How to avoid teams becoming dysfunctional

Why do teams become dysfunctional? This was a question that I asked myself when I saw an amazingly high-performance team disintegrate to the point where I perceived them as dysfunctional.

While I was thinking over the question, I came across a lovely quote from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I think this is also true of agile teams / squads as well. All happy teams are happy alike. All happy teams have:

  • Good communication: Each team member has a voice in the team, and it is listened to.
  • Empowered: Each and every member of the team feels empowered to make changes
  • Good conflict: The team feels comfortable in airing and debating different opinions. The team can come to a decision easily after a debate.
  • Clear vision. The team shares and agrees on a vision.They all know where they are heading, and they all work in the same direction to achieve it.
  • They feel accountable for their decisions and the output of their team.

But when teams become dysfunctional they become dysfunctional in completely different ways. All unhappy teams are unhappy in different ways. There is no one reason why teams become dysfunctional.

So to prevent teams from becoming dysfunctional, we need to be aware of how teams are operating. This can be done by using leading indicators, and use these indicators to see if a team is at risk.

How can we do this? I will detail two methods:

  • Retrospectives
  • Team health metrics

These should be used in combination with each other.


If a team is at a good performance, we can assume they are running good, useful retrospectives. They have the autonomy and mastery to fix issues that come from the retrospective.

What if there is something they cannot fix? What if there is something outside their control?

Examples of these issues are:

  • Teams do not control their test environment and there are (constant) issues with testing
  • The team does not have all the skills and people they need to complete their vision, and they do not have the autonomy or budget to hire them
  • The team itself is changing, and this is causing issues – (I will write a blog post to provide more detail on this)

Consequently, there needs to be clear communication about issues that are blocking and impeding a team that the team itself does not have the autonomy or mastery to fix.

In my view, this communication should be to the senior leadership. It should be collated with actions from other teams so the leadership can then view, discuss and set out actions to help the teams. For example, if there are issues with the test environments for all teams – is an initiative needed to fix them with the full backing from the leadership.

Therefore, one of the critically important roles for leadership is to investigate and solve issues that are out of the teams control to solve, and are blocking and impeding the teams.

The teams need to be able to identify and report these issues upwards. If a team is not sure what is in their control, a useful exercise is the circles of influence. The circles of influence are used by a team to identify what is in their control to change, what they can influence, and what is out of their control. Faciliation__retrospective_and_game_templates_-_Google_Drive.png

Here is a simple word document for you to print out (I made this a printed out an A0 version that I re-use).

There also needs to be a quick, light weight and easy mechanism in place for the leadership to look though these teams issues and to make appropriate actions. Finally, the actions and the reasons why these actions were chosen need to be reported back to the teams.

The feedback back to the teams is important. All businesses have limited resource so depending on how many issues they are, the leadership needs to triage and prioritise. It means they have to choose what will not be done or delayed, as well as what will be done. The reasons behind these decisions need to be clearly communicated to the teams so they can understand the reasons why.

By leadership taking clear actions and monitoring they can help fix issues that, if left unchecked, could lead to a team becoming dysfunctional.

Team Health Metrics

Another way of creating leading indicators is to create a series of metrics to identify the health of a team. For a company I have worked for, we decided to use the metrics based on how Spotify measures the health of its teams. We found the metrics were very good for identifying issues within teams, therefore allowing us to help fix the issues, especially at the start of an agile transformation.

The metrics allow for leadership to view how well teams are working. If a team’s health starts to reduce the leadership can help support the team in whatever way is needed. They do this to try and stop the health of the team reducing further, and to reduce the risk of the team becoming dysfunctional.

At a certain point for this company, the metrics reached and remained green. After a while, we decided to replace them with KPIs that the teams themselves created. The idea behind this was that each team had its own challenges, and it would be best to get each team to create their own metrics based on these challenges.

Although the thinking behind this was good, and it was useful for the teams, in hindsight I think it was a mistake. When we stopped measuring the normal health metric of the teams, we made an assumption that the metrics would always stay green. Of course we were wrong. We were merely going through a very good patch. However, when we went through a bad patch, it meant we were not able to accurately see how healthy the teams were and how they were being impacted until it was too late.

Going forward into this year I hope to try out a mixture of health metrics and team related KPIs to see whether this provides the best information.

In conclusion

The only way we can try and prevent happy teams from becoming unhappy is to ensure teams feedback on their health, and on issues that are beyond the team’s ability to solve. Leadership must take an important role in triaging and taking action on these issues and the team’s health while there is still time to stop a team from becoming dysfunctional.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s