Project management & leadership | June 2, 2022

Project team building – practical tips for Scrum teams

As a project manager, team leader or senior management member, you surely face the challenge of team bonding, and so you ask yourself the following question: how do I create a well-functioning Scrum project team? The key to avoiding the breakup of a team and achieving the overall project objectives with your team is to build trust within the entire group. In the article, you’ll find some practical tips on how to do it!

   
building project teams

Teamwork allows us to achieve more

When on holiday, we often go sightseeing to castles, palaces, cathedrals, and mosques, admiring the craft or flair with which they were built. The guide tells us stories about the architects and founders of these buildings – visionaries who wanted to leave a heritage site that will last for hundreds or even thousands of years. When looking at these buildings, let’s remember that without numerous builders, bold visions and ideas would remain at the project design stage and would never be made reality. If it hadn’t been for people with the right skills and knowledge, it would not have been possible to build the Sagrada Familia or Machu Picchu.

Coming together around specific goals has been the foundation of every civilization. In the distant past, people noticed that teamwork facilitates complex activities. Team members had defined roles to play at each stage. It is no different today – in order to complete a specific project in an agile way, teams of specialists are created with a common goal: to complete the project, and in so doing, meet the business needs.

Project team members in Scrum 

According to the Scrum Guide, the basic element of Scrum is a small team consisting of one Scrum Master, one Product Owner and developers. Importantly, there are neither subgroups nor hierarchies in Scrum Teams. This does not mean, however, that there are no leaders or specialists / experts in a given area. I will discuss this matter in more detail later.

kanban

In Scrum, as in a construction team, individual members have different skills, which allows them to achieve the goal together. In Scrum, an application is developed iteratively and incrementally, in the same way as a house is built.

Unfortunately, in practice, it often turns out that despite simple assumptions the developed application is not functional (just like a house is not ready for the owners to move in). Below I point out the requirements that, in my view, should be met in order to build project teams that will successfully implement the project. 

A small project team = a synergy effect

A Scrum Team should be big enough so that its members have sufficient knowledge and the right skills, but should not exceed 10 people. It is worth noting that the “small size of the team” is applicable not only to Scrum Teams, but to all teams which we are part of. Anyone who has ever organized a meeting for more than 10 people would agree with me. Endless discussions, disagreements and problems reaching a consensus or coming to specific conclusions are common issues in large teams. Interestingly, there are usually only a few active members, while the majority sit there passively. 

Scaling project teams – is it always a good idea? 

When faced with a rapidly approaching deadline, you might be tempted to add a few people to the project to speed up the work of the entire team. But remember that “more” doesn’t necessarily mean “better” – a larger team may not be more efficient due to communication problems or management difficulties. 

Social loafing. What is it? How can we avoid it? 

Working in a group not only brings benefits, but also challenges and specific risks, one of which is social loafing (also called the “Ringelmann effect”). In social psychology, it is a situation in which the individual effort put into a group activity is lower compared to an activity performed when working on your own. 

Among the many factors affecting social loafing, one I can observe most often in projects is the size of the team. In large teams of 15 or 20 members, communication is less effective and it is easier to hide the lack of involvement of particular members and to monitor the actual progress. In small teams, however, developers can control each other’s work, as it affects their own tasks. In big teams, subgroups and knowledge silos are formed which the team might never be able to get away from as long as there are more than 10 people involved.

How to build trust among project team members?

Smaller teams can foster trust between team members. Reducing the size of the team, however, is not the only recipe for increasing trust. As the old saying goes – “trust takes years to build, and only minutes to destroy”.

We may refer to this expression in both our personal and professional life.   

Here is what fosters trust in a team:

  • openness to making mistakes and learning from them, 
  • the possibility of experimenting wisely,
  • truthfulness,  
  • mutual support. 

Trust in a team won’t just appear overnight. Building trust is a long and very demanding process. The organization’s culture, which should be actively promoted by the company, cannot be underestimated either. How many times have we heard about organizational values being promoted on social media, while in reality those companies have a culture of informing on others or being disrespectful? In such cases, even the best coaching sessions will not be enough to inspire trust, as employees will feel that words do not correspond with actions. 

trust in a team
trust in a team

Do we trust other team members, leaders and business partners?

It turns out that there are areas that organizations should work on. According to a 2016 report by the consulting company EY entitled “Global Generations 3.0. Workplace Confidence Survey”, fewer than half of full-time employees trust their employer, supervisor and colleagues.

Research from 2018 on a Polish sample paints an equally bleak picture. It turns out that “only slightly more than one-fifth of the respondents (22%) assume that most people can be trusted, while more than three-quarters (76%) adhere to the principle of far-reaching caution and suspicion in relations with others”. In business, 34% of respondents in a CBOS survey believe that trust in business partners usually pays off, while 37% say it usually ends badly.  

Building a project team – how can we select team members? 

