High Performance Agile Teams: An Overview of Collaboration


Any team benefits from being highly collaborative. This is especially true in agile development, where the techniques for rapidly building quality software rely on communication and relationships over documentation and process formality. Agile techniques demand teams exercise a higher level of collaboration.

Yet the agile community doesn't have a common definition for what “collaboration” is. Collaboration is usually defined simply as a group of people who work together. We often don't know what collaboration should look like or the benefits it can provide. How do we know we're leveraging the relationships and commitments of the team in addition to the energy of individuals?

This article doesn't focus on collaborative techniques or patterns. It defines collaboration independent of techniques because a strong definition of collaboration will provide a common perspective that makes any team or technique more effective.

Collaboration Defined
Collaboration describes how a group of individuals work together to achieve a high performing team. A high performing team is able to leverage the team itself to accomplish more than the sum of what individual members can accomplish.

Collaboration supports this by increasing communication through robust relationships, keeping the team as a whole focused on common objectives, and leveraging an environment that exposes ideas and solutions. Here is a working definition of collaboration that's been useful in increasing collaboration among team members:

Collaboration: The cooperative behavior of a group of people empowered to solve a clearly defined problem such that the capabilities of the group are leveraged over the collection of individual talents. Members of a highly collaborative team consistently remove attention from personal agendas to focus their energies on team goals.

A highly collaborative team must have a clearly defined business problem to address and the authority to create and apply the solution. The business problem focuses on what the customer needs rather than a particular solution.

An essential component of collaboration is that each team member operates with the intellectual integrity to acknowledge a personal agenda or instinct is being promoted over the team's objectives, and the rigor to refocus on the dialog that moves the team towards solving the problem. This means that no one can entirely dismiss collaboration - it's either done well or done poorly.

Collaboration in Practice
Here's a brief case study that illustrates what collaboration can look like.
A group of technical and sales managers at an organization I worked with taught a series of weeklong training sessions. This organization had a strong interest in leveraging the capabilities of teams. The purpose was to train people how to succeed better as teams. Team members were randomly selected and given the same problem to solve. The instructors played three roles when interacting with team members: mentors, managers who supported the team to fulfill their objectives, and the customers.

With four or five teams in the group, the lowest performing individuals often ended up on the same team, with the highest performers on another. Predictably, at the beginning of the week the low performers did the worst and the high performers did best. As the week went on, the “bad team worked harder and later into the night, argued, explained and re-explained, justified, blamed, and failed to meet their objectives. There was no consensus.

Each person on the team was sure they had the winning strategy. Each person felt they knew what needed to be done and had difficulty listening to or accepting other strategies.
About mid-week, something surprising would happen. The team of low performers, facing constant failure, stopped arguing. Perhaps it was desperation, or individuals stopped assuming they new all the answers. Whatever the reason, listening began to occur. Individuals began to take responsibility for the team's results rather than arguing about who was to blame. Suddenly, there were four brains working on each problem and objective rather than four rivals. They even started to like each other!

At the same time the team of high performers began to fail. They would split up the objectives and work on them alone. Later they would try and integrate the different solutions but they didn't come together very well. The team members felt that as long as they completed “their part” of the solution they wouldn't have to worry.

Ultimately the team of “low performers” almost always ended up with the best solution, while the “high performers” almost always had the worst one. This was a common and remarkable experience across training sessions, trainers, and trainees.

What happened? The low performers became a high performing team because they started collaborating rather than just working together. Objectives and goals belonged to the team. Everyone was responsible for the final result and no one was “in charge.”

Often, group leadership shifted effortlessly between team members as appropriate for the circumstances. Multiple brains looked at each problem, and each brain's contributions were embraced. Ideas may have been rejected, but team members never were. A group of low performing individuals became, after interacting collaboratively, a high-performing team.

The Elements of Collaboration
Teams can't just “do” collaboration. A highly collaborative team emerges from addressing a set of practices that provide the foundation to leverage the relationships and rigor of the team as a whole.

Focus on Team Success
Team members focus on the business problem to be solved and the objectives that must be achieved rather than personal indicators of success. Of course, individuals have career goals and desires that need to be recognized and addressed. But collaborative team members are assessed primarily on the results the team produces and their contribution to team success rather than personal heroics.

Instead of trying to “win” by getting one's own solution accepted, or running off to solve a problem on their own, individuals in a collaborative environment leverage the skills of the entire group.

In fact, heroes are dangerous. Heroic individuals reduce collaboration by asserting themselves the sole authority that can solve a problem. In the case study above, it was heroes that lead to team failure. In high-performing teams individuals will be seen as great team players rather than “the one with the great idea.” Teams become more efficient and successful as individuals learn to leverage the team to accomplish objectives instead of counting on individual heroics.

