What is a Stable Team Anyway?

Oct 23 / Steph Chamberlain
Recently, I was challenged by Steve Hearsum about what a Stable Team really is and whether it's actually a good thing.

So here we go. The first place we start is with definitions.

In the tech industry, Stable Teams have long been perceived as a fixed unit of people assigned different pieces of work or dedicated to a specific product. However, there lies the rub. The tech industry has defined a Stable Team not by the work they do, but by the people comprising it.

  For me, this is a mistake.  A better definition would be: 




"A Stable Team is a defined group of people on a specific mission for a fixed period of time."

They know why they are there, they are all aligned with the mission, and they understand that, at some point, the team will naturally evolve, and perhaps even disband entirely. And that is okay.
They might choose to leave the team themselves. That's also okay, although it may signal something about the leader's ability to unite people around a mission. For further insights, please refer to https://stableteams.com/purpose.

If we adopt this definition, we must then consider whether a Stable Team is beneficial. Drawing from the realm of sports, there exists a substantial body of evidence suggesting that maintaining a cohesive unit for a defined period significantly contributes to improved outcomes. Additionally, the oft-cited maxim, originally attributed to Rally Software, now widely endorsed, asserts that "Stable Teams are 60% more productive" [1]. Based on these premises, I am inclined to affirm that Stable Teams are a choice we should advocate for. Having led a management consultancy for 16 years, (an entity notoriously challenged in forming Stable Teams due to the fact we are by definition always part of another team), I can personally attest that a Stable Team is indeed a tremendous asset. Embracing this practice within our own organisation proved to be the most fruitful decision we ever made.

Tim Wise's definition

outlined here [2], resonates with me, as he identifies three distinct adversaries of a stable team:

1. The manager fixated on utilisation, striving to maximize output. Such a manager perceives a lack of productivity in a Stable Team, a fundamental misjudgment. This perspective often leads to frequent personnel rotations, undermining the core concept of a Stable Team.
2. The side project, a scenario familiar to us all. "Where's Rob today?" "Oh, he's preoccupied with those other projects unrelated to this team." Rob is poised to have divided loyalties, limited investment in this team's mission, and an overall sense of frustration.
3. Dependencies on other teams, a clear indication of flawed team structure. Team Topologies, [3] an invaluable concept in this context, deserves attention. At Stable Teams®, we also address this concern, drawing from similar principles. The organisational architecture should align as closely as possible with the customer journey and technical framework. This entails decoupling team missions and product sets to foster autonomous, self-reliant teams, alleviating the need for a program plan that resembles a tangle of spaghetti. It may also be imperative to assess the feasibility of decoupling the architecture, given the prevalence of legacy monoliths in most organisations.
However, other adversaries of Stable Teams' effectiveness also exist:

Purpose

1. Purpose - or rather, a lack thereof. Even the most proficient team requires every member to be fully committed. It may seem peculiar, but occasional lapses occur. Ensuring that every team member is on board is crucial; those unwilling to commit should seek a different path.

Mastery

2. Mastery - facing reality. If your team needs to implement DevOps, and none have prior experience, they require guidance. They need someone who has navigated these waters before. Do not cut corners when it comes to team training and coaching. The military recognizes this, and so should you.

Belonging

3. Belonging - Occasionally, a team may lack a sense of camaraderie. While they convene for daily Scrums, if a team member were struggling, the others might simply look the other way. Creating a team where genuine concern for one another prevails can be achieved through steps 1 and 2. However, fostering a deeper connection within your team demands proficiency in handling conflict and failure. Do not perceive these challenges as obstacles, especially in the initial stages when the team is forming. They are, in fact, tools to construct bridges. Recall that occasion when you sent back your soup, and the waitress not only apologized but also removed it from the bill and offered a complimentary dessert. You developed an affinity for that restaurant beyond the one that executed everything flawlessly. There was an emotional connection. You cared, and in turn, they demonstrated their concern for you. Try it. Nevertheless, if issues persist within a team after three months, something is awry. This is not merely a phase of storming/norming, to cite Tuckman [4]. And then there's the lingering issue of someone "not on the bus" which you likely already recognise necessitates attention. At Stable Teams, we call this: "Why Finding," and we have a plethora of coaches available to provide objective support in this regard.

Orientation

4. Orientation - As Owen Eastwood underscores [5], drawing on insights from the English Institute of Sport, roughly 70% of behavior is shaped by the environment and the emotions it elicits in players. While I cannot precisely parse this between the internal and external environment, it suggests that a significant portion of behavior is influenced by factors outside a team's direct purview. As the "Liberating Leader," this should be your primary concern once points 1-3 are firmly in place. The environment surrounding the team can either make or break its effectiveness. Negative publicity, excessive governance, or a cumbersome system are matters for leaders to address, allowing the team to focus on their tasks.
A Stable Team may naturally experience comings and goings. It is fluid, but the core, the nucleus, remains paramount. In a sports team, players are interchanged, but this is feasible because the broader team shares the same sense of purpose, mastery, and belonging with their teammates. Without this, the desired outcomes will not materialize.
The reason a Stable Team may struggle with a new mission is that not all members may believe in it. Therefore, whenever the mission undergoes a shift, scrutinize Purpose, Mastery, and Belonging. Once these are resolved, invest your leadership efforts in ensuring that the external environment is conducive to the team's success, rather than acting as an impediment.

Conclusion

A Stable Team may naturally experience comings and goings. It is fluid, but the core, the nucleus, remains paramount. In a sports team, players are interchanged, but this is feasible because the broader team shares the same sense of purpose, mastery, and belonging with their teammates. Without this, the desired outcomes will not materialize.
The reason a Stable Team may struggle with a new mission is that not all members may believe in it. Therefore, whenever the mission undergoes a shift, scrutinize Purpose, Mastery, and Belonging. Once these are resolved, invest your leadership efforts in ensuring that the external environment is conducive to the team's success, rather than acting as an impediment.

1. https://hbr.org/2016/05/embracing-agile.
2.  https://www.leadingagile.com/2016/12/stable-teams-predictability-edition/ 
3.  https://teamtopologies.com/
4.https://www.wcupa.edu/coral/tuckmanStagesGroupDelvelopment.aspx#:~:text=These%20stages%20are%20commonly%20known,more%20collaborative%20or%20shared%20leadership.
5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyaQpyBvUU8