Well-formed agile teams can thrive in a direction ideally set by business vision. Unfortunately, many teams are forced into survival by organizations that push work through the team matrix, forcing teams to establish themselves as dependencies. The purpose of this article is to firmly establish the notion of well-formed teams so that guidance patterns for their creation can help organizations to "thrive" instead of "survive."
In the agile space the notion of the "well-formed team" (WFT) has been discussed.[i][ii] The purpose of a WFT is to have a team thrive in a direction ideally set by business vision. Unfortunately, many teams are forced into survival by organizations that push work through the team matrix, forcing teams to establish themselves as dependencies. The purpose of this article is to firmly establish the notion of WFTs so that guidance patterns for their creation can help organizations to "thrive" instead of "survive."
We establish this by shifting focus away from the notion of principles, values, and other heavy language commonly found in the talked about agile arena. Instead we focus on the power of a well connected group of humans working together to address complex product development or organizational needs. A mature WFT is treated as an indivisible unit, a self-organizing, learning engine of effectiveness, not merely a collection of individuals.
Such teams rarely emerge by chance; a WFT is often intentionally formed with an understanding of the inherent value of such a team in mind. Agile provides pathways that can increase the chances of such a team forming. There are many pathways to a WFT. Our desire is to elevate the notion of a WFT as being the purpose of these agile pathways and the result of these pathways when applied with care. [iii] Real value from a WFT can be rapidly achieved with proper focus.
When people consider what got them to their current market or look closely at how their competitors are succeeding, they typically see smart, sharp, fast hyper productive teams.[iv] They find that some organizations possess a knack for rapidly configuring their teams into an effective shape and deploying their teams to rapidly build new product capabilities. Some competitive organizations can realign themselves within days or a few months, not years. For organizations that cannot move swiftly and who rely on the glacial pace of a classic competitive analysis to determine next steps, they find that the market is already changing and moving on. To compete we see a need for continuous analysis, consumption of that analysis, fast tactical realignment of teams and rapid deployment of new capabilities.
At the heart of competitive success is a team or teams of people who are a business' secret sauce. The nimble behavior and how these teams move as a unit to solve problems are the key ingredients to innovation and rapid product development. We call these teams WFTs because of their unique behavior and the environments in which they live. Many organizations have had these teams in their lifetimes but have failed to conserve the essence of what formed them in the first place. What is interesting is that setting up and stimulating the formation of a WFT can be done quickly when people are trained in what to look for. For example, an agile process like Scrum, when applied properly, can result in a WFT. WFTs are rapidly responding innovation engines of extraordinary value.
Enabling the WFT
Here are some common processes and enablers that we have seen result in a WFT. From the agile variety come Scrum, Lean, and XP. From the more traditional processes come RUP, PMBOK, and Classic SDLC methodologies. Enablers can be assessment instruments for the organization and individuals such as audits, Myers-Briggs or agile assessments. Classic environmental enablers would include things like collocated space, team rooms, training rooms, visible charts and white boards. All of these processes and enablers have good qualities, tools, and ideas in them. However, what we find is that these same processes regularly get over-complicated or misapplied. People are often loaded down with devastating amounts of information that can cripple an individual's ability to think clearly. We can easily become burdened by frameworks, esoteric language, principles, or practices that clutter our minds and focus our attention on the wrong things.
What you focus on matters. All too often process, principles, and practices become a crippling focus. What we hope to achieve in this paper is to help people consider process and enablers in a different light: when processes and enablers are applied appropriately they can result in a group of people working very cohesively together (i.e., a WFT). Our goal becomes creating WFTs that are deployed to business' needs. WFTs are how businesses can realize opportunities to thrive.
Explaining WFTs: "3 + 2"
We have found some common language that helps teams think collectively. We call these critical thinking skills "attractors for effective thinking." Our goal with these attractors is to help WFTs behave more instinctively as they make decisions. The name of the game is to avoid and eliminate confusion. Our goal is to bring a team's unified collective intellect to bear on business problems.
We have broken things down into "3+2" as an easy way to remind ourselves of these attractors and help the teams with whom we work.
- Let the product lead - This reminds us to pay attention to the needs of the product. As we consider adopting a new practice or idea from our process we constantly ask ourselves if this serves the needs of the product. Or, said empirically, the product is your best source of reality to give you feedback if you are making the right decisions and having the right conversations.
- One bite at a time -Each item of work should be broken up into small enough pieces to eat. Most teams and individuals will bite off far more than they can chew. We are constantly working with teams to break the work down into manageable pieces that can get done in short time-boxed cycles. Short cycles that roll-up into hourly, daily and weekly rhythms begin to emerge as a good pattern for managing the work.
