How to build successful agile teams in 2019 and beyond

agile

Agile has become a by-word for doing things efficiently and fast – and it’s a must in today’s rapidly changing society. But agile isn’t just a concept or a word, its success hinges on the team you build around it. Without the right people in place, you cannot do agile well.

Here’s some advice for building a successful agile team.

Why you need an agile team

But first, let’s focus on why you need an agile team in the first place. Organisations that adopt agile processes benefit across the entire enterprise. From fast product delivery and time-to-market to lower costs, better productivity and higher quality end-products. Agile projects experience a 28% higher success rate compared to traditional projects.

Which explains why agile is quickly becoming the norm in many industries. 71% of organisations report that they use agile in some form in the majority (if not all) of their projects. 76% predict that agile will outnumber waterfall projects by 2020. 58% of businesses see agile as a way to rapidly adapt to market changes and continuously improve.

This is because agile development teams are self-organising and relatively autonomous. They organise themselves around a project or task, led by a scrum master. Non-productive efforts are minimised, plus, continuous testing detects any defects quickly.

Effective agile teams are cross-functional and customer-centric. That way, they remain focused on the customer experience and can iterate faster than siloed teams. Delivering a working product to the market, that’s higher quality and released faster than competitors.

Innovation is fostered more readily in an agile team because of the diversity of thought. Since every member comes from a different discipline and background, they can add various perspectives to an issue. This also eliminates most, if not all, of the conflicting priorities that abound in a siloed organisation.

Most organisations turn to agile as a way to improve collaboration and software quality. Customer satisfaction, time-to-market and cost savings are additional perks.

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The agile framework

There are several agile methodologies, each with its own unique qualities and a focus on iterative improvement.

Every agile project involves a degree of continuous planning, continuous testing, continuous integration and continuous development. Rules are largely kept to a minimum, especially compared to waterfall processes, and they can adapt to changing circumstances. Agile’s main focus is on creating applications in small increments, testing each increment (to build ‘quality’ into the product from the start) and empowering developers to collaborate and make decisions.

agile-methodology

There are several agile methodologies, each with its own unique qualities and a focus on iterative improvement.

Every agile project involves a degree of continuous planning, continuous testing, continuous integration and continuous development. Rules are largely kept to a minimum, especially compared to waterfall processes, and they can adapt to changing circumstances. Agile’s main focus is on creating applications in small increments, testing each increment (to build ‘quality’ into the product from the start) and empowering developers to collaborate and make decisions.

How an effective agile team works

Now you understand the benefits of an agile team, you can look at building one. In an agile team, every individual works towards a unified purpose. Their goals are aligned, although they each have a unique role to play in the project. Much like how a successful beehive has worker bees, soldiers and a Queen Bee.

Collaboration is at the core of an agile team. Developers, systems architects, quality assurance and more, are intertwined in their work. They’re also self-organising, in that, a team leader sets a challenge for the team, plus boundaries and requirements. But then, it’s up to the team to set about developing a solution.

That’s not the say that agile teams have no leadership. It just differs from the traditional Waterfall hierarchy. Instead, management guides the team in their thinking and behaviour, not their actions. There’s more of a focus on culture and team-building, than micromanagement and dictating suitable actions.

Potential challenges to consider

In an ideal world, an agile team will work like a well-oiled machine. Eventually, it will get there, but expect a few challenges along the way. Namely, in team formation, as it takes a while for people to seamlessly work together.

According to Tuckman’s “Stages of Group Development”, effective teams go through several phases: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Expect this stage to take time.

Indeed, the key word in ‘agile team’ isn’t, as you’d expect, ‘agile’. When building an agile team, focus on your team first and then implementing agile processes second. In a traditional team, individual members are often focused on their role alone. In an agile team, this doesn’t work. Culturally, it requires a shift from individual goals to team-level ones. Everyone must see how their work contributes to the bigger picture.

Transparency is also important in an agile team. Regular feedback is built into agile development. There should be psychological safety for team members to give honest, constructive feedback and reflect on their own performance when required. Finally, teams should feel empowered and trusted to make their own decisions, solve problems and develop innovative solutions using all of their skills and expertise.

The team players you’ll need

Conversely, there as essential skills and roles in every agile team. These include the:

  • Product Owner
  • Product Manager
  • Scrum Master
team players

Each comes with unique requirements. The Product Owner must be an effective communicator. It’s a key role in managing the stakeholder’s needs and relaying this to the team. They will also demonstrate the final solution to stakeholders, so they’ll need to be confident and motivating presenters.

Product Managers guide the success of a product and they set the strategy, roadmap and feature definition. The role may also include marketing, forecasting and profit and loss (P&L) responsibilities. They have to be enthusiastic leaders, able to inspire a team. But with deep product expertise, that’s complemented by commercial acumen. Their role spans strategy and tactical activities, so they’ll have to be adaptable and comfortable doing cross-functional tasks.

A Scrum Master is responsible for monitoring the scrum processes and meetings. To increase team efficiency, motivation and to uphold quality and timeliness. They must be good communicators, open listeners and well-organised.

Mindset is vital

Alongside these roles, you should consider a team member’s mindset and whether they have the soft skills needed to flourish in an agile team. Broadly, they’ll need to be able to handle ambiguity without losing focus, an ability to concentrate on outcomes over processes, and the motivation to contribute to the team.

McKinsey research has shown that agreeableness and the ability to handle ambiguity is essential. Being agreeable isn’t about agreeing with everything said by colleagues, but it centres on empathetic listening and being attuned to feedback. It’s about being able to say, “Yes, and…” instead of “Yes, but…” which automatically reduces conflict.

Customers and agile teams learn and create products together. So every person in an agile team must care about the customer. The technology matters, but it’s useless if it doesn’t meet a customer’s needs. All team goals must come from the customer’s requirements.

How to select your team

To help you uncover the right kind of people for your agile team, there are several indicators you can look for.

  1. What motivates them?

Traditional motivators such as productivity and risk mitigation must take second place compared to outcomes and customers. Ask a potential team member what interests them and encourages their work. If it’s customer-focused, you’re onto a winner.

2. What do they expect from others?

Ask your candidates questions about how they work with others and manage work in a team. By understanding what they expect from others and what kind of support they’ll need from their colleagues, you’ll have a better idea of how they’ll fit in your team.

3. Are they customer-centric?

You can discover this mindset, by asking someone what customer service means to them. By knowing what they expect as a customer, you’ll gain insight into how they might engage with your customers.

4. Are they proud of their work?

People who care about their craft and the outcomes it delivers are integral to the success of an agile team. Focus on their experience and how their work aligns with their goals and values.

Unique to every organisation

The behaviour and workings of your top-notch team will differ according to project needs and your business’ goals. However, there are specific roles and characteristics that will build strong foundations for your team. Agile will look a little different for each team, depending on circumstances – but it will always be collaborative, customer-centric and cross-functional.

Are you looking to build agile teams of your own? 

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Prakash Pilley