Lean Thinking

14 November 2017

Are Hyperproductive Teams Real?

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We have all heard the story of the hyperproductive team. That beautiful creation that is 400% more effective that regular teams. The team that never stops getting better. But how many of us have actually seen such a thing in the flesh? I have been lucky enough to see one or two but most teams never reach those lofty heights. Why? Is it because we have the wrong people? Not smart enough? Not talented enough? Not committed enough? I don't think so. I have seen very talented teams struggle while teams that had much less raw talent went on to do great things. Although talent helps, there is no guarantee that a talented team will become hyperproductive and a less talented team will not.

Is it the methodology they use? Is scrum the recipe for hyperproductive teams? Is it Kanban? Crystal? SAFe? Less? Again, none of these things seem to matter. I have seen teams struggle and succeed with all methodologies. So what is it then that allows some teams to become hyperproductive? In my experience, there is one thing that allowed my hyperproductive teams to become hyperproductive - they are parts of hyperproductive organisations. The hyperproductive team is a myth.

That's not to say that there are no teams that are hyperproductive. There are. But all those teams have one thing in common- they are embedded within an organisation that allows them to be hyperproductive. There is no such thing as a hyperproductive team in isolation. It must be part of a hyperproductive ecosystem. If the ecosystem does not allow hyperproductivity, then the team will never become hyperproductive.

We, as agile practitioners, tend to focus a lot on the team level, and we sell hyperproductivity as one of the benefits of agility - "implement scrum and see a 400% increase in productivity from your hyperproductive teams". But if we focus on teams alone, we are selling a myth. We cannot generate hyperproductivity by looking only at teams. We must focus on the ecosystem.

If you look at the traditional organisational ecosystem that surrounds our agile teams, it is generally not an environment that enables much productivity at all, let alone hyperproductivity. We may have a product owner but they aren't empowered to make decisions, they need to refer to steering committees, so decisions are slow, painful and have a tendency to change.

Priorities are unclear so the team's backlog changes unpredictably and work is prioritised based on who yells loudest rather than on maximising business value.

People are treated as resources and shuffled constantly between projects so teams aren't stable. "What do you mean you don't have a stable team? At all times you had 4 developer resources working on your team"... The fact that those developers were different people every few days isn't seen as a problem.

The team works in 2 weeks sprints but the rest of the business thinks in projects and insists on scope definition up front so all we do is deliver a waterfall project in 2 week blocks with no ability to adapt the scope if anything changes.

External dependencies are common and involve waiting for other teams to complete work in a waterfall way with detailed scope definition up front and a long day SLA to get things done so our efficient team is constantly held up waiting for inefficient teams to do things.

Even worse, any small improvement in productivity that results from agile practice especially, is used to deliver more features rather than being reinvested into more improvement, leading to a downward rather than upwards spiral of productivity (The Improvement Paradox).

No team can be hyperproductive in an environment like that. And even if they could, I wouldn't want them to be, because the chances are, they would be fantastically efficient at producing the wrong things.

So what do we need to enable hyperproductivity? We know the answers. We need teams with the ability to make real decisions locally (Teams, Vision & and Values). We need clear strategic priorities tied to real business outcomes rather than a focus on short term project outputs (The Problem With Projects). We need teams empowered to work out the best way to achieve business outcomes rather than having a solution forced on them. We need organisations that value learning and invest time in improving the system. We need a funding model based on investment in capability rather than minimising the cost of projects (Investment Not Cost). We need organisational structures and leaders that empower and support people rather than controlling them (Leadership For Agility). We need organisations structured around the delivery of business value rather than narrow technical silos. Most of all we need organisations to really commit to this and to make change organisation wide rather than just a few teams.

We know what we need.We have known what we need for a long time. There are blogs (not just this one), books and conferences dedicated to this. But how often can we actually influence organisations to do any of this?

How often have we actually seen an organisation wide transformation? We have seen plenty of things that were called organisational transformations, but how many of these resulted in real, sustainable, positive change? And how many resulted in a few dispirited agile teams struggling to survive in a hostile ecosystem?

The hyperproductive team is a myth. To become hyperproductive requires an organisational, not a team, transformation. But is the organisational transformation a myth as well? More on that next time.

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