Culture

How to Break Up with your Team

By Cara Bermingham - 6 January 2017


Let’s talk about break-ups. 

I’ve been through one recently. I knew it was coming for a while and, in a way, it was the best thing for us. But that didn’t make it any less difficult. There had been lots of ups and downs – we’d been together for a year – and I felt like I needed some kind of closure before I could move on. More than that, I was finding it hard to imagine what life could be like without this relationship in it!

Yep, you guessed it – that break up was with my team. We were all moving on to projects a-new. 

We had been working together for a year and with the completion of our project those familiar end of an era themes arose. This made me think that we could use some relationship advice so we could move on to our next projects with renewed energy.

I did my research, by which I mean I read a bunch of relationship advice articles online, and found some good advice that I think we can apply to both relationship and team breakups. 

So here are the top five things to do when your team breaks up with each other. These are genuine titles from advice articles. Whilst the titles might be cringe-worthy, the advice is sound.

1. Take time for reflection


A cartoon showing different ways of building a vehicle

When a relationship ends it’s common to sit down and look through past memories, browse photos you’re tagged in together on Facebook (before you block them forever) and allow yourself to take stock of the good times and the bad.

When our project ended, we mirrored this reflective process with a timeline retrospective.

This was longer than the normal sprint retrospective and we allowed a whole morning to do it so we didn’t feel rushed.

First, we drew a timeline of the year on the wall and started by mapping the events of the project along it. We started with the major milestones: the kickoff, first release and so on. Then the team took turns to add in some events which were significant for them – some of which we’d forgotten about altogether. It was really useful to see just how much we’d really done in the time we had and reflect on what we’d actually achieved. Too often, teams can underestimate this.

We then mapped our emotions on the timeline next to those events. We discussed both what we really enjoyed and as well as the down points. In our case it turned out that when someone was brought into the project part way through, they found it difficult to get up to speed quickly and their mood was pretty low for their first few weeks. It was pretty sad to hear that as they didn’t express it at the time.

Mapping helped illustrate that the team didn’t always experience the same feelings at the same time. It was useful to acknowledge how things were for people across the life of the project and reflect on both the good and the bad, from a personal as well a team perspective. 

2. Put it in a letter


A cartoon showing different ways of building a vehicle

Another classic break-up scenario – you’re sitting down at the kitchen table, listening to Bon Iver (or something equally wallowy), a glass of wine in hand, getting all of your thoughts and feelings down on paper. Only to hide it in a drawer for the rest of time. But just the act of doing it can be cathartic – it helps you to get things out that you wanted to say.

In our team break-up, we went further than this by writing some feedback letters together. The whole team took the time to sit down and write to each other.

  • We wrote about what we appreciated about our team mates and the strengths we’d noticed.
  • Additionally, we gave advice for future projects and suggested things we felt they could develop and things we wanted to see more of. As these insights came from people we had been working so closely with, they felt all the more valuable. 
  • We were a relatively outspoken team and comfortable sharing in a group. However, if your team is a bit too shy for a group session, you can get everyone to write postcards to each other and post them to their houses so you don’t have read them in the same room.

3. Have a symbolic ceremony


South Park GIF of chanting

When I was a teenager, my friend got out of a long term relationship and couldn’t let go. We decided to take all of her ex’s letters down to the beach and burn every single one of them. Slightly overkill but, at the time, it did the job and she felt ready to move on from the shackles of her first love.

However, I’m not suggesting you get people to burn things but what you can do as part of the final retrospective is to ask people to bring an object or a photograph along that symbolises the project to them. 

They can talk about what it is and why it’s meaningful. It also might be a chance to laugh together about some of the more random memories that are made when teams work together. Our particular team memories centred around Honey Badgers – maybe you had your own team spirit animals.

4. Recognise your self worth


A Simpsons GIF of Lisa falling over

When a relationship ends in a less than ideal way, it can make you feel like there’s something wrong with you. It can knock your confidence so much so that starting a new relationship could seem especially scary. In my experience, it can be the same for projects.

There are so many reasons why a project might not come to a perfect close. Maybe there were areas of API integration that held you back or the funding got pulled when you were halfway through the build. In our particular case, the back end technology consistently slowed down the team, preventing them from seeing their work live as quickly as they would have liked. These types of challenges can affect the team in a negative way and make them feel like they haven’t really contributed or learned much.

You can combat this by running an exercise with the team focusing on what you have contributed and learned. There are lots of ways to do this, but the point is to make time to reflect back and think about your contribution.

It may be that even if you haven’t improved your coding skills, you’ve actually been able to practice difficult conversations or become skilled at organising workshops. Those are both valid skills to bring to your next team or project.

Recognising these new skills you’ve learned can make you feel better about spending so much time working on a project that maybe wasn’t the best in terms of outcome.

5. Focus on the future


A cartoon showing different ways of building a vehicle

Finally, how are your team going to take what they’ve learned forward into the next project?

In a relationship this is where you tell yourself, never date a musician ever again (this was something I personally told myself – and stuck to). But in a project team it could be something more practical, that you can take to the next team and suggest as a way of working or not working.

For example, was there a particular technique (like Design Ping Pong) your team came up with that more people could benefit from?

A practical way to do this is to get the team together to write an advice booklet to themselves, should they ever have to do a project like this again. First, start with some areas of work; collaboration, technology etc. You can then generate your top pieces of advice or techniques to navigate this type of project in the future. If you want to go the extra mile, make this into a snazzy booklet for the team to take away with them.

Reflecting and recognising techniques you’ve learned on a project is a great way to end on a high and get people excited about whatever is coming next.

Closure is good


So, as you’ve hopefully learned, getting closure on team breakups can be just as valuable as relationship breakups. It can allow you to reflect on what’s happened, what you’ve learned and what you want to take with you to your next project.

Invest time, get closure, make it as enjoyable as possible and of course make sure you remain friends.


Cara Bermingham

About Cara Bermingham

Cara is a team coach at ustwo and co-runs the monthly Agile on the Bench meet-up. Check them out on twitter @agileonthebench or follow her personal insights @bermsville.

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