How To Make a Project Buzz: 7 Qualities of A Good Agile Team
You know that wiggly inflatable guy who floats above car dealerships? One moment, he’s straight as an arrow, then when the wind shifts a moment later, he collapses in half. Then he’s back up again.
And he’s smiling the whole time, as though he really enjoys the wild, jerky ride.
Flexibility is central to agile methodology. For most of us, however, bending and bowing like an inflatable man isn’t in our immediate skill set.
This means that creating a team with an agile framework doesn’t just happen. Big obstacles need to be overcome: taciturn people need to crawl out of their shells, and people who like to have a sense of control need to learn to let go.
But it’s certainly doable. Since its inception more than two decades ago at a ski resort in Utah by a team of software developers, the agile methodology has worked wonders with software and engineering teams.
Agile teams work simply and collaboratively. They’re prepared for the uncertainty any project brings. Plus, they’re diligent problem solvers, quickly identifying and pulling out weeds, to allow projects to flower to fruition.
This is to say, the benefits outweigh the challenges. Agile methodology is a sure path to a productive, fluid team. Here are seven qualities of a high-performing agile team.
1. Welcomes Uncertainty
When long-distance birds migrate south for the winter, they embark on a journey of several thousand miles, spanning entire continents. In their bird brains, they know that warmer weather and longer days means more insects and a fertile environment for raising hatchlings.
Yet none of them, even the fearless leader of the echelon, clutches a map in its claws. Although their destination is clear, they haven’t charted a specific path, nor have they any apparent plans for pit stops and rest and rejuvenation.
They just start flying.
Agile teams follow a similar journey. With a clear goal in mind, they crank up the engine and get going.
Excessive planning can be a waste of time. Oftentimes, something you learn early on in a project alters the course for the rest of the journey.
Empirical knowledge, rather, determines the path for agile teams. Everything discovered along the way charts a more reliable journey: if the team encounters a storm, it pivots. When it reaches a sunny patch, it stays the course for a stretch of time.
The Agile Manifesto, created at the aforementioned ski resort in 2001, includes four key values, and twelve principles. One of the principles is to “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.”
This principle may cause frustration. Many of us, including most clients, like to see a clear layout of costs, and a work plan.
Although it seems sensible to know expenses and timelines up front, this sort of over-planning actually may lead to disastrous failures. It forces a team to chart a specific course, even after they realize it makes no sense to do so.
A good agile team knows that uncertainty is integral to most projects. No one knows at the onset what the journey will unearth.
2. Enjoys the Ride
Remember when you were a kid, and your parents would take you on a car trip? You’d sit in the back seat of the car, with the window down, watching everything go by. You probably didn’t have much of an idea of where you were going, but with the wind in your hair, you were having a great time getting there!
An agile team approaches a project with a sense of adventure: they anticipate the unexpected and the unknown, and even relish it! They aren’t concerned with defining the scope of the project, but simply the exploration process of achieving a desired outcome.
This is a hard mindset for some teams to develop. For most of us, remaining focused on the here and now is a real challenge. Our tendency is to look ahead and predict outcomes.
One of the principles of the Agile Manifesto is that “The best architecture, requirements and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”
When a team, collectively, is focused on the ride, their combined skill set flourishes. It’s an environment that fosters collaboration and discovery.
3. Cultivates Collaboration
In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo Baggins knew he wanted to destroy the One Ring in the Fires of Mount Doom in Mordor. However, as a tiny hobbit with few skills, he had no capacity to undertake the grueling journey on his own.
Fortunately, the fellowship climbed on board. Akin to a sponsorship, his epic journey was made possible by the generous support of elves, dwarfs, soldiers, a wizard and the companionship of other hobbits.
When pursued by dangerous Ringwaiths, Arwen the elf used a spell to make river waters overtake them. The dwarf Gimili’s knowledge of mines helped the fellowship traverse underground through Moria. And Gandalf staved off the monster, Balrag, which cost him his life, though it saved everyone else.
Progress within agile teams is dependent on a similar fellowship (minus the spell casting!).
One principle in the Agile Manifesto is to “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”
A motivated team, just like the fellowship of the ring, works collaboratively to solve any obstacle that presents itself as they work toward a goal.
It can be difficult for a manager or client to let go of the reins and allow the team to seek its own path.
However, when a group of skilled individuals has a good understanding of the purpose of a project–it’s “why”–they’re sufficiently capable to figure out all of the “whats” on their own.
4. Reflects Constructively and Supportively
It’s so common to start out reading an epic novel like Moby Dick with great gusto, only to gradually appreciate, by the 200th page or so, that it’s really just an epic slog.
Yet, many of us press on to the end, determined to finish what we start!
