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Agile teams wish their leaders knew these 5 truths
Leaders can get in the way of agile teams and limit their success. Consider whether your organization is guilty of any of these roadblocks
Many companies turn to agile approaches to gain a competitive advantage, only to see leaders inadvertently get in the way. In my work with agile teams in companies of various sizes and industries, I’ve seen leaders create friction when optimizing interactions, systems, processes, and tools to deliver value.
Leaders, here are five things your team wishes you knew about agile that will help improve the way everyone works.
[ Read also: Agile vs. DevOps: What’s the difference? ]
1. Agile is not just another way to manage work
An agile framework like Scrum, and the rules that come along with it, are not the path to success. Some leaders treat backlogs and sprints as just another way to express requirements and execute project plans. This does little to support the innovation and adaptability you need in order to deliver value in a changing market. The rules of scrum, by themselves, are not enough. You need a deeper view of the reasons behind the rules.
Agility is about continuously adapting culture, values, and principles to shift the mindsets and behaviors of everyone involved. Ultimately, this results in better delivery of value for a business and its customers. To effectively make this cultural shift, leadership should be intentional and consistent across the organization. Align with your teams on core values and desired outcomes. Find out what your teams have learned and where they are seeing impediments to success. Get things out of their way so they can deliver amazing results for you.
[ What tools help support scrum, kanban, and other agile methods? Read also: Top 7 open source project management tools for agile teams. ]
2. A compelling product vision is central
Any team needs a reason to pull together, to support each other, to find a way through challenges and navigate to success. Your agile teams are no different; they need strong vision from you and your leaders – specifically, product vision.
I have seen teams in highly challenging circumstances produce amazing results once they aligned on a compelling vision for the product. It’s like watching a sports team that collectively cares so deeply about winning that they rise above any significant obstacles in their way.
Help your teams care deeply about winning the game. And don’t forget to connect the team to the outcomes and impacts of their work. One team I worked with had recent quotes from their customers posted on the wall. Another team observed users interacting with their product on a regular basis. Yet another team reviewed clearly defined outcome measurements during every sprint to see the effect of the last changes they deployed. All of these help the team see the impact of their work and stay motivated to hone their interactions, processes, and tools in the service of users.
3. Awesome teams solve tough problems
Traditionally, leaders have sought out and rewarded individual performance. To bring creativity to bear on the toughest problems, leaders must shift their focus to creating and supporting self-organizing, kick-butt, problem-solving teams. If you enable team formation and then protect them from interference, these teams will overcome significant obstacles for you and your users with resilience.
There are a few things you can do to help individuals realign as team members and foster the development of awesome teams. We’ve already covered the foundational element: Cast a compelling vision that the team shares. Next, identify skills and traits that support teaming, and then seek out people who exemplify them, reinforcing the behaviors that you need to build strong teams.
Also, rebalance your performance management system to reward behaviors that leave teams better and more resilient. For example, reward people who help their teams become better by pairing, further developing their skills and flexing them to fit the type of work needed, and mentoring those who need to grow. Make these goals for team members and reward them in your current review cycles. You also should regularly communicate your expectations of these behaviors and recognize those who demonstrate them to the rest of the team.
One of the best things you can do is to ask people how they have made their team more nimble and resilient during the last month. A simple question like this can shift thinking and expectations, breaking down siloes and enabling team members to help each other, share goals, and learn together.
4. Elevate learning as a team and individual goal
To solve complex problems, leaders must encourage new ideas to emerge as the work takes place. Learning must be highly desired in the ecosystem. In learning organizations, there is an emphasis on “speed to learn” because leaders realize the faster teams can learn, the stronger their competitive advantage.
Creating and learning require a willingness to test assumptions and options, take some risks, and encounter a certain amount of failure. In most cultures, enabling this is easier said than done, and your teams and the leaders around them will need help to shift. Encourage your teams to run experiments, ask about what they have learned recently, and celebrate learning.
As we consult with organizations on their agility, many benefit from the outside perspective of an agile health check. This unbiased assessment identifies areas of strength and areas of challenge across products, technology, people, and processes. While strengths should be preserved, challenge areas are targets for learning experiments that can propel your organization forward on the agile journey. Building clearly defined learning experiments tackles the backlog of challenges limiting the full potential of your team.
5. Appropriate boundaries enable creativity
The existing boundaries around your teams are likely unbalanced, and your team needs your help. The challenge of constraints is to find a balance that enables the team’s innovative self-organization and protects the things most critical to the larger system they operate within.
The questions are many, though often unspoken: Is the constraint real? Who owns it, what does it protect, how does it impact our ability to deliver, and how can we influence it? The reality is that boundaries are necessary and frequently overbearing. How can we empower our skilled workers to own more of the boundaries and trust them to make good decisions in order to optimize for value delivery to your users?
Co-create a vision with your teams for the way they can work, get support from you, and own more of their own destiny. Get clarity from your teams on why their boundaries exist and which ones can be adjusted. Advocate for experiments where all parties work together to find better ways to balance competing needs for your users’ benefit.
The challenges your teams are facing are real, and the benefits of agility are critical to your organization and your users. Your leadership in the complex challenges will enable your teams’ delivery, your users’ delight, and your organization’s success.
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