- Keep it visible - This is one of the most obvious things to do yet it is rarely done well. Without visible pieces of work or a map to that work we cannot see where effort is being applied. When we cannot see where to apply effort we flounder and do not work together. When the work is a physical thing like digging a ditch it is easy to see where to jump in with a shovel and help out. However, in the land of ideas or software work much of the work is not easily visible and therefore self-organization is inhibited. When we make our work visible, we reduce the risk of disappearing for long periods of time and not producing anything. With, visible work efforts we improve the chances that our next conversation will be the right one and reporting on team progress is a breeze. Great teams work together by keeping an appropriate amount of visibility.
Conversation and Structure - These are used by the team to learn and achieve balance within the three attractors for effective thinking. The conversation requires enough structure from an established protocol so that we can communicate effectively.[v] This communication protocol can be setup by formal or informal process (e.g. an agile process) language agreements, team location and more. The conversation is necessary for humans to establish rapport so that we can create, contribute and share deep meaningful understanding. With conversation we can help each other detect if understanding is there. With structure we have an idea of what the next most important conversation is.
So, what does a WFT look like? To help answer this question we have listed some of the more common characteristics found in a WFT.
- Most WFTs are found to emerge easiest from a collocated environment. We suspect that the reason this is that critical mass is difficult with technologies currently implemented to achieve a WFT in a distributed manner. We simply cannot achieve adequate high-bandwidth communication necessary to form the deep state of rapport that a WFT will exhibit when in members are in close proximity for a face to face conversation.
- WFT members show a high state of rapport with each other and an ability to achieve that rapport rapidly. For example, they stop and start sentences as though speaking with one mind.
- Members actively contribute thoughts and share ideas to the group and they do not egotistically claim ownership for those ideas.
- A sign of a WFT is that members personally feel safe, when the team is safe. Team members will do what ever they can for the sake of the team's welfare.
- Team members self-organize frequently in two and threes as the work is broken down and pulled in by the team.
- Team members often brainstorm as a group.
- Members self-assign work and pull new work assignments.
- Members have good line of sight to business objectives and work according to business value-added priority.
- WFTs create a personal identity. They do this spontaneously.
- Members put the good of the team over their own personal goals.
- The team behaves as a local "marketplace of ideas" by actively contributing ideas.[vi] As ideas are contributed, the team actively grows, polishes, augments or kills the best ideas and the individuals who initiated the ideas do not feel slighted. They feel not only accountable, but empowered to use their creative intellect to move the end product forward.
- Members pickup and quickly acquire new skills by helping each other learn.
- WFT are learning engines and tenaciously seek to acquire the knowledge they need to succeed in their objectives.
- Members do not seek to make themselves a skill or knowledge dependency. Team members will work closely with each other to have redundant skills whenever possible and share knowledge quickly.
- WFTs demonstrate productivity rates that are four or more times greater than industry averages, also referenced above as hyper productive .
- Members leverage each others' diversity to create innovative outcomes.
- Members challenge each other to bring their best.
- Teams are not conflict free. Instead they have constructive conflict marked by passionate struggles or learning aimed at better outcomes.
- Energy, excitement, and passion have an almost palpable feel in the team environment.
- WFTs move with a single purpose to focus their energy and burn holes through complex business problems.
Many of today's business opportunities are in complex product development landscapes; in other words much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Businesses are increasingly challenged with rapidly changing market landscapes. What we need are rapidly adapting product development services. We see the WFT as a key provider of that service.
There are many agile pathways (e.g., Scrum, Lean, and XP) that can result in a WFT. None is necessarily right or wrong, we just see process as a way to get and sustain a WFT. WFTs are assets that individuals, businesses, and organizations need to help them thrive.
[i] See Perfect Planning by Guy Beaver
About the Authors
Samall Hazziez leverages 20+ years as an IT Professional - Business Services Solution Provider. Samall distinguishes himself as a Senior Level Business Strategist serving in the capacity of a Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Scrum Master (CSM). Currently, Samall is senior managing and business consultant partner for Preferred Professionals Business Group (PPBG), and serves as network partner with 3Back IT Consultants. His mission focus is simply building and stimulating high performance teams to the extent they are empowered and positioned to positively influence their organization's competitive advantage - this with the highest standards of excellence and customer satisfaction.
Douglas E. Shimp has 17 years of experience in the technology field and has played key roles in software development (developer, QA, Analyst, Manager, Leader, Coach and Consultant etc). Doug whose passion is about teams and applied learning for real product development is establishing himself as a leader in this area. Currently, Doug is managing partner with 3Back, a consulting business that focuses on "making teams better" at applied agile product development. 3Back's focus has broadened considerably in the last couple of years as Doug has been getting requests outside of classic software development to apply agile to things like architecture firms, marketing houses and auto auctions.