Most Agile texts/guidance/speakers (including myself) stress the creation and sustainment of self-organized teams. What does this mean? Is this possible? Can this ever be achieved?
I’ve seen many teams evolve to Agile teams over the years. I must say, Team organization and Team management (especially self-organized teams) is quite difficult and absolutely the single most important aspect of success. The teams that I’ve seen succeed have a few characteristics that are in common.
“… learning is key to having a self-organized team”
First, there is usually a really great Scrum Master/Agile Coach involved at the beginning of a good self-organizing Agile team. I’ve even seen good Agile teams turn into great Agile teams with the help of a really great coach. It’s not all about experience either – the characteristics of a really great Agile coach go much beyond this (I’ve seen great coaches with little experience). You’ll want a coach who absolutely “gets” the environment of the team. You’ll want a coach who can empathize with and truly connect with every member of the team. You’ll want a coach that makes communication and collaboration the most important aspect of how they work. You’ll want an extremely practical coach who knows how to gradually mature a team over time and understands the best path to get there. You’ll want a coach that will focus on addressing fear, creates incentives and creates a sense of urgency. And, most importantly, you’ll want a coach that has a fantastic and positive attitude – yet realistic mindset. The great Agile coaches I’ve worked with turn work into fun – the end result, producing a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Why is it important to have a great Agile coach involved? Simply because the goal of the coach is to help the team focus on learning – not only doing – and learning is one of the keys to having a self-organized team. I’m not just talking about learning how to be an Agile team, I’m talking about all forms of learning – learning and understanding how to be a better Agile team, learning and understanding the needs of the business, and learning and understanding the needs of the users (this last one is sometimes harder than it sounds).
“… focus on the “why” behind everything”
One key aspect of learning I believe is critical to all teams is to really focus on the “why” behind everything. Why do you want to have a 2 week sprint? Why do you want to have a retrospective every sprint? Why does one feature matter more than another feature to users? Having the entire team understand the Why behind what we do is key to self-organization. I’ve found that focusing on the “why” has been critical on my own teams – the greater my teams have been immersed into the “why” behind their work, the less I was needed on day to day tasks. I became irrelevant when my team understood the why because they were able to make very good decisions and they understood the context of their action. My goal has never been to be a good manager (because, I’m not.. ) but to put the conditions in place that help my teams better self-organize.
“… you still need to focus on creating a good team structure”
With all of that said… you still need to focus on creating a good team structure that will allow this. You need to consider having all the right disciplines in place, the right technical skills, good domain knowledge, personalities on the team (this will make or break a team in 5 minutes). You’re team structure needs to focus on strengths, focus on supporting the motivations of a team, maximize how much time the team works together, keep the communication paths small, and ensure accountability is well understood. The issue compounds when we don’t get to choose how teams are constructed – however, that’s the topic of another post.
I not trying to scare people away from Agile – but I do want to point out how critical all of these “soft” aspects are to the health of a team. Agile isn’t just about process. You can’t be an Agile team by just following a few simple practices (however, sometimes simply following the practices goes a long way). It’s about thinking and aligning to the realities of how humans work – and yes, it takes some time to get right.