If You Want To Go Fast, Go Alone. If You Want To Go Far, Go Together. ~African Proverb
Poetry and art and love stories and handwritten notes and Agile development are about human connection. Like poetry, an agile team eliminates extraneous process to produce a succinct, effective flow to their work. Like art, the agile team creates beautiful software that dazzles the user. Like love stories, the agile team brings their entire being to the party and does whatever it takes to ensure their team succeeds. Like handwritten notes, the agile team shows teammates in a tangible way they are valued for their contributions and, more importantly, as unique individuals.
I have worked with Agile teams in the US, India, Switzerland, Italy, and Columbia since 2005. This included both colocated teams and teams with members in multiple locations around the globe. The most successful teams invariably had an emotional bond enabling them to effectively leverage their human interactions into outstanding software. Yes, It is possible for non-colocated teams to bond, however, it takes a much higher degree of intentionality on the part of the team.
Doing vs Being Agile
Agile can be done with superficial human interaction but it’s ‘Doing Agile’ and is an Agile that will result in the individual and the team falling far short of their potential. To be truly successful, teams must ‘Be Agile’ in mind and action. This requires a positive emotional connection between the members on the team. A strong connection where each is willing to sacrifice for the benefit of team success. The stronger the connection the more effective the team because the team will view doing whatever is required to ensure team success as a normal course of working together rather than an extraordinary measure. A positive emotional connection can only exist when people feel safe enough to be vulnerable.
Growing into a ‘Being Agile’ team is the greatest challenge for an Agile transformation. Going through the Agile motions has benefit, some studies say about 20% of the benefits of Agile can be achieved by adopting the Agile ceremonies.
Truly effective implementation of Agile software development, the other 80%, requires human connection, vulnerable human connection. Vulnerable in the sense that a person must be able to admit they don’t know the answer. Vulnerable in the sense they must ask for help. Vulnerable in the sense they embrace their failures as stepping stones to team success. Vulnerable in the sense they must be open to giving and receiving difficult feedback enabling growth for all involved.
An individual afraid of being attacked or blamed in a team setting will stop taking risks. In a risk adverse team, it is extremely difficult coming up with a solution that will creatively solve a customer’s most pressing problems. The road to creativity requires moving off the safe path and intentionally forging ahead on a path where failures will be lurking around every bend.
The Family Team
A good agile team is like a family where each individual is known, warts and all. The team accepts each of their family members for who they are AND cares enough about each team member to hold them accountable. And everyone is available to sacrificially help each other.
At times a person will not play well with others (we all have challenging family members), may lash out at perceived injustices, will focus on self-interest at the expense of team success, will send out bad vibes. As in a strong family, the Agile team will seek to reconcile not ostracize. The Agile team will forgive transgressions. The Agile team will choose to face problems head on and resolve issues rather than sweeping them under the rug where they will fester and infect the morale of the team.
When an Agile team courageously faces internal problems head on and works through them they build safety into their system which, in turn, strengthens emotional bonds. The team becomes more resilient and able to overcome the ever greater challenges that would break lesser teams.
How does leadership figure in?
Much of the responsibility for forging the environment resides with the team leader, the Scrum Master, the conductor of the Agile orchestra.
Like any great conductor, the Scrum Master helps the entire team play together, establishes an environment where the combined effort has the potential to create a masterpiece. The conductor understands the value of each individual, the value they bring with their instrument, and ensures each understands how they will contribute to the vision. Then coaches them to achieve beyond what they thought was possible.
The Scrum Master cannot force the team to be vulnerable but can aid the transition by creating a safe environment where each individual feels safe enough to bring their whole self to the game. The Scrum Master must reach out to each individual to understand who they are at the core and what they need to both happy and successful. The Scrum Master must be the first to share their own weaknesses, the first to praise others accomplishments in pubic, the first to give the difficult feedback, in private, that will help another grow. This is where the Scrum Master serves the team.
A True Story
The best Scrum Master I’ve known (to date), created a highly functional team despite the team existing in the midst of a hostile project environment. She inherited the team in a dysfunctional state that chewed up two previous Scrum Masters, a team that had become hostile to the Scrum Master role they saw as manipulative.
Over the course of her two years on the project, she met with each of them individually every month to understand their needs, their concerns, coach them as to how they could contribute to the team while growing their own skills, encourage them to take risks by venturing outside their zone of expertise. She held strictly to team rules that encouraged constructive team interactions and helped them work through interpersonal issues.
By the end of her time on the project, they were one of the most effective teams in the organization. And her service to the team earned her a much deserved promotion.
If you want teams, Agile or otherwise, to have the chance of achieving maximum potential, the leader must focus on creating a healthy environment where each individual feels safe. An environment where each individual understands they can fail and not be labeled a failure. An environment where failure results in a hand being offered instead of judgement. An environment where each individual feels valued for their unique contributions to the team.