Team Building: Five Dysfunctions and Four ‘Ormings

There are dozens of books out there on management and leadership styles.  There are dozens of books about Agile methods and the application of Agile principles.  There are probably hundreds of books on the psychology of groups.  In my opinion, there are not enough books that combine these concepts.  The interconnections and application are left as exercises of the reader.

I’ve read a number of books, and listened to a lot of theories.  Ultimately the ones I gravitate toward are the ones that resonate in things I can observe, and almost more importantly, that resonate with each other across the different sources.

The Dysfunctions

My manager recently lent me his copy of Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  This is one of those books that I have to give a nod to simply because I see illustration of its theory in my daily work.  The dysfunctions are presented as a pyramid with the peak of the pyramid representing the results you are attempting to achieve.  The dysfunctions represent the stepping stones that are stacked upon one another to build that pyramid and get you to your goal.

The first dysfunction, Absence of Trust is typified by unwillingness of team members to appear vulnerable to each other.  Trust is the base of the pyramid.  It forms the basis on which everything else builds.  When you don’t fear your own vulnerabilities, you have no reason to be afraid of frank discussion with your teammates about theirs.

The second dysfunction, Fear of Conflict grows out of lack of trust.  If you trust your team members, and are willing to engage in honest disagreement, and are willing to listen when your teammates disagree with you, then you have the basis for being able to come to decisions.

The third dysfunction, Lack of Commitment is a result of the team not engaging in productive conflict.  If your team members don’t trust each other enough to express their opinions or concerns, to hear each other out, then how can you ever hope to get them to buy in to a solution?   Even if one member of the team disagrees with the course of action the team is taking, as long as they had a chance to be heard and have their opinion considered, they can usually accept the decision.

The fourth dysfunction, Avoidance of Accountability will grow out of lack of commitment.  If you didn’t commit to the decision of the team, then you are in effect washing your hands of the course of action.  How many times have you seen someone shut down in a meeting because they feel like they haven’t been listened to?  They wash their hands of the results and refuse to be held accountable for the outcome.

The fifth dysfunction, Inattention to Results is the ultimate failure of the team to achieve their goals.  With team members refusing to share in responsibility for the outcome, your work results will be weak or flawed in some way because  key members of your team didn’t contribute their specialty to it.

The ‘Ormings

Everyone who is involved in team formation in general, and agile team formation in particular is familiar with Bruce Tuckman’s team development model.  I like to call it the four ‘ormings:  Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing  (purists will demonstrate their cleverness by reminding you that there is a fifth stage called Adjourning (or Mourning) but that’s really about team dissolution, so I stick with the first four).

The first stage, Forming is when the team first gathers.  At this stage they are highly dependent on a leader, as within the team there is virtually no understanding of roles, responsibilities or purpose.  A team that is just forming is incapable of being a self-directed team, as they lack the basic knowledge of how to proceed.

The second stage, Storming is typified by its fireworks.   Part of this struggle comes as the leader tries to wean the team off the command & control of the first stage, and encourage them to take more responsibility for their own actions.  As a result, the team members are so busy trying to establish themselves into a pecking order that they can easily be distracted into forgetting there is a higher purpose to their collective.

The third stage, Norming is a welcome respite from the drama that preceded it.  The team becomes adept at coming to consensus, and have come to understand each others strengths and weaknesses.  The leadership of these teams is little more than an act of facilitation.

The fourth stage, Performing is when the teams have achieved a state of self-awareness.  They know why they are together.  They understand their purpose, and they act to meet, and usually exceed their goals.  Disagreements are handled quickly and respectfully.  At this stage, the leader has only to set the vision.

Today’s leaders would do well to realize that these stages exist, and further realize that all teams will pass through each stage sequentially.  Every time you make a change to a team, you reset the sequence to the beginning.  Mind you, most experienced team members get beyond Stage 1 in a matter of hours.   The second stage is the worst.  During that time, it is a struggle to get the teams to produce any output at all, let alone good quality product.

Merging the Concepts with Agile

Don’t lose sight of the fact that your goal is to achieve outstanding results.  Whether you are hoping to improve predictability or address quality issues, achieving Agility and Teamwork are not the end results.  They are the means to the end.

Agile methods, especially Scrum focus on the concept of self-directed teams, empowered to do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals.  You provide the teams with a Product Owner who defines the work that will be performed, and you provide them with a Scrum Master who will help them apply the Agile practices without losing sight of the principles that drive them.

Even if you have team members who have been working together for a long time, your teams will have to pass through Tuckman’s stages before they evolve into a Performing team.

The best time to introduce the Five Dysfunctions of a Team to your group is probably during the Forming stage.  At this time, they are still relying on leadership to show them (tell them) how to proceed.  Having a frank discussion about laying a firm foundation of Trust is vital.  Remember that this trust is not just between the members of the team, but between the team and management, or the team and marketing as well.  In the forming stage, your individuals are learning how to become a team.  They are learning new communication and collaboration skills that are probably foreign to them.  They are learning how to hold each other accountable, and learning that illusions of invulnerability are destructive to team formation.  Remember the first time you learned to ride a bicycle?  Your parent took the training wheels off, and ran along behind you, holding the bicycle up while you learned to balance the bike on your own?  Your skills were Forming, and without their help, you instantly fell over.  Welcome to Forming!  An important thing to remember here is that your parent’s goal was to have you go out and ride a two-wheel bike safely.  They had no desire to run along beside you, holding you up for the rest of your life.

If your team is Storming, don’t expect them to thank you for telling them about Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions.  They will view the dysfunctions as accusations, and seek to distance themselves from them.  I have a team right now that is most definitely in the Storming stage.  The newest team acquisition, who sat in the corner, away from the table, and behind another team member lobbed in this salvo:  “Oh great.  You’ve showed us a triangle.  We’re a team now.”

Agile Coaches take note:  It is in dealing with the storms that you demonstrate your value and earn your pay.

On the other hand, a team that is Norming, is already at a stage of acceptance with one another that they will take the information as a suggestion to help improve the results of their work.  If I wasn’t certain my second team had entered the Norming stage, all doubt was removed when the reaction to the dysfunctions was, “I can see how that could apply to us.  Let’s try working on how we challenge each other in the coming sprint, and see if that changes anything.”

I love it when a plan comes together.

Author: Michael Marchi

Michael Marchi CSM, CSPO, SA4 Co-Founder and Board Member @ APLN Chicago ( Manager, Management Consulting / Chicago Agile Practice Lead / Agile Coach & Trainer @ Strive Consulting (