The Three Team Phases

Three phases

In his book Elastic Leadership 1, Roy Osherove talks about an interesting principle he call the Three team phases. If you are a team leader or just a team member your team should be in one of these three phases.

  • Survival phase (no time to learn): The team is spending its time fighting fires or trying to reach deadlines. The team is struggling and has to use the most efficient solution—certainly not the most efficient, but the most pragmatic—to achieve the work as soon as possible. The team is not having enough time to learn.
  • Learning phase (learning to solve your own problems): To go out from the survival phase, the team needs slack time to experiment learn and improve the way of working (automatisation, monitoring, refactoring, etc.). It’s the time to perform some switch in the team in order to share knowledge and eliminate bus factors 2. The team has enough time to learn and improve, it becomes more efficient in its daily job.
  • Self-organizing phase (facilitate, experiment): In this phase people, people in the team know exactly what they are doing and how to do it efficiently. They also know if they have to spend more time learning to find a better solution which will pay off later.

You can tell you’re in the self-organizing phase if you can leave work for a few days without being afraid to turn off your cell phone and laptop. If you can do that, come back, and find that things are going well, your team is in the unique position of solving their own problems without your help.

Three styles of leadership

One of the thing I found very smart in his analysis is the adaptation of the style of leadership according to the phase.

  • Survival mode: Use command-and-control leadership.

When the ship is sinking, the captain doesn’t call a meeting. The captain give orders. To get out of survival mode, you need to save precious time—time you will need to put out the fires on your way to learning.

  • Learning phase: Switch to a coaching leadership.

Your main goal as a leader […] is to grow the team to be self-organizing by teaching and challenging them to solve thier own problems.

  • Self-organizing phase: Become a facilitator.

Your goal in the self-organizing phase is to keep a close eye on the team’s ability to handle the current reality. […] This is the point where you have time to do things that matter most. As a leader you have a vision. If you’re always keeping your head down, you can’t look up and see if your team is going in the right direction.

Using an inappropriate style of leadership according to the team phase could lead to unexpected consequences.

  1. Roy Osherove, Elastic Leadership: Growing self-organizing teams (Manning, 2016) ↩︎

  2. Here is the definition of “Bus factor” given by the author. “A bus factor can be defined this way: the number of people who need to get hit by a bus for the project or team to stop functioning. Therefore, a bus factor of one is the riskiest.” ↩︎