high emotional intelligence

Agile Teams: The Challenges of Building Cohesion

When Your Team is Expert Heavy Who Has The Ultimate Say… And At What Cost to the End Result?

Agile teams are supposed to break through bottlenecks. Yet often, they are an exercise in extreme patience for the leaders as they attempt to referee superior intellects arguing for their position to stand.

Let’s listen in to what it’s like for the Agile Team Leader.


There are five people discussing the balustrade of a building that is need of significant upgrades.

Standing there, by the building, the first says, “it’s too high”;
The second says, “it’s too low”;
The third says, “It’s just right”;
A fourth, listening in, says, “What the hell are they talking about, it’s such a well-designed structure”;
The fifth thinks, “Jeez Louise, how will I ever get them to agree?”
A sixth is the customer who will pay for the upgrades but who does not understand the significance of the differences of opinions and worries it could cost a fortune if this agile team doesn’t get it together.

They are all looking at the same thing, at the same time, in the same place but with highly different perspectives.

How can this be?
The truth of the matter is that they are looking at it from very different contexts.

The first is an engineer, who thinks the balustrade too high because she is thinking in terms of structural stability.

The second is a social scientist who sees it as too low because he is thinking in terms of human interaction, safety and usability.

The third is an architect, who views it as just right, partly because he designed it, and also because he is thinking in terms of aesthetics.

The fourth is a tourist, just enjoying the building and balustrade design for its own sake.

The fifth is the team leader who is panicking over how she is going to get them on the same page, making upgrades on time and on budget.

The sixth is waiting in anticipation of the problem being solved, cost-effectively.

So the meta-challenge to this complex problem is for the team leader to create a cohesive, productive team.
This problem is called team cohesion.

The goal of forming agile teams is to use the talents of all team members to find the most cost-effective solutions to a specific, difficult, complex problem, whether the cost is measured in dollars, hours, morale or the cost of lost productivity.

Finding effective solutions to complex problems requires inputs from people from different disciplines, professions, departments, and varying cultures, genders, personalities, and experiences, all hopefully working together in a cohesive way.

Clashes and conflict is part of the process and harmonization of these factors is essential for a useful outcome from all perspectives.

As we have all experienced, being an expert on an agile team tends to be fraught with frustration due to unchecked assumptions, fixed mindsets, and hidden agendas where each expert is demonstrating their value and desire to be proven right.

The experts’ default way of responding when their expertise is questioned is attributed to the fact they are normally leaders and revered in their own disciplinary, professional, and departmental areas. These very individual strengths give agile teams the deep foundation needed to solve complex problems.

If your team has devolved into arguments as to whose perspective will ultimately stand, then you know you have a cohesion problem.

Cohesion is essential if you a rower on a dragon boat.

Everyone must pull together in sync in the same direction to achieve a common goal. They are all experts at paddling but individually strong in their particular position on the dragon boat. Each team members’ paddling AND ‘position expertise’ needs to be respected across the entire team to achieve first-place finishes.

What Value Does an Agile Cohesive Team Deliver?

Cohesion is the Grease in the Wheels of Team Productivity

Cohesion on agile teams is about the ability, openness and willingness of each player to explore, communicate and apply interconnected decision/actions that result in solutions to complex problems.

A cohesive agile team develops processes for sharing perceptions, concepts, assumptions and priorities which may be unequal in weight but equal in importance if a complex problem is to be solved cost-effectively to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.

An intentional cohesive process sets up equality for all and respects the fact that no-one-of-us is as competent, motivated, experienced or insightful as all of us together.

Think of the Agile Team tasked with solving the Apollo 13’s dilemma. They were running out of oxygen and had limited power. Back on Earth, a team of multi-disciplinary world-class engineers, astrophysicists and flight experts were given all the equipment and tools available to the astronauts.

The team on Earth had to solve the problem with these limited inputs, test their solution and deliver it for the astronauts to replicate… with few precious hours to find the cohesion enabling them to come up with an agreed on, pragmatic solution.

There was no time for individuals to posture or position.

They had to listen, learn, adapt, risk and blend their perspectives. Becoming aware of the inter-relatedness of their “expert perspectives”, and blend that awareness with the speed at which circumstances change must be balanced with change.

Change and the need to adapt intrudes as the implications of their expert inter-relatedness mingle with speed and pressure.

This adaptability in the face of pressure is what Agile Teams need to master. As a team, it means they must face more difficult, multi-layered complex problems where deep rapid two-way communication is necessary to clearly see the bigger picture to achieve a beneficial solution fit for purpose.

These are the Six Key Indicators our research proves are essential for building cohesive Agile Teams. At Vivo, we can measure how active these indicators are within a team and predict the resulting effect on the bottom line.

  • Communication
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Feedback & Feedforward
  • Accountability
  • Structures – how to structure your meetings for effective decision-making
  • Cohesion

A cohesive team develops a system of interconnected decisions and then actions that allow them to find the optimum results. These six elements grease the wheels of cohesion.

Screw up on even one of those six elements and you’ll get bogged down. It will show up on our team Vital Statistics Report™ which then tell us how much of an impact the absence of these indicators will have on company profitability.

