Empowering Agile Teams

Teams, when truly empowered, will always make better decisions than any one individual. Where can you empower teams as you adopt agile?

I'm a great believer in the power of teams—their wisdom, their ability to hyper-perform, their ability to create truly innovative products. I stand by teams versus heroes or command-and-control managers. Recently, I read an email from Jeff Sutherland that indicated that when we empower teams, the IQ of the individuals actually goes up—that is, we actually get smarter! And, sadly, the opposite is true: Controlling teams actually causes team members' individual cognitive power to decrease. "New research appearing in the May issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that being put in a low-power role may impair a person's basic cognitive functioning and thus their ability to get ahead." They lose intelligence.

I'll admit (at least for this article), as horrific as this outcome is, right now I care about teams in the present—the here and now versus the long-term impacts. One of the seven lean principles is "Empower Teams." Without embracing this principle, the other six lean principles will fail you. How does this fit into an agile adoption? We need to listen aggressively to teams as the number-one source for how we continuously improve our agile initiatives through the notion of “inspect and adapt."

Here is my belief: Teams, when truly empowered, will always make better decisions than any one individual. Collective wisdom has a number of benefits:

  • We get greater buy in and commitment to agreements when they arise from participatory decision making.
  • We make more-informed decisions when we gather full-team insights.
  • We essentially reward team members for working together by giving them the power to own their decisions.
  • By engaging team members in ownership of their decisions, we move them through the dysfunctions of low standards and artificial harmony into very high standards and high trust.
  • We encourage teams to engage in constructive conflict that leads to better and better decisions, and hence higher and higher performing.

Where can you empower teams as you adopt agile?

1. Have teams pull the agile initiative versus pushing it. Agile adoptions that are forced on team members from an edict outside the team depletes the team's buy in to the initiative from the start. If you are a leader in an engineering organization, walk around and find out what is ailing your team members. Learn as much as you can about agile software development. Find out who among your organization's members shows a spark around the disciplines of agile. Invite these people to create an initiative with your full backing.

2. Make sure the business understands what empowered teams look like. The planning performed by agile teams does not allow bullying by business representatives to make the team take on more work than it can safely absorb. Bring business—not just product owners—into the world of agile by helping all stakeholders understand the value of truly empowered teams.

3. Bookend iterations with team planning and team retrospection. Truly agile adoptions adopt the discipline of full-team planning of the iteration commitment. What value can we commit to deliver given the requests for value from the business owner, and how can we retrospect at the end of the iteration so that we can continually improve on our iteration commitments in the future?

4. Encourage team empowerment through your own behaviors. Continuously ask team members for their guidance on emergent decisions about the agile adoption. Seek team insights around removing organizational impediments. Find out what is most challenging for team members and aggressively attack these challenges. Make yourself accountable to the team.

5. Hold teams accountable. Empowered teams take ownership of their commitments. Provide the means through which your teams can advertise their commitments and how they meet them. Create venues in which your empowered teams share their insights so that useful improvements or standards emerge. Encourage team members to hold each other accountable.

6. Remove the "hero worship." Empowering teams means taking away the notion of a "hero" as your means to organizational success. Appraising individual performance creates accidental adversaries among team members. The work group cannot be a true team when heroes are compensated for acting as individuals. Bring purposeful harmony to your teams by rewarding team-focused goals, not individually focused goals.

Leaders empower teams through their commitment to them, their support of them, and their own behaviors around them. Robert Greenleaf's book, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, provides rich guidance for the leader who truly intends to empower her teams. Lead by serving and serve by leading. Team members will not only come to hyper-perform, they'll also increase their intelligence!


User Comments

Bob Maksimchuk's picture

Excellent post Jean.  I have often seen teams that are working enthusiastically to adopt agile techniques.  Then a non-supportive manager or policy comes along and demands actions that completely disempower the teams.  It's actually very sad to watch the team deflate.  Some may continue their pursuit of agile....but only so much before they are beaten down into compliance.

June 20, 2013 - 9:35am
Clifford Berg's picture

Yes, what Bob says is very true. But let's also be careful that we don't rush along to the logical extreme of this. Teams have challenges too. Many in the Agile community espouse the "Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing" model. But the model is clear that there can be problems that require management intervention. From wikipedia, on the Tuckman model:


"[The Storming] phase can become destructive to the team and will lower motivation if allowed to get out of control. Some teams will never develop past this stage. Supervisors of the team during this phase may be more accessible, but tend to remain directive in their guidance of decision-making and professional behavior. The team members will therefore resolve their differences and members will be able to participate with one another more comfortably."

The problem is how to hold a "team" accountable is also a hard one. Accountable is not real if does not involve real consequences: do you dock the pay of each team member? Just saying "I am disappointed" is not holding them accountable in any real way. But it is true that rewarding individuals is very destructive to a team's cohesion. Yet there is also the problem of how do you develop leaders for the organization's growth? And does everyone on a team have the same pay? - usually not. It is a dilemma with no easy solution.

My basic point is: let's not oversimplify the challenges here. The author is right on every point, but implementing this requires a great deal of experience and/or sensitivity with respect to human behavior in groups.


November 20, 2014 - 12:00pm
Tim Thompson's picture

Very interesting post. I agree that a team as a team makes better decisions versus a single person. That flies in the face of installing the almighty product owner who yeas or nays the decisions. Can't have the cake and eat it, too. Either empower the team and get rid of the decision power of the product owner OR make the product owner an equal member of the team with the same weight.

November 22, 2014 - 9:23am

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