Understanding “There Is Only Us”

This was a panel discussion with some remarkable names in the agile community including Alastair Cockburn, Brian Marick, Diana Larson, Israel Gat, Polyanna Pixton, and a few others. Much of the discussion was about the role of trust on Agile teams. This topic resonates for me because I have recently started to look for trust issues on teams *before* I look for whether or not they have adopted agile practices. Without trust, the rest is hard to do. When there is an issue with trust on a team everything slows down. It creates a kind of social friction that makes even the simplest tasks more difficult. Team members who don’t trust each other will argue more, revisit old disputes, avoid supporting each other, and even go out of their way to undermine each other. Simple issues that should be resolved by the team end up getting blown out of proportion and escalated to management on a regular basis.
The amount of distraction and friction that is created can be really quite stunning. I don’t profess to have any superior insight into trust and team dynamics – I suffer the same disfunctions here as anyone else. But when I find a team that at a fundamental level is having obvious trust issues, then I know that as a Scrum Master or Coach, I’m in for a rough ride. Nor do I have any particular insight into how to solve the problem. I know that making the team do trust falls probably isn’t going to resolve anything. If I’m honest, I’ve failed as often as I’ve succeeded when it comes to dealing with trust issues on teams.
There are few things that I need to remind myself of when in a situation where there is a paucity of trust:
1) This is going to take a long time. Short of firing people, trust issues don’t go away overnight. While sometimes there is merit in removing someone from the team, for the sake of this discussion I will focus on the more constructive aspects of working with a team to build trust.
2) If you are just starting with the team, you have to become just another member of the team. Often when I start with a team, I often find myself using terminology that separates us. “They” have problems. “I” will fix “them”. Now you might fault my language, but to me language like that simply tells me that I haven’t yet fully integrated with the team. I have to move from refering to “them” to talking about “us”. That takes me a while. I have to live with the team, work with them for a while and basically become part of the team ecosystem. I need to “go native” and stop looking at them like an outsider.
3) You have to be willing to make and admit mistakes – a lot of them. Things will get messy when you are dealing with trust issues. I want the team to see that I’m just as committed, dedicated, messed-up and neurotic as they are. It’s a hell of a lot of work. But if you can open up and be vulnerable in front of the team in some small way, I think you win the trust of the team that much faster.
4) In a very real way, what I’m trying to do is get them to trust me, even if they don’t necessarily trust each other. Part of the game of being a coach is becoming a connector for people. Helping them to find other people who can help them out. If they can come to trust me a little, then I can begin to connect the dots and point them to others on the team who also trust me – a little.
These are the kinds of things that are going through my mind when I’m working with a team that appears to have significant trust issues. I’m looking for connections, seeking ways to hilight my own mistakes, watching my language for symptoms of “me” and “them” and most of all, being very patient. I make no claim to to any sort of stunning insight into these issues. However, I’m a little surprised to see how much I have to say on the topic!
These were the thoughts that were rebounding about my skull as I was listening to the panel talk about the myriad issues surrounding trust on Agile teams. It was a good discussion and I almost wish I could have joined in the conversation they were having. At first I didn’t really understand the title of the discussion, “There Is Only Us” (how weird!), but perhaps now I understand it better. For me, working with a team is best when it is not “me” and “them”, but rather when “There Is Only Us”.

There was an interesting panel discussion on the first day at Agile Roots 2009 that included some remarkable people in the agile community including: Alastair Cockburn, Brian Marick, Diana Larson, Israel Gat, Polyanna Pixton, and a few others who deserve mention but their names escape me. The title of the session was “There Is Only Us”. I thought it was rather peculiar title. Much of the discussion was about the role of trust on Agile teams.

The topic of trust resonates strongly for me because I have recently started to actively look for trust issues on teams *before* I look for whether or not they have adopted agile practices. Without trust, the rest is hard to do. When there is an issue with trust on a team everything slows down. It creates a kind of social friction that makes even the simplest tasks more difficult. Team members who don’t trust each other will argue more, revisit old disputes, avoid supporting each other, and even go out of their way to undermine each other. Simple issues that should be resolved by the team end up getting blown out of proportion and escalated to management on a regular basis.

