Why aren’t my teams the best?


I have worked with many organisations, both large and small, in house and as an external consultant, and one question that is common is, “What was the best delivery you have seen?”, usually with the hope of emulating it.

Identifying examples of good delivery is relatively easy as long as you have sufficient experience. Eventually you’ll stumble on something good, you may even have had the knowledge, skill and luck to have enabled that “something good” to have occurred. What is much much harder is to find the common thread in them, what made them good? Or maybe the question should be what made the others less good?


The “best” teams in my experience used Scrum for the most part, so it would be tempting to say that because they used Scrum they became a good team. Personally I do not think this to be the case. I believe that they had some characteristics already which enabled Scrum to be effective. The Scrum framework and its underlying Agile principles would likely positively reinforce those characteristics, but the effective use of Scrum is a consequence not a driver in my opinion.

This also gives a counter corollary that if those characteristics are not present, then a team will struggle with Scrum, it will be seen as “A poor fit”; “Doesn’t work here” will be a common opinion.

The existence of these underlying characteristics can be considered to be assumptions that we make when looking at undertaking an Agile transformation. I don’t believe these are sufficiently understood or validated before people start talking about manifestos and associated principles and frameworks.

I would summarise these assumptions as the following:

  • Our people work in teams
  • Our leadership set an example
  • Everyone is engaged to a common purpose



I have not encountered an organisation that would say they don’t deliver in teams, but often their definition of team doesn’t align to mine. A group of people under a common line manager does not constitute a team. Tom Loosemore, from GDS, I believe captured the essence in saying, “the unit of delivery is the team”. Simply a team is a group of people that have a common sense of success and failure; the success of one is defined by the success of all. If you operate in this manner then other characteristics such as collaboration will be a natural consequence.  For a team to identify with collective success they need a common purpose. If different team members are pursuing different goals then you will have a situation where some team members can feel they have achieved and others haven’t; at this point the team fractures, it is not really in their best interest to support each other. You can see how Scrum will grate on this type of delivery; there is little benefit one team member sharing what they did yesterday and will do today, if their peers do not have vested interest in that delivery.

Ideally teams will be cross functional, that is to say that they have all the skills needed to provide value within them. When some skills needed are outside the team, either you’ll build up dependencies to these external teams with the finger pointing that comes with it, or the team will look to do their best in that area with the skills they have; thereby bypassing the external team as much as possible, creating poorly used ivory towers of siloed skills.

We need to provide purpose,  and reward and recognise delivery at the team, rather than the individual level, if we want more than groups of people with a common line manager.



What we want from our leaders is for them to set a direction, a vision, and series of goals and then enable everyone to be able to do their best, be their best to achieve it. When you hear tales of heroism in the military they are often justified with the phrase “they would do the same for me”. That is exposing the presence of real servant leadership, where the leaders primary concern is to bring out the best in their people and demonstrate the practices and behaviours that we should all adhere to. Our leaders shape the culture which defines the organisation. If we are looking for Agile principles to be adopted by our delivery teams they must first be adopted by our leaders, so the culture can be seen to be aligned. We can’t expect team COLLABORATION over team CONTRACTS if leadership are holding the delivery to a fixed time + scope contract. If we are looking to reduce work in progress at a team level, we must first look to reduce work in progress at a leadership level. As an example; I attended a presentation on an Agile Transformation within a UK high street bank at a MeetUp, this was floundering with a lot of process change but little benefit until they managed to show an Agile approach was being used at the board level to manage priorities and show transparency of effort, from that point on it became the path of least resistance (not no resistance mind).

We need to to be transparent about our Agile adoption at the highest levels of our organisation if we want the culture to align



I have left this one till the end because it is the most powerful and the single biggest factor in my opinion between a successful team and one that isn’t. There was a Carnegie Institute of Technology study of successful people that gave the results that: success was 85% attitude and only 15% talent. The best team I have ever worked with wasn’t the smartest or most experienced, it was the one than cared the most.

I worked in a reasonably large multi team delivery some years back and one of the common complaints was “They don’t see the big picture”. I didn’t really understand this at the time, there was a lot of effort to explain the wider operation of the organisation and this project within it – with little result. I now understand the real issue was, “the teams delivering the system don’t seem to care as much about it as I do”.

In EVERY large multi team delivery system I have seen, this is a problem. Those systems are usually made of interdependent component teams where the concept of value is split across multiple teams. Here you have a separation of VALUE and DELIVERY. Many teams do not have the benefit of a personification of purpose within them. Their purpose is expressed as a contribution towards a goal owned somewhere else, by someone else, to be delivered at some point in the future. In this scenario is it very easy for heads to drop and a pervasive enterprise apathy creep in. At the heart of Agile, and facilitated by Scrum, is the concept of empirical improvement, if perpetual mediocrity is permissible then why go to the efforts of improvement?

Fundamentally Scrum works when you have something to deliver, if the consequences of lack of delivery are not felt personally and emotionally by the team, then the efforts required in Scrum will be resisted because the benefits aren’t really valuable – nobody really cares enough. Management may counter this by saying that they have been provided deadlines – but so are students for their end of term essays, which are typically started late and rushed, doing just what was needed, and this example matters a lot more than “someone else’s deadline.

One of the big differences between these large delivery systems and the smaller single team approach is how that Value or Purpose is personified. This is referred to as the Product Owner in Agile terminology –  someone who is emotionally, and ideally, physically present with a team through the delivery; not just at the start and the end.  They continually provide commitment for the team and are rewarded by commitment from the team. We may see the role in terms of their activities of requirements definition or prioritisation, but their greatest contribution is that they provide passion; they provide the team with drive – and simply – they often just aren’t there for each team in large delivery systems.

