How to build a strong agile team

If you’re building or optimizing an agile team, focus on three things:  Balancing teams, handling failures, and opening up communications
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In recent years, agile team development has become a hot new trend in business. What started as a software development methodology meant for teams to keep pace with the rapid innovation of digital technologies has since spread across the whole organization, as other divisions look to harness similar benefits within their teams. An agile team approach will outperform traditional bureaucratic or hierarchical team structures in a dynamic and uncertain environment, but taking this approach is not as simple as slapping an agile label onto an existing team.

[ Some common DevOps wisdom falls flat. Read 7 pieces of contrarian DevOps advice. ]

So, what should executives consider when looking to adopt and optimize agile teams? Here are three potential places to start.

1. Find the right team balance 

Agile teams require flexibility, adaptation, and efficient collaboration. This can’t happen until you get the right people in place. For instance, technical professionals, like engineers who are traditionally risk-averse, may have trouble adapting to the flexibility of an agile team. At the same time, a professional with a “visionary” mindset might be comfortable with the uncertainty inherent in an agile team environment but may spend more time ideating than experimenting, which can significantly hinder efficiencies. These types of “people problems” pose the biggest threat to adopting an agile methodology.

Make sure you don’t pigeonhole team members.

Building an agile team will often require you to break down and reorganize staff assignments. To begin, organizations should start by analyzing the work styles and personalities of the entire workforce. Next, personal strengths and weaknesses should be identified to help achieve the goal of creating a balanced team that will meet the objectives and scope of the project. When undergoing this process, it’s critical to make sure you don’t pigeonhole team members. This can be avoided by providing staff with sufficient support and feedback, along with ensuring a collective appreciation of each team member’s strengths and weaknesses in an agile world. 

2. Normalize failure 

A common misconception about agile teams is that they lack rules and structure. On the surface, gathering multiple work personalities into a fast-paced environment in the hopes of achieving a single goal may sound like total anarchy; however, successful agile teams are very process-oriented. When an agile team is implemented, each team member has a purpose and brings something to the table. 

Ensuring your agile teams stay on track and are successful starts with changing the organization’s mindset, which is often rooted in the company culture. The biggest shift comes with teaching the staff to embrace risk and learning experiences that often arise from failures. This can be particularly challenging as failure is typically viewed as intrinsically bad in many mature organizations. While there certainly need to be wins for the company to be successful, the pace and flexibility of an agile team make failures inevitable, and as a result, they must be embraced.

To overcome this challenge, consider putting rules and practices in place that specifically call out risks and learning opportunities. Acknowledge team members for taking a risk during staff meetings, or hold monthly awards for teams that uncover a significant learning opportunity that should be shared with the rest of the organization. Through practices like this, you’ll make risk and learning opportunities a common language throughout the organization, and over time the negative stigmas around these areas will diminish. 

[ Read our related story:  Adobe CIO: Cross-functional collaboration requires embracing failure and loss of control. ]

3. Open up lines of communication 

Adopting an agile work environment won’t happen overnight. It requires a significant overhaul of daily work, staff reorganization, and a culture shift. This will naturally bring growing pains into the organization as team members adjust to their new work environment. To mitigate these issues, leadership must be transparent about goals and reasoning behind new methods.

In addition, setting up clear processes and offering up opportunities for staff input through surveys and Q&As will allow the whole organization to have an open dialogue during this change. Over time, common goals will be identified allowing for buy-in on agile work environments, resulting in new efficiencies and greater innovation across the organization. 

[ What do great agile leaders do differently? Read How to be a stronger DevOps leader: 9 tips. ]

Matt Poepsel is the Senior Vice President of Product for The Predictive Index, where he is responsible for overseeing the company’s product portfolio and innovation roadmap.