How to Recognize and Reboot a Dysfunctional Software Team

Buffeted by evolving requirements, tight deadlines and scheduling conflicts, it’s easy for a software team to drift off-course… or become completely dysfunctional.

If you’re given the task of bringing a team back from failure, small tweaks to processes may not suffice; you might need to reboot everything. Here are some signs that the team’s dysfunction is indeed total: 

The Team Is Unable to Meet Delivery Deadlines

If a team hasn’t delivered working software in a while, or sent any apps or code to production, the members are probably suffering from low morale and other “ailments,” explained professional scrum trainer Rich Hundhausen.

“Stop starting and start finishing” to get the team back on track ASAP, Hundhausen advised. Specifically, ask everyone to focus on completing one feature or enhancement before moving on to the next one. Trying to figure out and fix all of the underlying causes of delivery failures may take some time; in the meantime, even a small win can make all the difference in team morale.

Hundhausen added this warning: “If a member is not willing to work outside of their core specialty for a short time to help the team get out of a funk, ask them to ‘step aside’ in favor of someone who is willing to put the team’s interests ahead of their own.”

Top Performers are Leaving

A high churn rate among key contributors is a sign that something is wrong. Worse, excessive turnover puts an additional burden on the rest of the team.

Teams become dysfunctional when members don’t understand the expectations or where they stand, explained Ken Whitaker, managing director of Leading Software Maniacs. Top performers don’t want to work for ineffective leaders who don’t hold people accountable, and they don’t like having to compensate for underperformers.

“Hold one-on-ones immediately to ensure that everyone understands the performance standards and priorities,” Whitaker advised. At the very least, you can encourage a chronic underperformer to leave. Then, begin to get a handle on scheduling, resourcing, or other issues that are impeding team performance. In the meantime, holding people accountable for results and consistent execution of development activities will begin to boost proficiency and confidence levels.

Emotional Whiplash

Not everything can be a top priority, and it is easy to give teams emotional whiplash and feelings of futility and frustration when objectives change daily. Stop the fire drills pronto by meeting with the product owner or owners, and using effective, time-tested techniques to prioritize backlogs into “must-haves” vs. “nice-to-haves.”

Stakeholders are Unhappy

If the team isn’t meeting the needs and expectations of stakeholders or delivering the most important capabilities in the right order, it might stem from a feedback vacuum. Not having a clear sense of priorities or input on designs and features during the development process can cause a software team to veer hopelessly off-course.

“Immediately infuse the customer into the development process,” Whitaker said. Set a new course by initiating sprint review meetings to solicit opinions and suggestions from the product owner, stakeholders and customers. Allow the team to demo new features and explain their accomplishments; that will give them a sense of competence and achievement.

Customers Have Become the QA Department

Are your end customers forced to perform quality assurance? Are they lambasting the sales staff because they are unable to use the latest release or software update due to bugs? Don’t force sales or marketing to face the backlash alone.

When customers express frustration and disappointment over quality, it’s bound to trickle down to development. Make it clear that everyone is responsible for quality going forward. Then, create a sense of pride and ownership by letting developers get in front of end customers. Let them form connections and see the ways that software quality can impact a client’s business and financial performance. That way, developers become engaged in satisfying customers, as well as motivated to improve software-development processes.

Patrick M. Lencioni summed up the connection between accountability and team dysfunction in his book: “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable”:

“The ultimate dysfunction of a team is the tendency of members to care about something other than the collective goals of the group. A team ensures that its attention is focused on results by making results clear, and rewarding only those behaviors and actions that contribute to those results.”

By focusing on the team members’ structuring and short-term goals, you can begin to pull them out of the slump.