommendations, help the team make the necessary changes.
After doing all of the above, if you still think the team can work harder and take deadlines more seriously, here are some effective techniques to motivate the team.
Align product vision to their personal motivation: Find out what each person's personal goals are (e.g., do they want to be a manager, start a business, or get a promotion). Help them see how the work they are doing helps them reach their goals. For example, how does this project help the person learn skills that will help them start a business, handle other people, or improve their chances of getting a promotion?
Get their approval: Does your team really care about meeting the Sprint Goals and release deadlines? Do they feel like they were involved in setting these goals? If not, it's easy to see why they might not be meeting them since they never really agreed to them in the first place. To solve this problem, include team members in the road mapping and release planning exercises.
When estimating user stories, ask them how long they think it will take. Even though it's okay to question their estimates sometimes, it's important to trust their knowledge most of the time. Set the sprint scope together based on what each team member thinks it will take, and make sure everyone is happy with the plan before going forward.
Link what they are doing to a bigger purpose: Assuming they joined your team because they believed in the company’s vision. Make sure it's clear how what they do every day helps achieve that vision. It's often hard to see the link. Make it clear in team meetings, project kickoffs, one-pagers, slideshows, and 1:1s.
Align incentives: People respond to incentives, so figure out how to incentivize hitting dates. Incentives come in various shapes and sizes. It could be promotion, autonomy, financial gains and even that feeling of not letting the team down.
Pain & Pleasure: According to Kerry Goyette, Pleasure & Pain are the key human motivators. Watch her TED talk below to understand the concept better.
Let’s see what this looks like in a Scrum team with the help of a few examples:
Example #1: This could be a team member (Dev) who enjoys exploring new programming languages, frameworks, or libraries. They feel motivated when given the chance to
work on cutting-edge projects,
using new technologies or
implementing innovative features
Example #2: This could be a team member (QA) who thrives on discovering new testing tools, techniques, or methodologies. They feel motivated by learning
new ways to ensure software quality
taking on complex testing scenarios
sharing their knowledge with the team and
helping improve the overall testing process by constantly expanding their skills.
Example #3: This could be a team member (Dev) who values stability, reliability, and well-established practices.
They feel motivated when they can ensure the code they write is robust, secure, and efficient. They are cautious about adopting new technologies and processes without thorough consideration. They focus on refining and optimizing the existing codebase, reducing potential risks and errors.
Example #4: This could be a team member (QA) who prioritizes thorough and meticulous testing. They aim to catch every possible bug before it affects the end-users. They are motivated by the idea of:
preventing problems and
minimizing any negative impact on the software's functionality and user experience
In Pleasure-seeking scenarios, motivation comes from the excitement of
encountering new experiences and
learning opportunities that help them grow professionally
In Pain-avoiding scenarios, motivation comes from the desire to
prevent issues and
At a high level, all you really need for your team to do well are people who are
If they’re still taking too long to ship, and you're sure this isn't just a mistaken impression, then something is wrong with either expertise or motivation. Find out which one it is and work on that one.
Do you have any other tips from your own experience? Leave a comment below and share so everyone can benefit.
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📚 Further Reading
Hackman, J.R. (2002). Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances. Harvard Business Press. - This book focuses on the factors that affect team performance, emphasizing the importance of team design and leadership.
Edmondson, A.C. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383. - This paper explores the role of psychological safety in team learning and performance, highlighting how fear of interpersonal risks can hinder performance.
Katzenbach, J.R., & Smith, D.K. (1993). The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. Harvard Business School Press. - This classic book discusses the importance of teams in high-performance organizations and identifies key elements of effective teams.
Marks, M.A., Mathieu, J.E., & Zaccaro, S.J. (2001). A Temporally Based Framework and Taxonomy of Team Processes. Academy of Management Review, 26(3), 356-376. - This paper presents a framework for understanding team processes and how they influence team performance.
Duhigg, C. (2016). What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. The New York Times Magazine. - This article highlights key findings from Google's Project Aristotle, an extensive study that sought to understand the factors that contribute to team success.
Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399. - This seminal paper introduces the stages of team development (forming, storming, norming, performing) and emphasizes how teams evolve over time.
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