One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

We were humming along as a Team; suddenly it feels like everybody’s got two left feet. What’s going on?

Sometimes when a Team hits a rough patch, after a period of really working well together, it’s hard to understand what went wrong? We’ve faced tough challenges before… this feels different.

How? Not only are we feeling unclear about how to tackle the new challenge; we actually don’t seem to be doing ordinary stuff very well anymore! Morale has taken a hit, we’re more frustrated with ourselves, and with each other, maybe someone on or outside the Team is even starting to question whether the Team has peaked, and changes need to be made? You know–bring some new blood onto the Team, or divide up the Team and let people move on to new projects to “keep things fresh.”

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for a Team losing its sense of comfortable workflow and collaborative rhythm. This post is dedicated to exploring the possibility is that the Team is temporarily regressing because it’s facing a developmental challenge.

Scrum Mastering Tip

Here are some sample questions a Scrum Master can use to unpack what’s going on in a Retro[1]:

Team Challenges: What Questions To Ask

  1. What’s different about the challenge we are facing today from the challenges we faced in our previous work?
  2. Let’s assume some level of uncertainty about our success is normal for any project. What doubts do we have about our ability to succeed in the current project? How can we address bite-size pieces?
  3. Has our Mission[2] changed? If yes, what’s different about our new Mission? If we’re not sure whether our Mission has changed, what questions do we need answered? Who do we think can provide those answers?
  4. Is there anybody or anything outside of the Team we’re tempted to blame for our current predicament? If we put all our blaming statements out on the table in an un-edited way, and take stock of them, which can we agree are well-grounded, and which might be overblown?

Underlying Theory

There’s an old psychological principle at work here, something psychoanalyst Ernst Kris (1936) called “regression in the service of the ego.”[3] The core idea is that as Psychologist Danielle Knafo argues, sometimes it’s necessary to take a developmental step backward in order to take two steps forward – and it is this temporary regression and re-integration that makes possible “more connection, invention, and vision.”[4]

Renewed connection, invention, and vision is precisely what an Agile Team is seeking in confronting a never-before-countered challenge. This psychological principle is true not just for individuals but for collaborative Teams, in the following way.

“The more trust, integrity, and cohesion a Team has, the more it is able to allow itself to undergo temporary periods of regression in order to discover a renewed, newly empowered ability to creatively cope with challenges.”

Sometimes we naturally have to take a step back, developmentally, to move forward. Neurologically, something needs to get re-wired, new connections are needed, and that’s not just a personal challenge, it’s a challenge we face together.

Even the alchemists in the middle ages were familiar with this principle; they called it solve et coagulum–dissolving what’s become lead, so to speak, in order to reform it as gold. What this means is that it feels like the Team’s structure–in terms of its well-established knowledge, habits, and familiar ways of working together–has come to a screeching halt in the face of a big new challenge.

Learning To “Dance” Again

In a situation like this, we may very well feel like the Team is broken! We can’t move forward in the way we’re used to, and it may feel like everything we were sure about has gotten thrown up in the air. You could say it’s like the Team feels like everybody’s been asked to learn a new dance step at the same time, and we are all stepping on each other‘s feet as well as our own! Everybody’s got two left feet.

At this point, we need two things to move forward: first of all we need patience: for ourselves, and from our leaders and Stakeholders. And this patience can only be invited when we are able to name the challenge we are facing and begin to take on bite-size pieces of it. At first, it might feel like we’re learning to walk again as a Team. In a way that’s true, but if we can work through this gray zone together, the odds are that all of the flow and teamwork we had established before will re-emerge, but at a new level.

Could your Team use some help learning to “dance” again?
We’ve got coaching for that.

As Always, Stay Agile.

Notes and Sources

1-2 “Retro,” “Mission.” Accessed February 20, 2019.

3 Kris, Ernst.1936. “The Psychology of Caricature, in Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art”: 173-188. New York: International Universities Press.

4 Knafo, Danielle. “Dancing with the Unconscious: The Art of Psychoanalysis and the Psychoanalysis of Art.” Routledge, 2012..