Despite our best intentions and desires to have stable teams, to see them have the time to reach highly performing states and fulfill their potential, the reality is that the world around teams is constantly changing. Companies grow and shrink, people move on for personal reasons, there are new market opportunities, technology moves on… the factors that cause team change are numerous.
Throughout my career in the Agile space, I have generally fought such change, pushing back and putting up resistance to anything that may disrupt the team dynamic built up in the teams that I have worked with. Then, in late 2018, a development team member at the company that I was working with at the time pointed me towards a blog that challenged this thinking. The blog’s subject was “Dynamic Reteaming”. Fate intervened again when, by happenstance, the author of the blog, Heidi Helfand, was a fellow speaker at London Lean Kanban Days 2019. After attending Heidi’s talk, I wanted to learn more and later in the year, I contacted Heidi for a chat.
Dynamic Reteaming is the title of Heidi’s new book and the term that she uses to describe a team changing in some way. The book is based on Heidi’s work interviewing people from all around the world on organisational structure and change. Heidi told me how she saw that team change happens all of the time, and that change is inevitable, especially as companies grow. And with this being the case, we better get good at dealing with it.
Through her research, Heidi saw a number of patterns of team change emerge. She defines the five main patterns as follows;
- The one-by-one pattern. This is simply where an individual leaves a team, or someone new joins. It might just be one change, but the team system is still going to be different to what there was before. Better on-boarding of new people for example is one way to minimise the impact. Changes like these happen all the time, but if these changes happen at a faster rate it becomes more challenging and disruptive.
- Grow and Split. Another common pattern where, as companies scale or grow, more people join and teams inevitably get bigger to the point where it makes sense for the team to split. This can also occur at department, division or even at company level. This can be traumatic for some when a team that an individual has been part of and are established in changes completely.
- Merging. Merging is the pattern that is the opposite of the Grow and Split pattern, where separate teams come together to form one larger team.
- Isolation. This pattern appears when there is a special side project, or a piece of work that a team is formed around. It could be triggered by an emergency within the company such as a poorly performing application. Or the team may be formed due to a new opportunity; the organisation needs to respond quickly to take advantage of it and they form a new team outside of normal organisational processes in order to act.
- Switching. This last pattern is where people move team as they are in need of change. It could be because they themselves want a new experience, to work on something different or with different people. This pattern is all about learning and growth. From an organisation point of view, this change could be triggered through a strategic decision to spread knowledge, to de-risk if key people should leave the company for example.
In early drafts of the book, Heidi had recognised a greater number of patterns, but as she did more research and spoke to more people, she moulded and distilled what she was seeing into the set of five patterns above.
Heidi told me that being aware of the different types of change, in combination with understanding the scale of change allows us to create strategies for dealing with it. This includes looking at what problem you are trying to solve, how many people does the change involve, how does the current state compare to the desired future state, what the time lines are, if it means dealing with physical change of locations, looking at what other options have been considered, and what the communication plan is.
There is of course great complexity in organisations, and change can apply at different levels; from individuals to team, department, organisational or even to an entire industry. Depending on the context, the level of change may feel more dynamic or less dynamic. In some environments change may happen organically, while in others change may be due to stagnation and it may be something that is planned through a reorganisation or a change of working practices for example.
To help to manage the different types of reteaming, Heidi created a “reteaming canvas”. This is a tool for those involved in the change to come together and really think through the different aspects of the change.
How change is handled varies on the context, but for Heidi, it should be done with a purpose and is about the growth of the company; if a team or an organisation is doing well, then that is great; there is no need to reteam she says. Heidi told me that she has never been involved in a deliberate Agile transformation. The companies that she has mainly been involved with are smaller startups that have “grown up” Agile, and the goal has always been growth. For example, Heidi told me that her present company has more than doubled in size over the last two years, adding more than 1000 people in that time.
Though we talked about how a company’s goal is to grow and how this causes change, reteaming also happens when companies struggle and need to make redundancies. Heidi also pointed out that changes may need to be catalysed when teams or companies reach “stagnation”, and she suggests this as a stage missing from the Tuckman model.
Central to any change is the people element. Some people are open to change and want more of it, others are less comfortable with it and prefer stability, feeling uncomfortable even if the change is due to positive growth. Whatever the cause, Heidi acknowledged to me that Agile helps to humanise the workplace, especially one going through a lot of change. As she explained to me, Dynamic Reteaming is not always about change due to people’s own choices. Companies restructure, they get acquired by others, and sometimes they shrink or go out of business completely.
This is where change management techniques are important in order to reduce resistance and to make people feel part of the change. The more people are included, Heidi tells me, the better chance of success. This can be through discussion at Retrospectives and using techniques such as team health checks like those used at Spotify, and employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) surveys to gauge the state of people, teams and organisations.
Heidi’s book has many stories and examples of ways to bring people together, make them part of the discussion and part of the change. She told me that her goal is to provide inspiration; to share different contexts and real-world stories that will be relatable to many, to show anti-patterns, what not to do, and to provide tactics for getting better at dealing with change. I wish her luck on this mission!
Many thanks to Heidi for her many insights and for taking the time to talk to me.