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10 Tips to lead agile teams

September 29, 2020

A great deal has been written about Agile. Much of that writing is about tools, processes, methodologies, technologies, platforms and data. These things are important, but mindsets and people are more important.

Our friends – the Agile Conversations Team – write:

“After years of study and many missteps, we have come to the understanding that the key to success is not only “adopting practices” but ”having the difficult conversations” that foster the right environment for those practices to work.”

These conversations cover the goals that people aspire to, the mindset through which they understand the world, the way they work together, the values they share and the way they speak to each other. Creating the right culture for these conversations to take place is key to Agile.

Self-managing … or not

Agile teams aren't just for engineers. In larger software organisations, Agile teams form in many parts of the business: marketing, HR, finance ... you name it!  Also, one of the original principles in the Agile manifesto was that teams would become self-managing.

Agile principle: “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organising teams.”

However, not all teams that are working Agile have adopted self-management in full. The Learning Consortium Project investigated a large number of Agile organisations and their management practices.  “Despite the widespread discussion of self-organisation, self-management, self-governance, and “inverting the pyramid”, managers still play a central role in all these organisations.” Whilst many teams are not fully self-managing most teams are moving away from a command and control style of management. This requires a different skill set from a manager or team lead.

Coaching your team

The manager’s role in an Agile team is becoming increasingly to act as a coach, facilitator, and support person for the team. Your key focus needs to be on facilitating communication between your team and other stakeholders, as well as removing roadblocks to progress.

Agile principle: build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.

The Learning Consortium identified the need to see “managers as enablers not controllers”. Another reframing of the new role is in terms of servant leadership. Leaders serving their teams rather than the other way round. Spotify described the role of Agile managers: “Rather than planners, directors, and controllers, they become visionaries, architects, and coaches who empower the people with the most relevant competencies so they can lead, collaborate, and deliver exceptional results”.

For the Agile manager, priorities change. The model below indicates some of the preferences favoured by those working Agile:

agile principles

Developing careers

Another key function of managing an Agile team is supporting your team members’ advancement and development.

Agile principle: At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.
As the manager, your job becomes helping them find ways to improve and supporting that improvement, whether it’s through coaching, development or other advancement opportunities. One of the big benefits of working in a team is that colleagues learn from and mentor one another. Mentoring isn't just an activity for junior members to learn from senior members. Everyone on the team learns from one another, so that the impact of the team as a whole, is greater than the sum of the impact made by its individual members.

Developing the team to be more than a sum of its parts

Building your team is essential to working Agile.  Working Agile means sharing the adventure of building something that truly matters with engaged teammates. Agile teams take time to form. Agile teams go through phases as they develop. Some point to Tuckman's "stages of group development.” But we think even more useful is to understand the concepts of 3 Gets:

1. Get Set - being really clear on the direction for the team2. Get Safe - developing psychological safety and trust3. Get Strong - holding each other to high standards

10 Ways to Help an Agile Team Excel

The last thing Agile means is following a list blindly. But these ten activities can help any Agile team work better together.

Simon Hayward in his book “The Agile Leader” said “To be effective leaders in a digital world, we need to be both an enabler and disruptor”. This is a tough balancing act.

Enabling capability: “learning agility, empathy, collaboration”. Disruptive capability included being “thoughtfully decisive, digitally literate, creating new ways of thinking”.

1. Aligning the team to the North Star and Values

Agile organisations are driven by a compelling purpose. The role of a CEO and leadership team is fundamental for setting the clarity of purpose. But without managers reinforcing that vision it will not stick.

It’s a skill to translate purpose, values and operational goals so that they are meaningful to the team, but also aligned to the organisation. To do this you need to:

  • Understand the context of the organisation or department’s purpose, goals and values
  • Generate a conversation with the team to design the team purpose goals and values
  • Continue to reinforce and check in that these are relevant and meaningful

💡 How can you align your teams to organisation purpose and values?

2. Iterate and learn

Managers in an Agile world need to be able to iterate and learn. Teams focus on an outcome (a minimal viable product or deliverable). In short periods (often called sprints) the team holds frequent, often daily, check ins to share progress, solve problems, and ensure alignment. Between sprints, team members meet to review and plan, to discuss progress to date, and to set a goal for the next sprint.

💡 How can you develop your toolkits for these short learning cycles?

3. Reflection

Learning to reflect and improve is critical for Agile leaders.  Transparency and continuous improvement of products, services, and work methods.  Admitting failure and learning from mistakes. Team retrospectives are commonplace in Agile development areas but are scarcely known about more widely.

💡 How can you develop “psychological safety” so the whole team feels comfortable discussing what’s going well and where things need to improve?

4. Client focus

A ruthless focus on the customer is critical for an Agile manager. If you are in a customer-facing team, this may come naturally. But if you are removed from the customer, how can you bring the customer closer to the work the team does?

💡 How can you bring your team closer to customer needs?

5. Development

The conversations a manager needs to have with a team member about their personal development need to be more holistic and imaginative. For example, it’s key that team members have clear, accountable roles. But these roles will be changing fast.

💡 How can you address any lack of clarity about roles with one another?

6. Resilience

In an Agile environment things change frequently. Opinions collide and decisions need to be made fast. This can be exhausting. Managers need to be generating intensity but also mindful of the mental health of the team. This will include ways to manage conflict and challenge. Finding a way to embrace and even normalise the challenging discussions will be helpful.

💡 How can you build your own resilience and the resilience of the team?

7. Communication

Research shows good communication correlates with better team performance. Ensuring that everyone has a voice through effective one-to-ones is a start point. Adopting principles of “turn taking” in team meetings so that the loudest voice doesn’t drown out the room. Encouraging communications that are open and conversational, rather than top-down and hierarchical.

💡 How can you develop the right communication channels so that voices in and outside the team are heard?

8. “Teaming”

Many managers are members of more than one team. Research at the Business School Insead indicate that it’s common to be a member of 3+ teams. Different disciplines across the organisation need to work closely together. Learning to “team” is a term coined by Amy Edmondson. Unlike working in a team, “teaming” is an active process. Many managers have not been given team training 101.

💡 How can you have a simple, intuitive grasp of creating “teaming” behaviours?

9. Managing diversity

Many forms of diversity – especially cognitive diversity – are correlated to better performance. Therefore, Agile managers need to be able to manage people who are different from them. Different generations, different nationalities and, perhaps most difficult of all, different value systems.  

💡 How can you draw on all the talents of those in your team, even those very different from you?

10. Simplicity

Simplicity should be your guide as an Agile manager. It’s easier to create 20 pages of documentation than one. This is as true for technical solutions, as for our methods of working and organising the organisation.

💡 How can you reduce the burden and impediments for the team? Simplify life.

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