Helping Your Team Weather the Storm

Jim is mad at Hal. Sara is complaining to Jason. Hal feels hurt; Susan shows up late. Jason thinks only Sara and he have a clue. Is this team falling apart—or just experiencing a normal part of group development? In this column, Esther Derby describes what their team leader Jenny goes through as she learns about the predictable ups and downs of team formation and the one thing any team member can do to help.

From the inside, it felt like the Release 2.0 team was falling apart at the seams.

Jim fumed as he walked back to his cube after the team meeting. "I can't believe that Hal waited a whole week to tell us that he was having trouble completing the shopping cart tests," he thought. "Everyone should know to ask for help when they're stuck for more than half a day!"

Elsewhere Hal, feeling rather abused, wondered why Jim had jumped on him. He didn't know that "everybody" knew there was an unspoken rule about asking for help.

Meanwhile, Sara, who also worked on the Release 2.0 team, vented her ire to co-worker Jason.

"Why can't people show some common courtesy? Joe is always interrupting people and Susan is always late," she complained. "I can barely stand to work with Hal—he's so secretive! And Jim acts like he's king of the world. I don't know how we're going to ship this release on time. You're the only one I can work with."

"You and I are the only ones accomplishing anything on this team," Jason said. "The way Jim and Hal have the check-in process is brain-dead. No way I'm following their asinine process."

All the members of the Release 2.0 team were feeling put-upon, hurt, and annoyed. They were making some progress, but no one was having fun.

Jenny, the team lead, interacted with each person as an individual and with the team as a whole. She gathered from conversations and the work they produced that each team member wanted to do the best job possible and wanted the team to succeed.

A few weeks before, when the team formed for Release 2.0, everyone had been excited and optimistic about the project. Jenny was puzzled that these smart, caring individuals were such a mess as a team. How could things have gotten so bad in such a short time?

She did a little research on team dynamics to see if she could learn how to knit the team back together. Here's some of what she found:

Teams experience predictable stages of development. Every team goes through these stages at a different pace, and when there is a significant change—a new team member arrives, a team member leaves, or the overall task changes—the team will go through some part of the process again as they re-form and adjust to the change.

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at and on her weblog at Her email is

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