We humans tend to have a natural resistance to change, initially perceived as a negative thing, an especially when this change happens suddenly; and it can potentially worsen a situation with an already bad perception. The interesting this is: we know it is never the end, and that in fact change means development, opening new and unexpected doors. But dealing with the emotional impact can be really, really rough.
I am specifically talking about teams altering its shape. The work environment is always changing, even when we feel like routine remains stable for a long period. You spend all that time creating a team culture and defining its relationships. But then, something alters that culture. Every single time a team member joins or leaves, that culture changes. Always.
One of my Agile references is the incredible Israel Alcázar, a really passionate Agile coach who I’ve had the privilege to see in several conferences. Lately, he did comment in one of his posts that organisations are like a human body, where cells are autonomous beings and responsible in the way they behave internally; and where brain commands the orders but does not micromanage; same way, the brain continuously adapts to change depending on its new neuronal connections. In short: organisations and teams live in constant change, and hence we describe this whole concept as complex adaptive systems.
Lately, quite a few members of my teams have left for several reasons; but the emotional impact is definitely there, and there is an underlying feeling of loss, fear and unknown arising as a result. As a Scrum master, I do care about the happiness of my team and I genuinely want to understand how they feel, personally and professionally, about these sudden changes.
The first thing we need to understand is that people change their jobs for many, many reasons, and most of them are very individual choices: personal dissatisfaction, desire to do something different, personal matters that have nothing to do with the work itself, and a long etc. Most times, it is a combination of many, or one aspect feeds the other.
The second thing to have into account is that, yes, there is an objective impact to losing a team member in productivity and delivery, but most importantly emotional, especially when there is a personal connection with your colleague. And then then natural synergy of the team suffers as a result. And then, you welcome new strangers and need to rebuild it all. And it is never the same, just like we are individual beings.
Now, there are different perceptions for those who leave than for those who stay. Usually, the leaver feels there is an exciting path ahead filled with new possibilities and also the fear of the unknown, but the first feeling beats the second.
The people who stay have exactly the opposite feeling (that is, of course, under the assumption that the leaver was a valuable asset, professionally and personally): sadness, lack of motivation, what I call the abandon the ship effect, and in a way, mourning. Those are very normal feelings for any kind of human relationship; the problem is that it also affects the productivity of the team in the short and even longer term.
Little can really be done except providing the right support, reassurance and guidance. Change is inevitable but must be handled. A change of this magnitude is more perception than reality; A change that doesn’t follow the Kaizen standards (a change that you can control or good change as opposed to an unpredictable chance) always takes a toll for the people affected by it.
What should never be done is ignore the change, or assuming the team isn’t suffering from it. Yes, changes are business as usual but there needs to be a component of empathy and compassion from other team members, management and, needless to say, the Scrum master.
To me, this is not different than any other aspect of inspection and adaptation. Why did the colleague leave? Could we have done something to avoid it? If yes, the team has to learn and move on. If not, we need to accept that it was beyond our control, and “mourn” together.
We all know there are five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. And no, I’m not exaggerating. Grief can have many degrees and while some of these stages sound really harsh, all of them happen regardless of the dept of the human relationship. And every case is different. And each team has a unique identity that also goes through those stages.
But there is sixth stage: hope. Once accepted the changes (new colleagues, the figure of those who left moving backwards) everything tends to stabilise itself, and a new door of possibilities appears.
One of the good things of having many years of experience is that I’ve worked with many, many teams. Some quite stable and static, others shaping and changing constantly. But experience also tells me this: change is good, for both those who leave and those who stay. Because we all in the end keep hope that our professional lives will thrive, and because the emotional impact and despair in the ends disappear leaving only the good experiences in our memory.
Here are some pictures of all my teams in the last 15 years. I cherish all of them, past and present, and all of them have made me the Scrum master that I am today. I am grateful for having worked with every single one of them, and I am looking forward to meeting my future colleagues.
Change is good. Do not despair. Embrace the change. And deal with it!