The Ship of Theseus

Readers from the UK mainly may remember the “Trigger's Broom” scene from Only Fools and Horses. Trigger claims he's been using the same broom for 20 years - but then states that it's had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its lifetime! Some of the more philosophically aware among you may recognise this as Theseus' paradox or the Ship of Theseus. The question of course being: does an object which has had all its component parts replaced remain fundamentally the same object? What am I talking about you may well ask? Well, whatever your take on this particular paradox there is certainly a way we can apply this to the idea of teams and their agile maturity.

Consider a team of 5 who are developing a product. They are all new to this agile way of working but very much bought into the principles. After a period of intensive coaching they begin to display all the correct behaviours and, as such, demonstrate marked improvements over time in their delivery frequency, quality of delivery and general productivity – not to mention team motivation and morale. This team become, in fact, so good that they are soon completely autonomous (within the constraints and scope of their specified objectives) and are soon left to their own devices. The proof of their ability is, after all, apparent in the satisfaction of their customers and the quality of their product.

At some point, for no specific reason, one of the team members leaves and is replaced. Shortly after this the team lead is moved over to take on a struggling project and a new team lead is brought in. Two out of five of the original team have gone. Perhaps then a further team member is also swapped out for someone else. Now the balance has shifted and less than half of the original members remain. There is no guarantee that these new members are bought in to the good behaviours displayed by the original team but because the team has always been so successful they are left to continue with no intervention.

At what point is this team no longer the original, established and successful team? At what point should someone intervene to ensure the new team members understand and can adopt the previously embedded behaviours? If this is now a different team should it be treated as such and be given the attention and support that any brand new team would be given when forming and establishing its practices? If nothing is done until the effects are seen, for example in a drop in quality or productivity, then this is too late. At that point the bad habits have already crept in and, it's a lot easier to give up biting your nails if you never started in the first place.

Trigger's broom was not the same broom and a team where the majority or all of the team members have changed over time is not the same team. The onus is on good management to recognise the implications of these changes and ensure new members are introduced to the team's proven ways of working, behaviours and culture from the moment they join the team.