How Effective is your Agile Team?
By Rowan McCann, Bright Green Projects
Back in the '90s, self-managed teams were gaining popularity, but they had a high rate of failure mainly because team members lacked people skills. These ideas of self-managed teams were borrowed by the Agile movement when, in 2001, they formulated a ‘new’ way of working, based on Agile principles. These principles value individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan.
For these ideas to work in practice, Agile team members must know something about teamwork, and this means understanding a lot about human behavior and why people do the things they do!
Agile team members are usually composed of highly skilled and knowledgeable workers who strongly value their independence. Some are worth more to an organization than the people who manage them! Many software developers are quite introverted, preferring to interact with their computers rather than people. In my experience, organizations hardly spend any time on people skills and spend no time on the even more difficult concept of what people need to do to ‘self-manage’ into a high-performing team. I’ve had to learn this in the world of experience. I wonder how many readers find themselves in a similar position.
If you look at the Agile website, you’ll find that the emphasis is on ‘engineering best practice’ and tasks rather than team processes. Similarly, many project managers are used to old-school leadership where they are more comfortable with control and the power that goes with it. For Agile IT teams to become high-performing they should immediately spend time helping the team to initiate the process of adaptive learning. This requires a focus on behavioral skills.
The Nature of Work
A starting point for all teams is to understand the nature of their work. One of the best models describing this is the Types of Work Wheel developed by Team Management Systems. Through their research they were able to identify eight distinct ‘Types of Work’ that need to be undertaken by all teams, regardless of their industry. There are important lessons here for our industry of Agile Project Management. The eight work functions are listed below, with the approval of Team Management Systems.
The Advising function is associated with the gathering of information from all stakeholders and responding quickly to changing requirements. It involves keeping up-to-date with developments inside and outside the organization and sharing advice with others to help them in their work. It requires a transparent flow of knowledge of 'what' is going on and 'where,' and a focus on 'consulting skills' so information can be gathered quickly, accurately and effectively.
The Innovating function involves generating new ideas and new ways of doing things. This requires the development of creative problem-solving skills so the team remains one step ahead of its competitors. To do this well requires original thought, imagination and innovative thinking.
The Promoting function is concerned with the identification of opportunities and the 'selling' of these opportunities to others, both inside and outside the organization. It often involves the application of influencing skills and the making of presentations to others. It can also involve communicating the team or organizational 'vision.' High visibility throughout the organization may also be required.
The Developing function is associated with the turning of concepts into 'reality.' Ideas are worked on to produce practical products and services. In many cases it may also involve developing workable and practical solutions when problems arise. Agile teams need good analytical skills so that requirements can be quickly prioritized, enabling accurate estimates of iterations and burn down charts.
The Organizing function involves organizing people and resources efficiently by setting clear goals and objectives and making team members accountable for their actions. It is also associated with the implementation of quick, effective action when problems occur, so the planned outputs are always capable of being achieved. Essentially, that the organizing function ensures that the work of the team is structured and focused towards common objectives.
The Producing function focuses on outputs, ensuring that iterations are completed to high standards of effectiveness and efficiency. It is the function associated with the regular delivery of releases and other services. It requires a systematic approach to work and an emphasis on the delivery of products on time.
The Inspecting function requires an attention to detail and an emphasis on the monitoring of systems, contracts and outputs. It is also associated with a focus on accuracy, ensuring that work outputs are always delivered to the right quality. This function is the classic control function where procedures are regularly monitored for their efficiency. It’s often a core feature of the sprint review process.
The Maintaining function is a support function which ensures that proper standards of conduct and ethics are upheld and that quality is maintained. It is also associated with supporting others in the team so team processes follow agreed ground rules. Personal conviction and loyalty are often important to this function as is an interest in helping others.
For teams to be high-performing it’s essential that these eight Types of Work are done well. But Team Management Systems has discovered that rarely does anyone actually enjoy doing all of these functions. People show distinct ‘work preferences’ for maybe just two or three of these activities.
Work Preferences are dimensions of individual differences in tendencies to show consistent patterns of relationships, thoughts, feelings and actions in the work environment. Work Preferences determine the conditions we all set up to allow our mental and psychic processes to flow freely. Preferences are usually transparent and are often the first thing we notice in others – ‘He’s rather quiet, isn’t he?’ or ‘She never stops talking.’ Some people prefer to think things through on their own whereas others need to talk out loud to clarify their ideas. Preferences are readily visible to others and are usually the basis of first impressions.
When we are working to our preferences we set up conditions where our psychic energy can flow freely. If we are more extroverted we like work where there are lots of interactions with others, both inside and outside the organization. If we are more introverted, then we like conditions where we can work on our own with few interruptions and meetings. Under these conditions our energy can flow freely with minimal resistance. Just as electrical energy generates heat when it meets resistance, our psychic energy generates tension and stress when it has to flow through areas that are not our preference.
My preference is to work in the Advising and Innovating areas on the Types of Work Wheel and I don’t really enjoy Promoting or Organizing activities, so wherever possible I’ll spend time thinking about new ideas or finding out as much as I can about the project.
What happens in an Agile team is that there’s likely to be an imbalance when you look at the work preferences of all the team members. If everyone is like me, then there’ll be a tendency to give priority to making changes and incorporating the latest ideas. Teams like this may have the weakness of never tracking their burn-down charts!
Other weaknesses occur if everyone enjoys just Organizing and Producing. Your team may be well organized and on-target, but is it really delivering what the stakeholders want or indeed need?
So, if your Agile Team is to be truly effective you must understand the work preferences of all team members and look at the preferences balance. It will give you an immediate picture of strengths and weaknesses, as far as teamwork is concerned. Information like this helps ensure that everyone’s work preferences are matched to the critical demand of the job they have to do. Where the match is high, our energy flows freely, we are more likely to enjoy our job, stress is lower and we feel happier at work. But all eight work functions must receive the priority they need and never be relegated to lower importance.
The center of the Wheel describes Linking. It’s an activity responsible for integrating and co-coordinating the work of the team. It’s not a preference but a set of important skills that applies individually to team members and collectively to the team. Ideal Agile teams have a low level of leadership control and a high level of autonomy. In these situations team effectiveness largely depends on six key skills of People Linking, Active Listening, Communication, Problem-solving and Counseling, Team Relationships, Participative Decision-Making and Interface Management.
For People Linking to be effective it’s important for all Agile Teams to establish a set of ground rules. These are an agreed set of acceptable, individual behaviors that define how team members will interact. Usually they comprise 10-20 statements that are posted in the team meeting room or on the Agile Project Management Platform, agreed on at the start of the project and reviewed after each iteration. If a team member is unhappy with a particular team process then it’s easy to begin a discussion just by referring to the relevant ground rule that everyone has already agreed to. Conflict is often avoided by this simple process.