All teams struggle because conflict, is to agile teams, as pain is to life. Master the six indicators and the struggle won’t form a barrier against results.

Ignoring or denying a team is not performing is not an effective strategy. Collusive team denial eats budgets for lunch. And fails the client and your business relying on your solutions.

Teams that learn together through our on-demand training on how to deal with differences integrate lessons learned and move on from the painful events become truly Agile.

Let’s visit a real agile team in trouble. This is a conflicted, non-cohesive team on the road to failure.

The report below uses our algorithm to diagnose and reveal why and where the team is breaking down.

The red numbers – out of 100 – show the members are unskilled in the six key indicators that collectively achieve cohesion.

The leader attempting to work with this team experiences these six indicators as conflict. As such, the leader is rendered impotent by their team’s dysfunctions. The leader, as an active participant shares (not all) responsibility for the situation.

This team is embroiled in differences of opinion, about right and wrong, good and bad, even about ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’. Such Vital Statistic Report™ results are a typical challenge for Agile teams made up of experts.

They’ve arrived at that horrible place called, “I’d rather be right than happy’, that will never allow them to find momentum again.

Entrenched differences lead to dis-engagement.

Differences of opinion which appear to be clashes of deeply opposed underlying values held by team members are usually accepted as unmanageable, ‘just the way it is’ and therefore are ignored or suppressed.

To be on a team that experiences unresolved conflict in daily interactions, while ignoring it, is to condemn the project to a “stalemate”. This ‘problem’ is characterized and described as just the ugliness of ‘politics’. When something in an organization is labeled as ‘politics’ the subtext reads that it is unsolvable and you just have to put up with it.

It seems that the only way to gain any progress is when someone imposes the will of some dominant power… a higher up demands action.

Management often believes that the strong arm tactic of engaging a dictatorial leader or arbitrator who imposes a solution is the only way out. Or they attempt to enroll a collusion of a significant number of team members to ‘will the process’ on while alienating other dis-engaged team members.

Neither of these tired tactics is effective. Both are far more expensive than a real solution.

Hauling out the strong arm or the will of a few will come back to “bite you” by causing errors of judgment, frequent delays, loss of momentum and a sense of dissatisfaction and frustration among those over-ruled. Results will be a pale version of what might have been possible with cohesion.

Vivo Team delivers relief from the conflict in a more satisfying way.

Put simply, talking about it helps. But it’s more than that. Team members have to be competent and motivated in the six indicators of cohesion outlined above if they are to extract themselves from their stuck place.

When Vivo works with teams locked in these types of conflicts, much to their amazement, they find that by using the tools that help them master the use of the six key indicators, the conflict reduces to manageable proportions that then allow the team to move forward.

Let’s dig a little deeper. It is useful to separate out value conflicts from the incompetent, unaware conflicts.

Value conflicts are a clash of deeply opposed differences in values. Often they appear to be unmanageable when standing in it, but not as difficult to resolve as most people worry.

The value conflict is unmanageable in the sense that agreement is not possible, and yet it is possible that the parties can agree to work with their differences to fulfill the task at hand, which requires a high level of emotional intelligence and an ability to communicate with the intention of understanding the others’ perspectives.

Such value clash conversations are best structured, in order to contain the negative emotions that inevitably flare up as people are sensitive to wearing the blame. Vivo is highly skilled at facilitating through value clashes and show leaders how to do the same.

Incompetent, Unaware conflicts are different.

This type of conflict is a result of being unskilled in the so-called ‘soft skills’ such as active listening, fact-based communication or neutral tone language (while hard to master, these skills yield rich rewards).

To team members experiencing the incompetent conflict, it feels like a ‘real’ conflict. However, what is really occurring is that the person has an inability and/or unwillingness to communicate using the six key indicators that result in cohesion. As a result, team members experience the situation as conflicted.

These skills may at first appear to be hard to master but when practiced and applied, cohesion becomes possible.

With Vivo Team’s diagnostics and training, teams would rather be happily effective than positionally right. Conflicts then dissolve easily.

Below is Vivo Team’s Vital Statistics Report™ showing an example of an agile team who learned how to become unstuck from their two types of conflicts and now are on their way to being more cohesively productive.

In the above diagram the + scores, indicate how much this team has improved with our 16-week, 60-minute training session delivered in a live, interactive, facilitated session within the flow of their workday.

GREY indicates people are becoming more highly skilled. RED shows the area in which they still need to improve. BLUE is highly functioning.

For a deeper analysis of Vivo’s people analytics call 778-734-0444 or email hello@vivoteam.com

In summary, let’s return to the five people looking at the balustrade of the building.

Imagine that group has taken Vivo Team’s training and can now effectively engage in conversations that:

  • Are clear on their desired outcomes
  • Committed to being happy over being right
  • Dealt with the conflicts
  • Explored alternatives
  • Focused on decisions
  • Accepted uncertainty in the process
  • Delivered a robust solution to the client, on time, on budget.

Would a Cohesive Agile Team capable of extracting critical solutions in high-pressure situations be of interest to you?

Then ask your team to take our short diagnostic demo so that you can pinpoint what’s causing your expensive delays.

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