The amount of distraction and friction that is created can be really quite stunning. I don’t profess to have any superior insight into trust and team dynamics – I suffer the same disfunctions here as anyone else. But when I find a team that at a fundamental level is having obvious trust issues, then I know that as a scrum master or coach I’m in for a rough ride. Nor do I have any particular insight into how to solve the problem. I know that making the team do trust falls probably isn’t going to resolve anything. If I’m honest, I’ve probably failed as often as I’ve succeeded when it comes to dealing with trust issues on teams.

There are few things that I try to remind myself of when in a situation where there is a paucity of trust:

  1. This is going to take a long time. Short of firing people, trust issues don’t go away overnight. While sometimes there is merit in removing someone from the team, for the sake of this discussion I will focus on the more constructive aspects of working with a team to build trust.
  2. If you are just starting with the team, you have to become just another member of the team. Often when I start with a team, I often find myself using terminology that separates us. “They” have problems. “I” will fix “them”. Now you might fault my language, but to me language like that simply tells me that I haven’t yet fully integrated with the team. I have to move from refering to “them” to talking about “us”. That takes me a while. I have to live with the team, work with them for a while and basically become part of the team ecosystem. I need to “go native” and stop looking at them like an outsider.
  3. You have to be willing to make and admit mistakes – a lot of them. Things will get messy when you are dealing with trust issues. I want the team to see that I’m just as committed, dedicated, messed-up and neurotic as they are. It’s a hell of a lot of work. But if you can open up and be vulnerable in front of the team in some small way, I think you win the trust of the team that much faster.
  4. In a very real way, what I’m trying to do is get them to trust me, even if they don’t necessarily trust each other. Part of the game of being a coach is becoming a connector for people. Helping them to find other people who can help them out. If they can come to trust me a little, then I can begin to connect the dots and point them to others on the team who also trust me – a little.

These are the kinds of things that are going through my mind when I’m working with a team that appears to have significant trust issues. I’m looking for connections, seeking ways to hilight my own mistakes, watching my language for symptoms of “me” and “them” and most of all, being very patient. While I have no claim to expertise, I’m a little surprised to see how much I have to say on the topic! Funny how that happens.

These were the thoughts that were rebounding about my skull as I was listening to the panel talk about the myriad issues surrounding trust on Agile teams. It was a good discussion and I almost wish I could have joined in the conversation they were having. At first I didn’t really understand the title of the discussion, “There Is Only Us” (how weird!), but perhaps now I understand it better. For me, working with a team is best when it is not “me” and “them”, but rather when “There Is Only Us”.

4 Responses to Understanding “There Is Only Us”

  1. Trust is such an important factor, so thanks for posting on it. I think it’s relevant to both Agile and waterfall teams, but I’ve certainly been in positions before when half way through the project, I’d wished I’d started it as a waterfall project, as the negative impacts of lack of trust seem to be more apparent in agile. Have you ever had a similar experiance?

    • Tom Perry says:

      I’ve dealt with trust issues on both waterfall and agile projects and I have to say that I find it equally difficult either way. On a waterfall project, there is typically less transparency, so trust issues can lie undetected longer. They still are harming the project though. Waterfall projects tend to be a bit more command and control, so that might play into things too (for better or worse I can’t say). Agile projects will probably reveal the issues sooner, but even then, sometimes they are camouflaged as something unexpected.
      I don’t think the process used will help things one way or the other. When it comes to trust, it’s all about soft skills, and the process won’t really help you with that.

  2. Scott Duncan says:

    Brian Marick made an interesting comment about trust during the panel. He suggested that talk about trust was substituting for real caring about the work and a feeling of accomplishment.

    • Tom Perry says:

      I thought that was interesting too. I especially liked the comment, “If we deliver often enough, you don’t have to trust us!”

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