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Smells like Team Spirit… or is it ‘poo-pourri’?

28 Aug 2017 |

Smells like Team Spirit… or is it ‘poo-pourri’?

Chardi Potgieter – Agile Consultant, IQ Business

By now, everyone knows how critical teamwork is, whether it is a school project, a sports team, or in a work environment – the way that a team communicates and how well team members collaborate can make or break their progress towards achieving their goals.

In 1965, Bruce Tuckman proposed the forming-storming-norming-performing model for group development, and although many people are familiar with the model, they do not realise that this is not a once-off occurrence upon the formation of a new team, at the start of a project. Every time a new team member joins, you have a new team; a team that will go through the entire forming-storming-norming-performing cycle again. This is one of the reasons why the “throw more people at the problem” approach is often the worst way to try to save a project that may be in trouble. Taken that from an Agile perspective we strive to enable high performing teams that collectively take ownership of their delivery, the above would be delivery sabotage.

High performing teams usually have some of the following characteristics in common:

  • Open and honest communication
  • Diversity
  • Clear goals
  • A sense of comradery and a positive team spirit
  • Mutual trust
  • Robust methods for resolving conflict
  • Shared leadership

I have been on teams where the focus has been so much on “team spirit” that all conflict and healthy challenges were shied away from to keep up the appearance of a happy team. From the outside they appeared to be a tightly-knit group, however, this was the ‘poo-pourri’ factor (toilet spray that locks in all the bad smells below the surface, and only ‘poo-pourri’ scents escape). Beneath the surface, they had people being passive aggressive; “going along with the flow”, even if they did not agree, simply to avoid conflict. They also did not have enough trust to admit when they were struggling and needed help for fear of judgment, or bad performance reviews.

In order to address these issues, we had to change the way the organisation measured performance, so that focus was not only on individual performance but also on the team as a whole. We then empowered the members of the team to make decisions regarding the members of the team, their development, and learning, as well as their responsibilities on the project.

We discussed the value of conflict with the team and we crafted a conflict resolution agreement. This would allow the team to resolve conflict before reaching a potentially unhealthy or harmful situation.

Fear of conflict and absence of trust are two of the dysfunctions mentioned in the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni. The remaining three are:

  • Inattention to results
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Lack of commitment


High performing teams do not just arrive by special delivery. For a team to truly become a high performing team, we need to provide them with the correct environment. We need to support and empower them and actively guard against creating an opportunity for a dysfunction to enter the team dynamics; delaying the path to high performance. Building a well-gelled, well-functioning team requires time, constant hard work on the part of the team, and a stable arrangement regarding the team make-up. Additionally, it is crucial that the organisation supports the team’s journey towards achieving this.

When you’re tempted to add more people to a team to make them go faster, please think again! Do you have the time to go through forming-storming-norming-performing again?