Embracing Agile mindset & agility can provide immense value to teams & customers alike. However, building a team which actually implements Agile values, principles & techniques to make positive impact on their projects & overall business is hard work. In the first article of the series on various topics on Agile & Project Management, we started with some basic, value generation skills, which will help your team truly be successful. In this article, we explore few more team related aspects.

Foundation for agility is empowered teams

Unlike traditional projects, where the project manager is responsible for the outcome of the project, and authorization to make nearly all project related decisions, agile projects are responsibilities and are driven by empowered teams. The team collectively steers the project to the right course. In traditional projects, the team merely follows.

But what gave rise to such drastically different approaches? What made agile embrace the team empowerment approach? Won’t it be easier to have a single person shouldering all the responsibilities and authority? The answer lies in the few characteristics- described further- demonstrated by efficient, empowered teams, which made agile choose this approach.

  1. Team empowerment means participatory decision making. This ensures a greater agreement to commitments, as the commitments are of “Pull” type, they are made by those very people who have defined them. They are not pushed from the above, by any single person. Instead, they are bought-in by the team.
  2. Insights from a diverse set of people, the collective wisdom, always leads to better, more informed decision making. Diverse, varied inputs help project decisions get rid of biases, assumptions, lack of skills, knowledge or experiences.
  3. It works as a reward system. The trust to make their own decisions, works as a great motivational factor for the team.
  4. Since the team owns the decisions and commits to the work, often the end result will be of higher quality. The standards go high.
  5. Perhaps the biggest benefit is the possibility of better, more efficient and creative decisions and approaches, because of the creative conflicts and exchange of ideas (remember, conflict has a positive connotation here). When smart, creative people come together with their own set of ideas, the combined results through the collaboration, can prove to be much better.

Empowered teams do not mean chaos. They do not mean not adhering to rules or guidelines. They do not mean doing only what pleases individuals. Instead, an empowered team displays following characteristics;

  1. They collectively pursue a common goal; they will share all the activities required to fulfill their goals.
  2. They will create an environment of trust and mutual respect. They will define their own simple rules to facilitate efficient working and will strictly adhere to those rule. Of course, the rules themselves may be reviewed and modified, but till they are effect, every member of the team adheres to them. In this sense, the empowered teams are a result of more disciplined approach by individuals.
  3. The decisions and actions are collaborative. All the members feel engaged in the pursuit of the common goal.
  4. The empowered team owns the responsibility of their own decisions. They create an environment of learning.
  5. Empowered teams continuously strive to provide the most value to stakeholder.

 

The empowered teams are created through an environment conducive to participatory decision making style, by distributing the power of decision making and the responsibilities of the outcome to the team. There is no place for blame game in empowered teams. The barriers to communication must be removed. An environment of learning must be created. It is indeed a responsibility of all, including business management, product owner, scrum master and team itself, to create such environment. The teams, empowered this way, can make much better decisions, on a continuous basis, than a single person.

 

Coaching & mentoring within teams

 

Agile depends on empowered teams. The team is responsible for the project outcome and authorized to make decisions about how to achieve the best possible outcome. The ability to really make use of this empowerment, however, does not come inherently. The team members need constant coaching & mentoring to use agile values, principles & practices in order to achieve optimum project performance in terms of value delivery. The coaching aspect deals with the performance whereas the mentoring part deals with ability to use agile concepts appropriately. We also need to appreciate the fact that agile is not just a set of methodologies, it is a mindset. The thought process must be in alignment with the values, principles and practices of agile, in order for teams to be effective on sustainable basis. The coaching and mentoring, hence, assume a great importance.

Though the coaching and mentoring happens throughout the lifecycle of a project, it assumes different connotations at different stages of team building and team maturity. The role of the agile coach also undergoes transformation with what stage the team is in. When the team in just starting to understand and apply agile thought processes to the project work, the role of the coach will be that of a teacher, to guide the team towards achieving their professional goals. As the project work progresses, the coach will transform into a mentor, transferring agile knowledge and thought processes, learned through the experience, to the team. The coach will also assume the role of problem solver, conflict negotiator and collaboration conductor during the course of the project. When the team becomes sufficiently mature, the coach will become a facilitator.

When the team is just starting on the agile project, coach as a teacher will try to help the team learn about the processes to be used during the project. It is phase where the team identity starts forming. So the coach will teach the team to learn about individual team members. Through this shared learning, the group of individual gathers the shape of a team. The coach also guides the team through learning about the work ahead. The learning about the work comes from product envisioning and backlog reviews. Once this stage is over, the team moves from this initial phase to the next phase.