Operational Excellence

What are the key ingredients for making great teams?

3-minute masterclass

Spring is traditionally a time for renewal and reflection. For me it was a time where I wanted to tackle the question of what makes great teams. What are the key ingredients that lead to successful teams? So, what better way than to reach out to ex-colleagues and ask them for their own reflections. Here is the collection from our retrospective that covers the collective voice from those I have been fortunate enough to work alongside in past assignments and including insights from the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Belgium and UK. For each key ingredient I wanted to also share my personal thoughts.

But first let me set the scene

Many organisations working in Agile transformation are too focused on getting everyone to follow the process, looking at reports on metrics of who has completed the training, are they doing the daily stand up, did they ‘abide’ by the correct timing etc. Focussing solely on the process is not the best approach.

A more holistic approach that some organisations take before they even embark on their transformation is to undertake a retrospective of where their people are at. This to take an unbiased read on the ‘team spirit’ of an organisation. Are they happy with the environment, can you see high energy, support, collaboration? These organisations monitor the environment and keep a health check on their people and teams.


‘as a leader you are only as good as your team.’ I fully believe that the greatest gift a leader can do is to let all the superpowers of the individuals in their team flourish and allow the whole person to bring themselves to work, without needing to wear a mask or conform to any set behaviours.


For many leaders this is a quantum shift. They have worked hard to climb the ladder to get to a leadership position and then the Agile Transformation is looming. Suddenly they are informed by an Agile coach that to be successful in the new paradigm they need to be a ‘Servant – Leader’. It is definitely a shock to the system and requires a mature shift in mindset. The start of your journey is to have empathy with your team so that they can sky rocket.

The power of communication

‘Communication is where teams come unstuck.’ In Agile ceremonies there is a lot of opportunity for communication. But just because there is a ceremony does not mean that everyone in the team will share their true voice where they are comfortable and supported to do so. Have your teams created their Designed Team Alliance (DTA) to define and agree the atmosphere they all want to work in and most importantly how they want to be with each other when things get difficult? These living agreements must be visible to the team on a wall and change over time.

A pilot that fails forces you to continually learn and adapt until you get success with that team / product.

Fall, learn and get back up

‘An environment where teams can fail, learn and rise’. What springs to mind is a conversation I had with a Transformation Lead discussing the pilots completed in his Agile transformation. When I asked ”Have any of your pilots failed?”. He was very happy to say ‘No, they all went great and we subsequently rolled out the same process in waves across the organisation’. He was surprised several months later when things hadn’t gone to plan. My point is that wouldn’t it have been a richer learning experience had one of the pilots failed? Most pilots are set up for success, so what are you actually testing? A pilot that fails forces you to continually learn and adapt until you get success with that team / product.

Keep an eye out for toxicity

‘Need to collaborate and have each other’s back no matter what’. I really like this one! I have witnessed teams that evidently suffer from the toxic behaviours of the Four Horseman, as brilliantly articulated by Dr John Gottman (Blaming, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling). Once you understand that lens you can see clearly what is happening. I was with an Agile coach. We had just attended a meeting of a Tribe and its squads. After the meeting the Agile coach asked me my opinion of what I had observed. I spoke about the toxic behaviours that I had so readily witnessed, that the environment was having a negative effect on working conditions and delivery. He hadn’t seen any of it, he was already a part of the system and had accepted the behaviours. So another key ingredient is the education of teams to identify toxic behaviours and the antidotes to overcome them.

Success calls for a celebration!

And finally, ‘Celebrate success’: Love, love this one. Interesting that when your child gets a prize for any sporting or academic achievement there is a lot of praise and recognition, maybe even a family dinner out to their favourite spot. Do you do the same with your team? One team I visited regularly celebrated their achievements. They had a visible achievement box, where they filled the box with their ‘Done’ user stories Post-It notes. When their achievements reached a certain level they had lunch together in the cafeteria, a higher level was going out for drinks after work and when the box was full they all attended a special event. Then they emptied the box and started again with the next set of chosen activities.

My 3 mins are up… some of the other great retrospective ideas contributed by some of my former colleagues included:

  • Vision and purpose: connection with the ‘why’
  • Reward and recognition
  • Understanding each other’s strengths and ways of working
  • Diversity
  • Trust and empowerment

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