High-trust Environment
A team in a high-trust environment counts on the organization to allow its members to define their objectives and how to meet them. The organization trusts the team will recover from the inevitable mistakes it will make along the way. This means management must surrender some authority to the team. Managers can't expect teams to perform at a high level without allowing them to be the authors of the solution.

Even so, asking a manager to grant decision-making authority to another group of people puts the manager in a scary situation. The team has to earn this trust by consistently staying true to the problem being solved and meeting their objectives. The collaborative environment of the Eclipse open source project is an example of this. The open source initiative requires higher collaboration than other types of projects before solutions can be implemented. Yet in five years they have never missed a deadline.

Trust means people can admit mistakes with little fear of retribution, poor reviews, or loss of status. Conversely, team members respect the input of others and quickly get over the perceived “sting” that comes from criticism.

This is one of the reasons for having a clearly defined business problem. It gives individuals a place to go when rivalry and heroism appear. It can be a tool to help people take the attention off their own agendas and gain a larger perspective.

High-trust environments require time, effort, and rigor. No team starts operating in a high-trust manner immediately. Team members learn to trust each other by exercising tolerance for errors and overcoming the imperatives of personal recognition. High-performing teams can't avoid this hard work no matter how much skill or experience each team member has.

Shared Leadership and Responsibility
Low collaborative groups usually have a minority of members who generate the majority of recommendations and ideas. This minority performs most of the leadership tasks. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn't provide the significant business and personal payoffs that being highly collaborative provides.

For instance, individuals who sit back and wait for others to identify objectives or parcel out tasks must learn to contribute instead. They need to abandon the timidity or pessimism that keeps them from participating, and other team members need to encourage this. The more eyes, ears, and brains that are applied to a problem, the greater the chance it will be easy (or easier) to solve. Collaborative teams can be more efficient than individuals in this way.

A manager working as a team member can actually reduce collaboration. People will naturally fall in line with the person who hands our performance reviews. In a highly collaborative team the “leadership” of the group moves between team members as appropriate.

Benefits of Collaboration 
Collaboration (as opposed to simply working together) requires commitment on the part of the organization and the individuals involved. What benefit do the players receive by committing to collaboration?

    • Less risk in defining objectives and making decisions. The more brains exposed to a problem the greater the chance the solution is correct. 
    • Decisions are quicker when the focus is on the group's objectives rather than on personal agendas. 
    • A highly collaborative group is self-managing and requires less oversight. 
    • Errors are less likely to arise, in general, when everyone is responsible for the entire group. Fewer things will fall through the cracks. 
    • Members of a highly collaborative group are usually the most content members of an organization.

Choosing Less Collaboration
Collaboration is about achieving shared goals, so every team collaborates. The choice is whether it will be done well or poorly. Over the long term a highly collaborative team will be more effective then a low collaboration team. But there are times when it may be appropriate to choose to reduce the level of collaboration. 

It may take less time in the short-run to make unilateral instead of collaborative decisions. If an emergency arises that requires an immediate and significant response, it may be wise to have a single leader direct the efforts of the team until the emergency is handled. This should be done with caution. Some organizations are always in “emergency mode.” This mode reflects a low-trust environment that will have difficultly achieving high collaboration.

Organizations that constantly address emergencies, have rigid management hierarchies, resist experimentation, or are punitive will have difficulty achieving a highly collaborative environment. A single team may have difficulty creating a more collaborative environment, and individuals may even find that they put themselves at risk by attempting this. It may be necessary to abandon the attempt at higher collaboration if you plan to remain at that type of organization.

Teams with many inexperienced members will need direction before they can lead themselves. Inexperienced team members are likely to make errors in decision making due to insufficient perspectives. It would be wise to lead these teams with a strong hand and turn leadership over to the team incrementally as they gain experience.

Collaboration is often seen as a nice thing to do, a soft buzzword for “working together.” In fact, it's a set of rigorous practices that individuals, managers, and the team as a whole must engage in to become a high performing team. Every team needs to go through the hard work of establishing trust and rigor to increase their collaborative capabilities.

But the effort is worth it since a team has a resource - the relationships and perspectives that can be leveraged - that a group of individuals don't have. Finally, an organization must support a team by providing a high trust environment where a team can be self organizing and responsible for solving business problems. An organization that can support high-performance teams has an additional resource that's not available to other organizations, giving them a significant competitive advantage. 

Further Reading 

The Wisdom of Teams , Katzenbach; Smith.

For information on specific collaboration techniques, see books such as Coplien and Harrison's “Organizational Patterns of Agile Development.”

Highlights of Java in the Trenches - Reflections along the Eclipse Way, Erich Gamma and John Weigand.

About the Author
Jim Ruehlin is a process content developer at IBM Rational Software. He is responsible for contributing to open source Agile and Unified processes (www.eclipse.org/epf).

About the author

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