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To understand Psychological Safety, you need to understand what a team is. Even here Wikipedia is to our support:

“A team is a group of individuals (human or non-human) working together to achieve their goal.”

For me the word team is much more. It is not the same as the team we often talk about in software development, often being just a bunch of people like a crowd in an elevator. For us true team players who have experienced the army service (men/women), played in a band and/or some kind of team sports, team is common sense, but few have actually been a part of it (in my definition) today. I am convinced that we lack teams in software development because there aren’t enough team players around! Software development has hijacked and unfortunately devalued the word so the definition of a team player is if you have a desk close to another team player or the same email suffix. In my book, to become a team player, you need to have been part of a team. A catch 22 obviously, but for us with the above backgrounds we have it in our DNA and can guide you. So how do we become a team? Stefan Lindbohm and Victor Cessan has written a great blog post[1] about pseudo teams and other types of teams. For them a team has two basic heuristics, the need for each other and a shared goal. To me it’s not that simple, but a great starting point.

Below my mindmap for a REAL TEAM. You can find it here.

My definition goes beyond this, and I call it a REAL TEAM (in capitals).

” A REAL TEAM is a small, empowered, and stable group of committed and competent people, working together aligned with their organisation in a safe environment towards mutual goals, to satisfy our customers and stakeholders while growing our team and product/service.”

/Ove Holmberg

You should be able to evaluate this against your football team, your choir, your software team, or your family and use it as a starting point for your mission statement. To approach this REAL TEAM thing, you need to change your mindset and understand that team is a noun and REAL TEAM is an adjective. It will take time to get there, and you need to manage expectations accordingly. Despite what your Agile gurus say, it will take time to “become Agile”. But not as long as some say – as long as our company has been in business.

I wrote my definition of a REAL TEAM 2017 as a reaction to the inflation in that every constellation of people with more than two persons, was a team as long as they had a goal. Coming from the sports- and the army world like I do, I thought it was time to straighten things up, at least on my watch. But time went by, and I started to doubt myself. Corona especially has changed the team topologies and my definition has turned into a vision more than a realistic goal. Here are my doubts.

  • Small – We create teams with as many people as managers can have performance reviews with. Often 20 or more. 5 (+/- 2) is the size of a REAL TEAM.
  • Empowered – People should not ‘be given power’, it is already there but needs to be invited, reminded, and requested in the beginning of each meeting to be put into active use.
  • Stable – People come and go more today. Companies are struggling to maintain their skills, but dynamic reteaming has now become the norm. One team in this respect are the Rolling Stones but perhaps the last one. The REAL TEAM is the mothership for learning, innovation, and fun, not only delivery.
  • Committed – You are more committed to your salary than the company’s unknown vision. Be honest, with a good salary you can work for any doubtful company, even in the gaming business. Your annual personal performance report is more important than the team effort. You are committed to your salary.
  • Competent – Cross-functional team – no way! We are all experts in our fields and to learn from and support my teammates has become secondary. I stick to my unique knowledge and don’t share it in order not to become disposable.
  • Aligned – Outclassed by autonomy in the absurd. Teams do what they like as there are no boundaries or playbooks to support, resulting in a non-maintainable stack of tools and skills. Few ‘teams’ I have met know their mission; they just work.
  • Safe – Safe is a buzzword you can write books about, but it is just a word when the meeting is over.
  • Together – Ended by offshoring ten years ago and what was left was fixed by Corona. The share value of 3M, more known as the manufacturer of great post-Its, has been reduced by 50% during the last two years. Will we ever have a real workshop again?
  • Goals – The goals of our teams are rarely measured and therefore become empty words. If we measure and find our trend is negative, we get punished so better just have fluffy and subjective goals?
  • Satisfying – We settle for more too often and rather overwork until we are satisfied without respect for the customer’s urgent needs. Stop starting – start finishing!
  • Growing – There is no time for internal growth (improvement and learning), we have to deliver and fix the bugs (external growth). Our process- and technical debt is growing constantly, but as we don’t measure these debts, we don’t know anything about the actual score.

According to the psychological researcher Bruce Tuckman[2] every team has a history starting with the forming phase where you clarify the goals and the roles, being polite to each other. Then comes the storming phase where you challenge each other and your respective way of working. This can be hard if Psychological Safety is not around, so feedback can be taken as aggressive actions and bad team spirit can grow and not disappear until the people have left the team. In the next phase, the norming phase, we have found our roles and get trust to get our job done and at last we are in the performing phase where we work with ultimate speed and quality. The problem here is that this process takes at least a year and meanwhile people come and go, throwing us one step back all the time. But Psychological Safety must always be there, regardless of phase, so make sure it is discussed and emphasized already in the forming phase and implemented verbally and visibly latest in the storming phase.

With my definition of a REAL TEAM, I want to make clear that a bunch of people is not the same as a team if they don’t have some of my characteristics. When you continue reading you should know that I refer to Psychological Safety as an enabler in the context of a REAL TEAM, and not in other forums or organisation types, regardless of my dystopia. And if you thought Psychological Safety should be easy, keep reading and find out why not!

This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.

[1] Team types:

[2] Forming, Storming, Norming Performing:’s_stages_of_group_development

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