Project Management

Swarming: The Secret Life of Agile Teams

Estimated reading time: 6 minute(s)

Swarming: The Secret Life of Agile Teams

Swarming: The Secret Life of Agile Teams

Don’t you love those movie montages where everyone’s working together toward a big goal? Like in The Three Amigos, when the entire town of San Poco prepares to defend themselves against the arrival of the murderous villain, El Guapo. Even the elderly women come out, sewing suits to disguise themselves as Lucky Day, Dusty Bottoms, and Ned Nederlander.

Swarming in agile is the same idea. It’s when a team swarms together like a group of bees around a difficult problem, and works together to bring it over the finish line. Agile teams, fundamentally, are collaborative, and so the practice of swarming is a sign of a high-functioning agile team.

Let’s look into the characteristics of swarming, how it benefits a team, and ways an agile coach or scrum master can create a team environment that embraces the practice of swarming.

FAQs on Swarming

FAQs on Swarming

Have you ever been stuck on something, and all you had to do was talk it over with someone else and you figured the problem out? Swarming helps to dislodge people from looking at problems through a binary lens. It unlocks the creative brain power of a team and helps them solve conundrums and get out of stuck places.

There’s no hierarchy in swarming. Brainstorming and discussion is integral to working through tricky issues, and so everyone’s perspective is equally valued.

Here are answers to several common questions about swarming.

Are swarms scheduled?

Swarms can either be planned or unplanned.

Some teams plan swarms at the beginning of a sprint, identifying a high-ticket item for everyone to focus on and get done. Other teams routinely swarm on the last day of a sprint, around any work items left in the sprint backlog. The daily standup is another time for bringing up concerning issues and planning a swarm.

At other times, swarms happen organically. Maybe a team member reaches out during the day to ask about something he or she is stuck on, or a client calls in with an urgent problem. Then the team drops everything and figures out a way to resolve the issue. For some teams, impromptu swarms become so habitual that just by putting a “bee” emoji into a message, everyone understands what’s being asked of them.

Do swarms need to be in-person?

The Agile Manifesto emphasizes in-person conversation over messaging. One of its principles is: “The most efficient and effective methods of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

Ideally, then, a swarm would happen in-person. For remote teams, a video conference platform is an acceptable alternative method to use.

In order to pick up voice inflection and see body language, it’s necessary to hear and see a person’s face, and so swarms wouldn’t take place over email or messaging apps.

How long does a swarm last?

A swarm lasts as long as it takes to solve the problem. This may be thirty minutes or it can be as long as two hours.

Does the whole team participate in a swarm?

A swarm is always collaborative, so it would need to have three or more people. The whole team, however, needn’t necessarily join in. Depending on the nature of the problem, a few people may be designed to participate, while others can choose to join in. In other instances, a swarm is a whole-group effort.

Is swarming practiced in all agile methodologies?

Agile, universally, emphasizes teamwork and face-to-face conversation, and so swarming is always par for the course.

Swarming is especially common in kanban, which places work-in-process (WIP) limits at all work stages, in order to eliminate bottlenecks. When one stage reaches its WIP limit, a team swarms around it in order to maintain a fluid workflow.

The Benefits of Swarming

The Benefits of Swarming

Swarming is all about unleashing the power of a team. It allows a team to achieve more together than each member could individually. Let’s discuss a few key benefits to swarming.

Fosters Innovative Solutions

Have you had a discussion that gave you a whole new perspective on an issue you previously thought you knew all about?

Usually, there are a myriad of ways to solve a single problem. When teams get together, they’re able to pool all their ideas, then carefully weigh and discuss each of them. Through collaborative brainstorming, they can determine the simplest solution that delivers the best value to the customer.

Creates a Fluid Workflow

For most agile teams, the “definition of done” includes a checklist of seven or more items. When these are done piecemeal, it can take quite some time to finally mark a task off as complete.

However, with swarming, everything is completed in one session. In software development, for example, the code, quality assurance, and tests all happen at the same time.

Limits Context Switching

Multi-tasking, the studies have shown, significantly reduces an individual’s work performance during the day. Swarming keeps the whole team focused on the same problem, so they’re not being drawn away from one task and having to focus on something else a few minutes later.

This concentrated focus is a more efficient way to get things done, and it increases the value of the increment the team creates.

Develops Strong Rapport

When a team routinely swarms together and helps one another out, they come to appreciate everyone’s skill set and point of view. It removes a hero mentality from the team dynamic, and instead people feel like everyone has their back.

As you can see, swarming benefits a team in so many ways. It’s no surprise that some agile teams make them a routine part of iteration planning.

The Swarm Mentality

The Swarm Mentality

A swarming mindset doesn’t come naturally to all team members. For some, asking for help feels like admitting you don’t know how to do your job. Others have a “ball hog” mentality, and they’re more concerned about their individual performance than the team’s performance.

But taking problems to the team is the agile way. Here are a few ideas for how a scrum master or an agile coach creates a team that’s ready and willing to swarm.

Create Psychological Safety

Some team members, particularly anyone new to a team, feel an immense pressure to perform at 100% all the time. In an agile setting, however, admitting that you’re stuck and taking something to the team is really a strength.

A coach creates an atmosphere of vulnerability and trust by routinely asking people if they need help and then acknowledging and rewarding team members who bring concerns to the team.

Cross-Train

Oftentimes team members become siloed into their individual skills and tasks. It’s hard to learn new things, and so many prefer to just keep on doing what they already know. However, swarming only works when everyone has a strong skill base and understands multiple facets of a problem.

A coach increases individual team member’s skill-sets by introducing the practice of pairing. This is when team members work together on the same task and learn from one another.

Use Team Metrics, Rather Than Individual

It’s easy for team members to pit themselves against each other, and evaluate each person’s performance against their own. However, this individualist mindset precludes the collaborative spirit that’s required of swarming.

By only presenting the team’s sprint velocity, and not individual sprint velocities, an agile coach or scrum master communicates that the team’s performance is more valuable than an individual’s performance.

In sum, swarming is a practice that won’t happen right away on many agile teams. First, it’s necessary to create an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie and train each member in a variety of skills.

Conclusion

Swarming is about providing a helping hand, and is a hallmark of a collaborative, agile team environment. Some teams regularly schedule swarms, and at other times a swarm occurs unexpectedly. For a swarm to be effective, it needs to entail face-to-face conversation, either in-person or on a video conference platform.

An agile coach creates a fertile swarming environment by cross-training teams and creating psychological safety within the team.

Swarms benefit the team and the client in so many ways. It develops team rapport, delivers a creative and innovative solution to problems, and allows a task to get from start to finish in the fastest time possible. So whether or not a team is allergic to bees, swarming is something every agile team should embrace without hesitation.

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