During the years 2009 – 2012, I worked at a small company called iContact here in the Raleigh/Durham area. iContact had developed an email marketing, SaaS application that competed (still does) with the likes of Constant Contact and MailChimp. 

Ryan Allis was our CEO at the time and he was very innovative when it came to organizational change & evolution and leadership development. He happened to read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni at that time, and became enamored with the ideas contained within.

At the same time, we were adopting agile (Scrum, Kanban, and Scrum of Scrums for scaling) across the organization. Quite successfully, I might add. So, the two efforts naturally converged. And I was pleasantly surprised how well our Agile efforts and the 5 Dysfunctions blended together. That’s really what this article is all about.

5 Dysfunctions & Agile, like Peanut Butter and…

Ryan first brought 5 Dysfunctions training in for our senior leadership team as part of one of our leadership offsites. We went thru training and an assessment of ourselves with the book’s central points as a backdrop.

One of the focus points was to create a leadership “first team”, where we focused on leadership unity, alignment, and teamwork rather than defending our own functional silos. It’s actually a relatively minor point (reference) in the book. But it stood out to us as an important learning in building a true leadership team.

Here are some of the things we focused on when initiating our team –

Building a (5-Dysfunctions Based) First Team

  1.  Recognition of the Need – as in all things, there needs to be a recognized shift from silo-based accountability to horizontal, team-based accountability. There needs to be recognition that team comes before self and that those you direct or manage are not your first team. But it all starts from the awareness that – we’re not really a team and, by changing that stance, we might significantly increase our performance.

  2. Kick-off: Vision, Mission, and Goals – one of the mistakes we initially made was simply forming a team, saying “First Team”, and hoping for the best. That didn’t work very well. We then re-chartered the team focusing on crafting a shared vision, mission, and set of goals that we could all align with and work towards, then true change began. The key was the alignment. They were OUR goals first.

  3.  Trust – aligning with the 5 Dysfunctions, the first effort should be focusing on giving and receiving trust to your team (colleagues). After we developed our goals we needed to trust that we were all on the same page. That we were walking our shared / aligned talk within our functional organizations. And, that IF someone had an issue or challenge with our shared purpose, they would ask for help from their first team.

  4.  Activity – you need to generate opportunities for the team to work together. Usually strategic initiatives will generate cross-functional (silo) opportunities. Something like a Digital or Agile Transformation will also drive quite a few opportunities. There will be resistance because people are most comfortable within heir functional silos. You just have to patiently push through it.

  5.  Accountability – is one of the things you’re particularly looking for. For example, team alignment. That is, are we all on the same page when it comes to our goals? Often, we said that we were, but our actions didn’t necessarily align from leader to leader. Here we hold each other accountable to that alignment. If I catch someone who’s askew, then I confront them and have a crucial conversation as to why and how we re-align. First team level accountability is about action.

  6.  Collaboration – establish a meeting cadence where you meet as a first team. Discussing your journey, challenges, and explore opportunities to help one another. This is where shared ownership lives. Where we plan together and execute together. It’s also where we continuously improve in our journey. This is an area where agile really complimented our efforts. We had daily stand-ups and iteration-based work initiatives, which really solidified our first team interactions.

We discovered that it was important for there to be culture or change champions in the organization that would inspire our ongoing first team evolution. In fact, it became one of our biggest learnings.

We also discovered that you needed a coach to help in your journey. Fortunately for us, we found a great coach affiliated with the Table Group who could train and guide our efforts.

At iContact

Over time, we established three levels of first team at iContact - 

  • First, it was the executive leadership team. This was at the C and VP levels of the organization. This team was responsible for transforming the entire organization. Ryan realized that while everyone said, and tried their best to operate as, a team, they really focus on their functions first. He wanted to change that.

  •  Second, it was at the technology leadership team level including the product team. We wanted to align everyone in product development, operations, and product at the senior leadership level. While we were very collaborative and friendly, we all had our silos front and center.

  •  And finally, we did it at the agile (Scrum or Kanban) team level. In this case, we were trying to reinforce the cohesion and collaboration required to build trust, accountability, and results at an individual cross-functional team level.

I want to focus in on the technology leadership team aspect. It was here that really made a difference in our agile transformation.

The Software Product Development First Team

One of the first major decisions we made was to include the Product organization in our technology first team. We felt it was important to have:

  • Development

  • Architecture

  • Operations

  • Product & UX

  • Quality & Testing

all aligned. Especially since our cross-functional teams were composed of these individuals. Yes, it was a rather large first team, composed of ~12-15 folks. But we felt it important to include everyone.

Another key learning for us was to focus the team on creating, forming, healing, and growing from within. That is, we asked a handful of folks if they would provide internal leadership to the team. These were the change agents who had shown an ability to energetically engage their peers. It turned out that there was one leader who really made the difference in keeping the first team energized, focused, and moving forward. But we didn’t pick him, we simply encouraged him to emerge from within the team as our momentum generator. 

Probably our biggest learning was that this first team notion made a unique difference in helping our technical leadership team move from traditional management practices to more agile leadership. They did things like:

  • Align to the agile principles;

  • Align our practices for consistency;

  • Work together on improving organizational and team safety & trust;

  • Held each other to be accountable to walking their talk;

  • Focused in on healthy and balanced metrics & reporting;

  • Became much better at coaching each other and having ongoing crucial conversations ;

  • Above all else, they worked hard to establish a consistent and principle-based our agile culture.

Wrapping Up

One of the things I focus on in my Certified Agile Leadership class is trying to convey the concept and impact of The First Team. I’m not sure I amplify enough the impact I’ve seen it have on agile transformations. 

One of my goals for private CAL classes is to inspire the attendees to form (at least try) a first team. I describe the why behind it, the intent, and the potential. But it’s up to each group to really make it their own. Nearly 100% of the time we leave a private CAL with a First Team formed and with my fingers crossed that it gains stability and momentum going forward.

That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this post.

If there were a Top 5 tactical steps to achieve agile greatness, I would put this in that list. It’s that impactful and important.

Stay agile my friends,



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