A Leadership Fable — Kathryn & her Team

Most of the book comes across as a fictional business novel. You may like that or not, but it helps to visualize the conflicts and issues involved in teamwork. The book deals with CEO Kathryn and her leadership team at the fictional Silicon Valley company DecisionTech, Inc. Kathryn has been freshly appointed as CEO since the company — 150 employees in size, some of the founders still on board themselves — is piling up more and more internal problems.

The leadership team consists of a variety of different characters who initially work more next than with each other. Most of the story takes place in offsite meetings, which Kathryn uses to works out the problems with the team in several sessions and gradually shapes the team into a real one.

The five problems

Kathryn quickly realizes that the company’s fundamental problems are with teamwork and goes through the five dysfunctions with her leadership team on the first offsite, arranging them in a pyramid. The reason the model uses a pyramid to arrange the problem is that a problem at a lower level must be solved first before addressing the one above it. Going up from the base of the pyramid to the top, these problems are:

Absence of trust

The basis for any well-functioning team is trust. When mutual trust is missing, team members try to hide their weaknesses and mistakes, don’t ask for feedback or help, and are also reluctant to help or improve collaboration. Instead of working on the really important problems, they waste time and energy on political games and effects.

Fear of conflict

Conflicts do not have to be destructive. People often mistakenly assume that conflict is a sign of a poorly functioning team and should be avoided. However, when teams avoid conflicts, problems arise. Controversial issues always exist, but they are essential for teams to succeed. Hence, they should be addressed and discussed in a safe environment.

Lack of commitment

If there is a lack of shared commitment, the team cannot address the most important issues in a focused and effective manner. Instead, discussions are held over and over again, valuable time is wasted on analysis and procrastination, and different issues and priorities are addressed.

Avoidance of accountability

Here, team performance suffers from team members not holding one another accountable. Sooner or later, this leads to mediocre results, missed deadlines, and resentment among the team members over differing quality measures. And ultimately, team leadership often suffers because they feel solely responsible for driving results.

Inattention to results

Last but not least, the top of the pyramid concludes with the fifth dysfunction, the lack of focus in teams on achieving results. For example, teams fall into this problem when individual team members focus only on their own career goals, when the team is distracted by less important activities, stagnates in development or falls behind its competitors, or when high performers leave the team.

What now?

In the story, Kathryn manages to turn the teams’ attention to overcoming the dysfunctions. The team grows stronger together and eventually really works together.

The fictional part is followed by a last section that contains helpful content for transferring the model to your own teams: here Lencioni once again presents an overview of the 5 dysfunctions, brings an exemplary questionnaire for a team assessment and makes suggestions for each of the dysfunctions as to how they can be concretely addressed.

Looking at today’s teams (not only in software development), it becomes clear that the book has lost none of its relevance even more than 20 years after its initial publication. Of course, you should take the book contents with a grain of salt. The presented model is not a scientific or empirically proven one, and has been simplified in various ways. However, it provides important approaches to tackle team problems and to create awareness of certain problems in the teams first — this is something that should not be underestimated. The book also focuses on the importance of team leaders: they are the ones who ultimately have to shape and coach the team to overcome the problems and succeed in the end.

Webinar: Scaling software development as a SaaS company without becoming consumed in the growth process.

The webinar addressed exactly the pain points that are occurring as we grow. With an ever-increasing number of employees on the Dev & Product team, we've had to find out for ourselves how difficult it is to set up a sensible structure that brings out the maximum efficiency and performance in everyone, while also leading to a healthy working atmosphere.
Pascal von Briel, Co-Founder & CPO @ exporto GmbH