The problem is that drive is hard to measure and we naively assume that because the value can be articulated by a single person, then just one person is sufficient across the multiple teams involved to sustain the passion needed.

We need someone in each and every team who really cares about the outcome of the work if we want to sustain the maximum intensity in our delivery.


Comments are welcomed – even criticism. It is only through feedback that we learn.

Follow me at @philagiledesign






Can a Teal society ever survive?

Elven city

I recently attended an interesting talk on the nature of what it means to be a Teal organisation using the concepts from Frederic Laloux’s 2014 work “Reinventing Organizations”. If you aren’t familiar with the model then have a look at a good overview here The Future of Management is Teal.


I appreciate the premise that we can look to classify an organisation, or at least part of it at any moment in time, based on the levels of collaboration found within it. Classifying things is rewarding, we are not programmed to revel in chaos, small steps to push back against the entropy of the universe gives us a feeling of control. Simple classification however is a blunt and brutal tool and much of the conversation I listened to wisely warned against this. The world is not made up of purely Red, Orange or Brown companies with some Green ones looking enviously at the smug Teal one in the corner, it is much more nuanced than that, companies change and often demonstrate multiple behaviours within them at once.

There was an undercurrent in the talk that the progression through the colours to reach Teal was in someway more, “good”, representing a better citizen, and if we imagine a world where all companies were Teal then the world would be a better place – and it is hard to stand opposed to that. There were sensible points made that some functions within companies are well served by a more autocratic operation (distinctly not Teal), emergency triage, legal etc but it was clear that Teal is something to be aspired to. My point is that I am sufficiently pragmatic, grounded, realistic, cynical, bitter and twisted (depending on your perspective) to not believe that we will ever get there – and this is why:


There was one contributor that raised the concept that hierarchies will always exist, that really resonated with me. The response to this was that we should consider multiple hierarchies at once, varying by subject; so, I’d look to you in matters of finance and you’d look to me in matters of marketing. This inspires visions of a beautiful harmony of thoughts and decisions, swirling round an aspirational idea of mutual respect and oneness with others. It only takes a couple of steps for this organisational psychology to cross a line into spirituality and I think this is where I felt the conversation crossed an invisible line of pragmatism into ideology.

One of the other talks I attended made reference to the distinction between our primitive “Red” mind (cerebellum and limbic system), keeping us alive and giving emotion, and our thinking “Blue” mind (neocortex), giving us curiosity and reasoning. Our Red mind has been around for thousands of years whereas our Blue mind is a very recent development. I believe Teal organisations cater to our Blue mind, but what of our Red mind? The theory that gave this distinction also identified that the blue mind can only operate if the red mind is satisfied.

It is overly simplistic to see the world in terms of good and evil, but seeing as Laloux felt ok to categorise to make his point, for the purposes of making my point, I’ll carry on! In my experience people have immense capacity for goodness but equally the willfully destructive actions of some can have horrendous consequences on many. The more we ignore the opportunity for evil then the greater harm it can inflict, this is one reason we have a military even when at peace. The idea of a Teal state ignores the evil in us all, the desire for status, power and control. My concern is that the aspirational Teal state cannot be achieved because it requires a level of consistent goodness in us that we cannot sustain; there will always be at least one that succumbs to baser desires to the detriment of the society around them. This is not to mean that we should not aspire to this state, but not to be disheartened when we fail to achieve it, or sustain it.

In the image below I have crudely overlaid Laloux’s progress of organisations with humanity, where the lines cross represents the point beyond which the evil in society corrupts sufficiently as to prevent an ideal state. Clearly this is a graph without scale or metrics but I feel those lines cross well before we reach universal adoption of Teal behaviours.


Jessica Prentice’s excellent article, The most dangerous notion in “Reinventing Organizations” offers some solace. In it she reminds us that our culture has a depressing habit of after understanding something, believing we’ve invented it – the way that Christopher Columbus apparently discovered a new land, even though people had been living there for thousands of years already.

What she advocates is that societies long since crushed, using the example of Native American peoples, valued truthfulness, wisdom and community, and operated much closer to the Teal living organism paradigm than our capitalist societies of today. Therefore maybe it is something about our current society that enables the evil in us to run sufficiently wild as to prevent Teal being seen to be sustained. It is interesting to note that ideal state societies in literature such as the Elven kingdoms in Middle Earth or the Eloi in The Time Machine are very much more Teal than our current reality.

This isn’t to say it hasn’t been attempted, there have been multiple attempts to create a hierarchy-less collaborative “good” society. This has occurred in pockets, but small ones and usually not long lasting. A classic large-scale failure of this has to be the rise and fall of Communism in the twentieth century. The premise of the society is laudable, equal and harmonious, everyone working for everyone in a self-sustaining utopia; but when you remove the protections we have against humanity’s darkest capabilities the more terrifying their imposition becomes when inevitably they surface.


So where does this desire for status and control come from, if we consider that earlier societies didn’t have it to the same extent. Peter Drucker is purported to have said “you manage what you measure”, what if we take that to a societal level? Our current capitalist society measures, and by consequence judges, based on power and wealth. In such a society can a Teal organisation ever survive and thrive? A Teal organisation is likely to generate much goodwill and collaborative behaviours because that is what they are looking to optimise; but when pitted against an Orange “Machine” type organisation, according to the wider society’s measures of power and money, they are likely to lose out.


In conclusion while I will proudly state that I believe Teal characteristics as desirable and will continue to reward and nurture them where I find them; I am accepting, with a heavy heart, that I am unlikely to ever see this become the norm until the society I am in replaces power and money with collective fulfilment, as its measure of success.


Comments welcome

Phil Thompson

follow me on Twitter at @PhilAgileDesign