And the dangers of not having it

Team performance is a field of study that produced many articles, books and models. One element that everybody (undoubtedly) agrees on is the need for shared goals. To become a high performing team we need a clear shared purpose. Such a goal is a focus enabler, placing the results of the group central over the individual results. When a team is not able to focus on a shared goal we will never see results. Thus, it is no surprise that one of the five Scrum values is ‘Focus’, defined as: “everyone focusses on the work of the sprint and the goals of the Scrum team”.

Unfortunately, in reality I have often seen a lack of focus. Whether teams and organizations use Scrum as a framework or not, we often notice that people are working on multiple projects at once, work in different teams, and are continuously exposed to distractions. Organizations keep these environments intact, for example by rewarding strong multitasking in annual reviews. We know for a fact that people are not made for this (there are several selective attention tests to demonstrate how bad we are at this, and I am not going in to the ‘women can do two things simultaneously’). Why do we still praise this behavior?

A quick exercise

If you are not convinced about my factual statement, you could do a quick exercise (or use it to make a point whenever you need to).

Look at the following sequences:




  • You are going to write the complete sequences down, like the example above.
    However, you are going to do it in the following way:

1 – A – I – 2 – B – II – etc..

Time your effort!

  • Now do it again, write the complete sequences down, but now you finish the numbers first, then continue to the letters, lastly continue to the roman numbers:

Time your effort!

Well, how did you do? How much faster was the latter? This context switching is deadly for effectiveness, even with such mundane tasks like sequencing numbers and letters. These sequences are to a certain extent strongly related, can you imagine what this would do when you are in the context of complex knowledge work?

Working on two projects or epics simultaneously is actually exactly like the exercise. From the outside it might look efficient but it is far from it. The same goes for working on completely unrelated items in a sprint: this impedes the team from truly working together, the more diversified the work is in a sprint, the more people tend to take responsibility for a single item. At the end of the sprint, Luke does not even know what Jim did this sprint: well Jim worked on feature A while I did feature B.

As a development team member it also applies when being distracted by questions from a random manager for example. You lose your concentration, help the manager by providing the answer (that he probably could have found out himself, but you are the go-to guy!), and then have to pick up where you left.. Darnit, forgot my train of thought. Well, first a cup of coffee then.

Consequences of not having focus

I hope you can relate to the consequences of not having focus, some might even be familiar for your team. However, I would also like to show the importance of focus by outlining how great the effect of clear focus can be. A few years ago, an IT manager addressed me in the hallway and said: “I don’t know what happened to your team, but I was looking at your velocity and you guys have never been so predictable, and the last months you have delivered more and more output. Moreover, I hear very good feedback from the users about all that you achieved – so tell me, why are you suddenly getting so much better?” You can probably guess what my answer was, just one word: “Focus”.

A year earlier we were doing great as well, until the plug was pulled on a major program we were working on. Our product backlog suddenly dried up and all we could work on were minor unrelated improvements. Our backlog was not ready and had no cohesion. Every sprint we struggled to form a sprint backlog, without any Sprint Goal to guide us in a useful manner. The cycle of continuous improvement stopped, we failed our sprints and the team even got frustrated. Nothing else changed: we had the same people, the same skills, the same context and the same product owner, but we just did not perform. There was only one real cause: “Lack of focus”.

Only when a new big project got cleared, were we able to find renewed purpose, get a cohesive and ready backlog and formulate meaningful sprint goals. The team found their motivation and drive, and started to truly collaborate again. Simply stated, focus enabled the team to grow again towards a high performing unit.

Everybody needs a sense of purpose. A key motivator to drives a team towards greatness. A vibrant overarching purpose that is aligned with all the work of the team, will give a team focus. This means clarity on the bigger picture, how the team goals help to achieve the company goals, and how the product vision relates to the company vision. Having focus means less need for context switching, better collaboration, better decision making, less errors and higher results. More results in turn leads to more motivation. Having focus will bring a team in a powerful cycle towards performance.

Like I tried to illustrate, the dangers of not having focus are equally prevalent. The absence of focus means time wasted in constant switching of context, people working as individuals on their own cherry project, no overarching goal to validate decisions, errors due to loss of concentration and collaboration, and thus less and smaller results. Less results means less motivation, a very dangerous cycle to be in.

I hope by now you conceive how powerful focus can be for a team. In my next blog I will address how Scrum as a framework can help your team and how applying the elements correctly will enable and provide focus.


Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us; Daniel H. Pink

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable; Patrick M. Lencioni


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