I know companies that conduct expensive and quite stressful recruitment tests. I even participated in such a test myself once, and thanks to my education I knew exactly what results were expected from me. I would not like to be perceived as a critic of such tests. The personality test is valuable, for example, if you want to know the personality traits of individual team members, and then share the results. This is an exercise that can help us to realize we are different, with various preferences and communication styles. However, psychological tests cannot be the only factor in allowing us to determine whether someone fits into the team or not. We cannot forget about the team members themselves, who decide to accept a new person in the group on their own.  

Also read: Tester’s role in a Scrum Team

Why can’t we let the team members decide?

A Kanban Board in Action

If we are all different, and still need and want to cooperate with each other, why not delegate hiring decisions to developers? After all, they (not the recruitment department, or even the line manager) will work, talk, laugh or stress together with the new team members every day. It is the development team that knows best what skills they are looking for and what they expect and need at a specific stage of the project. 

It is not only about technical skills. Imagine a team consisting of quiet and cautious people, or the opposite – one in which everyone aspires to be a leader. Such teams will have huge difficulties in decision-making – the former will probably lack someone who is decisive and responsible for ideas, while the latter may constantly fight over whose idea should be implemented.

The team leader’s role in a project team

As I mentioned before, there are no hierarchies and subgroups in the Scrum approach. Everyone is equal and responsible for the work of the Scrum Team. This does not mean, however, that the Scrum approach is contrary to human nature, which naturally seeks leaders to emerge in teams and groups. 

It is typical, and desirable, that people with charisma and high skills became natural team leaders. Unlike managers, whose high position in the hierarchy most often results from a top-down decision, leaders emerge from the team with their acceptance and respect. 

I encountered a situation in which two leaders emerged in a small team. It was nice to observe them sharing responsibilities and knowing when they need to take the initiative and support others, but above all to see the level of mutual respect and acceptance they had for each other. 

“It is a leader’s job instead to take responsibility for the success of each member of his crew.”

 Simon Sinek, ‘Leaders Eat Last’ 

How to ensure communication between team members 

The pandemic has changed our habits and the very concept of work. In many industries, remote work has become standard, even though it was previously out of the question. In IT, many teams worked in a distributed model before 2020, so it would seem that we are used to it. It is difficult for me to decide whether remote work has had a positive impact on efficiency. There are probably people who prefer to work at the office with their colleagues, and those who would rather hide in their room and focus on the task entrusted to them without distractions. 

Without deciding whether distributed work is advantageous or not, we face a real challenge: how can we ensure good communication between team members, if everyone works remotely and can communicate only via online chat? 

Use technology to stay in touch with your team

It may be worth utilizing a Daily Scrum, which takes place every day at the same time. What prevents us from connecting 10 minutes earlier and talking about the weekend or our plans for dinner? In fact, working at the office forces interactions – e.g., in the corridor or in the kitchen. When working from home, we have to take the initiative ourselves to maintain relationships with colleagues. 

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Non-verbal communication and consistency of a team

No one imagines covering their face during face-to-face meetings in a conference room. Similarly, we should encourage participants to show their faces and turn on cameras during online meetings. There are two main benefits here – it is simply easier for us to talk to someone when we see their facial expressions, reactions and emotions; and at the same time, it allows us to focus and ensure that people are properly committed – eating dinner or playing with your cell phone is not that easy when the rest of the people at the meeting can see you doing so. 

Effective team meetings 

Remember that meetings are always a challenge for the organizer and facilitator. They should not last too long. If meetings last for more than an hour, it will be difficult for participants to stay focused. According to the available research, we are able to stay focused for a maximum of 90 minutes before we need to take a 15-minute break. Let’s remember to take breaks between meetings then. When working online, the boundaries between the private and professional worlds may blur. So we may miss obvious things such as the participants needing to use the bathroom or take a tea break to think, relax, clear their minds or simply stretch their legs. 

Creating a sense of belonging

I cannot understand why, on the one hand, organizations search for educated and experienced specialists, and on the other hand, they are afraid to trust the decisions they make! After all, a sense of belonging and commitment is built by handling responsibility to employees. We are looking for “diamonds”, then we pay those people a lot of money for their work – so let’s treat them like adults, not as children who should be constantly controlled and reproved. Why are so many organizations still training their employees to be submissive instead of thinking for themselves?

Scrum Values
Scrum values

Trust in a Scrum team

Going one step further, according to the “Scrum Guide”, in Scrum there are “self-management teams, which means that they decide for themselves who will perform specific tasks, when and how”. In Scrum Teams, there is no manager who points the finger at individual developers, while at the same time dividing tasks between them. Scrum essentially takes for granted the fact that employees are smart and responsible enough to decide for themselves how and when to perform a specific task.  

Summary

  “Trust is like grease. It reduces friction and creates an environment where it is much easier to improve performance” 

Simon Sinek, ‘Leaders Eat Last’ 

By putting decision-making in the hands of employees, we gain their trust – a team member feels responsible for the work they are supposed to do and a sense of belonging – nothing affects employee engagement more than the feeling that they know why they are doing something.

Scrum Master

Scrum Master at JCommerce. He believes in empiricism and iteration and teaches Scrum Teams independence and responsibility. Outside of work, Łukasz is a mountaineer and climber, as well as the operator of the Tuudi.net portal.