Determination and endurance, generally, are commendable characteristics. Agile methodology, however, relies more heavily on doing small bits of work, reflecting, and then pivoting.
With an agile mindset, someone would read 50 pages into a book, then ask, “Am I achieving what I set out to accomplish? Is this book delivering what I had hoped it would?” Charting a path forward depends on the answers.
A principle in the Agile Manifesto is: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”
This reflection, known as a retrospective, is integral to the agile process.
Retrospectives are especially helpful in identifying what isn’t working. By taking the time to answer simple questions such as “What worked well?” and “What could be improved”, roadblocks are identified. Maybe someone is waiting on a tool, or someone is holding things up.
Feedback from these sessions is solution-oriented: it drives the team forward into its next sprint.
As such, good agile teams don’t shy away from providing feedback.
This can be a challenge. Oftentimes, people are reluctant to give or receive feedback that sounds critical.
A high-performing team knows how to present feedback and criticism in such a way as to make it constructive. Statements like, “I know people are busy, but I need help with this,” and “I’ve been feeling like this” cushion feedback and keep it from being accusatory.
5. Trusts Taking Small Steps
It’s hard to mess with perfection, but let’s just suppose you set out to improve upon your mother’s chocolate chip cookie recipe.
Sitting at the kitchen counter and playing around with ingredients and portions might be a good first step. But that wouldn’t tell you anything for sure.
As they say, the proof is in the pudding—you’d need to bake the modified recipe, and then taste it. Does it need more chocolate chips? Less walnuts?
Next, you’d tweak it some more. Add, perhaps, a little more butter, a little less flour, and bake it a second time. And then a third, possibly a fourth, until you arrive at scrumptious perfection.
Baking isn’t the only realm where experience and empirical knowledge are the surest path forward. Much of the time, it’s necessary to act, then take a step back and analyze.
This concept is part and parcel to agile. One principle from the Agile Manifesto is to “Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.”
Working in small increments allows teams to fail fast. Just as with a trial recipe, they’re able to identify missing flavors right away.
A good agile team communicates progress at frequent, regular intervals. From there, they plan their next small batch of work. This framework requires strong team bonds. It means trusting the process, rather than focusing on a finish line.
6. Communicates in Transparency
How many times have you sent someone an email and not heard back, only to discover that it went to their spam, or you sent it to an address they never check?
And how often have you received a quick email or text, and misunderstood the tone or content?
In our technological age, this sort of miscommunication happens all the time. A project is easily held up simply because one person’s task hasn’t been properly communicated.
One of the four keys in the Agile Manifesto is: “Individuals and interaction over processes and tools.”
In an agile environment, verbal and face-to-face communication occur on a daily basis. These conversations can be documented with follow up emails, but the initial verbal interaction is key.
This communication keeps everyone on the same page. But it also poses a challenge for a team. Certain personalities would just as soon talk only once a week. And some companies have a culture where communication takes place primarily via email or text.
A successful agile team understands the value of face-to-face communication, and overcomes these challenges. By making effective communication a daily practice, everyone on the team understands the progress and status of a project, and knows their part to play.
7. Likes to Chill and Eat Cake
At the restaurant Canlis in Seattle, staff members regularly go out for lunch on the company dime. The agenda for the meeting, essentially, is simply to talk and get to know each other.
Owner Mark Canlis has found this policy invaluable. In addition to building cohesion amongst the team, it solves all sorts of problems within the business.
Collaboration and communication are cornerstones to an agile environment, and so establishing a similar sort of rapport is fundamental.
In order to identify impediments during retrospectives, teams need to trust each other enough to provide helpful feedback. And maintaining daily communication is only possible in an environment where people respect and value each other.
High-performing agile teams find casual time to spend with each other, shooting the breeze.
This increases psychological safety within a team, which is fundamental to a healthy company culture. When members feel supported, they perform at a higher level.
This sort of casual communication also allows for problems with the project to surface and be resolved.
It’s a lot of work to create a cohesive team, especially in a remote environment. The team leader plays a central role. Although everyone’s commitment is necessary.
An Unbeatable Team
“Uncertainty is the most stressful feeling,” says musical artist Sonya Teclai.
Indeed it is. Or at least, it can be. Uncertainty is part and parcel to the agile method. And for a lot of reasons, that’s a real struggle.
Building habits of regular face-to-face communication is also a challenge.
Most of us want to know the cost and timeline of a project at the onset, if only for our psychological well-being.
However, without getting too philosophical, we all know that nothing really is certain. Control and certainty are illusions.
The agile method offers a solid approach: one where sound communication and collaboration ensure a commitment to quality.
When an agile team is completely on board, just like the inflatable wiggle man, they come to enjoy the ride. And every time they reflect, pivot and re-adjust, they continue to wave a big smile.