There’s a lot of buzz in the agile world today about becoming more technical, automating everything, and learning the next miracle tool. While it’s important to establish a process, and tools can help with many steps of the software development lifecycle, the human contribution to project delivery is still the most important.
I want to put the focus back on people.
If you have great people on your team, you are more likely to succeed, regardless of the tools. The reverse is also true: You may have the best process and most expensive tools, but without highly skilled and motivated individuals, success will be difficult.
What qualities should teams be looking for in our agile people?
An Agile Mindset
The first characteristic is having an agile mindset. Being willing to experiment and try new things is essential. Experimentation lets you quickly try a number of options to see which fits best.
People on an agile team have to understand that sometimes they will fail, and that is fine, as long as they are learning from their failure—either that their idea does not work in this situation but may for others, or that it is never going to work. Of course, for people to experiment, they have to feel that it is safe to fail, which is a responsibility of the organization. Plus, they need to be given the time to experiment. This is often where retrospectives show their value. Retrospectives are a mandated—and, I believe, mandatory—time to allow the team to reflect and identify how they may do things differently.
A Positive Attitude
We also need people to have a “can-do” attitude. How many times have you heard the words “That’s impossible,” or maybe even used those words yourself? People may have this response for a number of reasons, often due to lack of knowledge or lack of leadership support to enable them to find the answer. Both of these are relatively easy to resolve.
The first problem, lack of knowledge, can be mitigated through training or coaching. These practices seem to be put in place only when something goes wrong. Team members get told that they are going agile and are expected to suddenly have the capability to do it. More time needs to be devoted to developing the team’s skills and competencies.
The second issue, lack of leadership support, can be helped through empathy, pairing, or taking time to talk things through with the individual or team—in fact demonstrating real leadership skills. I am working with some teams right now where the organization decided to go agile almost overnight. Everyone was collocated, because that makes everything successful, right? They were put into teams but given little or no guidance, had no training, and were told they had to speed up delivery because they were now agile. Do you think that is going to work?
A Healthy Sense of Trust
Trust has to be earned, but we should at least start with the premise that we trust our team to get the job done. All the great agile competencies that we talk about, such as self-management, self-organization, and autonomy, are not just words. We need to empower our teams to live and breathe these concepts.
This means no micromanaging or solving everyone’s problems for them. Leaders should give their team members the support they need in order to grow within the team. As the team moves through the stages of group development, trust will grow.
However, be aware that if a new member joins the team, it will create an imbalance for a while. Any change in the team structure means that the team may move down to a lower point in the team-building stages for a time. But if the team is stable to begin with and has good leadership support, it makes recovery time quicker.
When I started working with one agile team I took time to observe them first, and they went almost a whole day without speaking to each other. The key time that they talked was at the daily standup, and that just seemed like they felt they had to say something. Their updates did not really sound like communicating progress, and it certainly was not for the benefit of the team, but rather for the ScrumMaster, so he could fill in his daily report.
Needless to say, this is not the agile ideal. If you have a highly collaborative team, there should be lots of noise and energy in your team space as everyone talks about ideas and solutions. This is often an indicator that the team is going to consistently deliver high-quality products. This is the team that everyone would like to get the opportunity to work with.
Fostering These Qualities in Your Team
So, what do we need to do as leaders to encourage these positive attributes in our teams?
One of the most important things for me is creating an environment where people are having fun. If the team wants to come to work and I have to push them out at night, my job is done. Happy staff deliver quality products, which means happy customers.
A major part of getting employees to be enthusiastic about their jobs is finding out what motivates them. This will be something different for everyone. It may be areas where they want to learn new technical skills, work on soft skills, get some training in a new methodology, or just have time to reflect on different ways to do something. As a leader, you need to take time to get to know your teams and understand what excites each individual, then help them to focus on these things.
The first statement of the Agile Manifesto is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Over does not mean instead of—processes and tools are still important to agile development—but the focus should be on the people. Respect and support your teammates and they will deliver spectacular creations.