How to Lead Your Team Through “Storming”

Modern development is predicated on strong teamwork, but too many teams get stuck in the “Storming” stage.

The Agile mindset provides an interesting reason while teams are so useful: it’s because human beings make mistakes. Hence the belief that collaboration in self-organizing teams mitigates the risk of employing humans better than managing them.

However, before a team actually starts acting like a team, they’ll be “storming,” which, in technology teams, may take months. That time is characterized by members mostly looking after their own interests, working on “their own” tasks, tiptoeing around others, experiencing unhealthy conflict, and occasionally disengaging. In this stage, their productivity is likely less than the sum of individual outputs. Graduating out of it is not guaranteed, and many teams get stuck in it.

To move out of “Storming,” teams need good leadership, and it doesn’t have to come solely from the designated leader (e.g., Scrum Master or manager). If you’re their delivery lead, product owner, or even sponsor, your actions may help or hinder their successful evolution. Here are three strategies and some of my favorite techniques to help teams graduate from “Storming.”

1. Plain old team building

At the very least, each team member needs to make the individual decision that they’re willing to tie their fate with their colleagues. Several team building techniques help here, starting with the most basic human connector — eating together. In an Agile setting, I also like the following:

  • Facilitate team meetings. Even collaborative, self-organizing teams might need help with their decision-making. Facilitation provides process and structure; it increases participation, clarity, and the value of communication.
  • Lead an Appreciations activity. At the end of retrospectives, people appreciate colleagues for impactful actions they took during the iteration. This five-minute exercise — basically a public “thank you” — helps teammates feel recognized and important.
  • Plan for quick wins. Organize the first few iterations around meaningful deliverables they are likely to produce successfully. That gives evidence of accomplishing goals together.
  • Get good at delivery. Since teams exist to deliver results, the easier and better delivery gets the more motivated members will be to stick together and succeed together.

2. Manage the organization

Even though a team is self-contained, it doesn’t operate in a vacuum. There’s an entire organization around it. The organization’s bigger goals and management system may draw team members’ allegiance and focus away from their team and shared objectives. If this happens, they’ll never leave “Storming” and their deliverables will suffer. Two techniques I like best here are:

  • Reach out to stakeholders proactively. Keep everyone in the loop and feeling their concerns and needs are taken seriously. Don’t wait for anyone to get mad or feel ignored.
  • Stop the back-channels. Route every request through the backlog so no team member gets “shoulder-tapped” to do skunkworks or the bidding of certain stakeholders.

3. Help everyone deal with the experience of change

The journey from “Forming” through “Storming” to “Norming” is an experience of change. A team working in an Agile way experiences another form of change through its “inspect and adapt” cycles. If they’re also transitioning to Agile from some other method, that’s a third change. Along the way, the team will not only experience reduced productivity; there will be chaos, self-doubt, coping, and other human responses. Help every member work their way through these at their own pace. Two brilliant models for people’s response to perceived challenges are the Satir Change Model and the Responsibility Process.

The way I look at it, leading a team to greatness is the prime responsibility of an Agile leader. The time of greatest need for the leader’s support and service is during the team’s storming. Common to all these strategies and techniques in an assumption of availability: leadership is not an activity you can schedule. You need to be around for your team’s successful evolution.


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