When is it time to move someone off a team?

When I talk to teams about self-organizing, people worry about what to do when some one on the team isn’t working out.

If we’re a team, they posit, we have to work things out so we can work together. Not necessarily so.

Teams need to manage team membership so that they can achieve their goals. There are times when teams can work things out to work together. And there are times when someone needs to go.

I see four common reasons to move to move someone off a team.

When a team member doesn’t have the skills needed to do the work and can’t (or won’t) learn them in the timeframe needed by the team and the business. This can happen because of a hiring mistake, when the company moves to a new technology, or when the focus shifts from one type of work to another (e.g., from manual functional through the GUI testing to automated testing through APIs).

This is really hard when it’s someone who has contributed and now can’t make the learning curve. If there’s no other way for the person to contribute, it’s time to move him off the team. In the long run, though, allowing the situation to continue doesn’t do anyone favors. The team may start to resent the non-contributing team member. The non-contributing team member doesn’t have the satisfaction of pride in work and making a contribution. Everyone suffers.

When someone can’t or won’t work collaboratively. For example, when a person focuses on completing his tasks at the expense of completing the team’s iteration goal, or the rest of the team agrees to share code-ownership and he refuses to relinquish control over “his” code. Or when an individual doesn’t communicate with other people on the team.

On a team with interdependent goals, having a member who refuses to collaborate (for what ever reason) makes it harder for everyone to do their work. It also creates a dynamic where team members focus time and energy on the behavior of one team member rather than on building working software. It’s futile to try to convince someone to work collaboratively when he doesn’t value collaboration.

When the person challenges efforts to move forward that aren’t perfectly aligned with his ideas. Sometimes an individual sees risks in an option and has a hard time talking about it in a helpful way. Usually this comes as “that will never work here,” or “we tried that and it didn’t work”. This is irritating; AND there’s often useful information behind the objection–when you tease it out. (And you can coach the person to modify their style.)

On the other hand, some people challenge efforts to move on a philosophical basis–they call into question whatever the team proposes on the basis of an abstract notion of how-things-should-be. It’s really easy to get hooked on the content and get sucked into discussions about why some action is or isn’t pure and correct.

There is a place for “devils advocating” and vetting actions against fundamental values. That’s an important function on any team and I’m not talking about eliminating it. However, when one member has a pattern of challenging efforts to move forward, not letting go, and killing new ideas with criticism, its a problem. Especially when the challenge shifts to meet each new proposed avenue of progress that doesn’t meet the purity test.

When someone has a fundamentally different vision of where the team should go. A few years ago, I was traveling from Amsterdam to Copenhagen by rail. My route required that I change trains twice. As I settled in to my seat after the first train change, a nice German woman asked me where I was going. “Copenhagen,” I replied. “Oh, no, my dear,” she said, “you are going to Berlin.” I guess I could have argued, but instead I got off at the next station, back tracked, and got myself onto the train that was going to where I wanted to go.

It’s like that sometimes with teams. Most of the team wants to go in one direction, and one individual wants to go in a dramatically different direction. And he argues for that direction, well after the majority of the team has expressed their commitment to go another way. The team spends lots of time trying to convince the one person, and that person spends a lot of time trying to convince the team. At a certain point, it’s time to say, “This is where we are going. We want you to come with us. If it doesn’t fit for you, we understand. And you’ll need to go your own way.” Early in the life of a self-organizing team, the coach may have this conversation. Some teams reach the point where they have the conversation amongst themselves.

There’s a risk that the individual has the right of it, and the team is headed in the wrong direction. But if the team makes some movement, they are likely to discover that, and then they can make corrections. As long as the argument continues, no one is moving at all.

Excluding some one from a team is difficult. Most of us want to feel included and part of the group. That’s a potent trigger for most of us. Some people feel overwhelming anxiety over excluding someone from the team. For others the need to belong is equally overwhelming. Helping someone move off a team is seldom easy. And when it’s done–and handled with respect and caring for the person who is leaving the team–it’s doesn’t have to be a traumatic event for anyone.