Agile teams.

Why the noise over this buzz word?  For one, it’s a process that the likes of Netflix and Spotify have in their arsenal.

In the last 10 years, business leaders have come to the conclusion that an agile team setup is an essential condition for well-oiled operations.  It’s what separates the greenhorns from the veterans.  It has quickly grown from a trend to non-negotiable in less than 10 years.

The term may be new to you but the philosophy isn’t.  Peter Scholtes and other contributors created the Team Handbook in 1988 that established the case for self-managed teams. TIGERS Founder, Dianne Crampton, discovered this work while performing a meta-analysis study of business, education and psychology group dynamic research. “At that time, Hewlett Packard used this work for developing self-directed project teams,” explains Crampton. “My contacts with the company underscored how important it is for self-directed work teams to make team decisions around how conflict is resolved, team decisions are made, planning is conducted and then tracked, problems are resolved, how to avoid project scope creep among other critical team operational considerations.”

You may have come across some semblance of agile teams (self-directed work teams) at work in your organization.  In brief, Agile innovation teams are entrepreneurial groups that are made part of organizations to tackle specific projects.  Because of their small member numbers, they are able to stay close to customers (or stakeholders) and can adapt in a snap when conditions suddenly change.

When handled (and implemented) correctly, Agile teams improve productivity and morale. The results are tangible – fast time to market, measurable improvements in quality, and increased volume.

Benefits of agile teams in action.

Organizations that have adopted an Agile setup allow for clients to make small objective changes WITHOUT drastically altering schedules or budgets.  It’s a process that involves dividing projects in order of priority and then fulfilling each within an iterative cycle. Iteration is a term used to describe the scheduled sequence of working on small sections of a project at a given time.  Each iteration is then reviewed and assessed by a development team and client.  The insights gained here are then used to determine the next step in development.

If this “Agile” topic still feels alien to you, then these terms most likely aren’t. Perhaps you may have heard any of these common examples of the Agile Methodology:  Scrum, Crystal, Lean Software Development (LSD), eXtreme Programming (XP), r Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM), to name a few.  Of course, the Agile Method isn’t limited to software development.

Once an organization experiences the perks of having an agile team, the next question is: Can we launch agile teams throughout an entire organization?  This could mean, launching, not just dozens of teams.  We’re talking about hundreds of even thousands cross-state or even cross-country.  Would this type of scaling up improve corporate performance overall?

The prospect is enticing.  In today’s turbulent and ultra-competitive environment (not to mention, the pandemic), the idea of having an adaptive, fast-moving organization is a dream come true.

But why do companies struggle implementing agile teams?

Why is it a challenge for them to know which functions to reorganize into agile teams?

Why do new agile teams fall prey to red-tape and bureaucracies?

Possible causes for why agile teams suffer

In our book, TIGERS Among Us – Winning Business Team Culture and Why they Thrive we discuss the differences between a top-down, command and control work culture compared to a fully operational team-based culture. So when top-down organizations contemplate agile teams, leaders must be aware of culture split and clash.  Developing agile teams is much more than the executive order – “Do agile!” That said, here are four additional reasons why agile teams struggle.

1. The organization resists change

Everyone is gung-ho about it till they’re told that they need to stray from what they deem familiar. People enjoy the perks of progress but are usually averse to change. Even organizations with a flexible culture can be resistant.

The key here is to expect that not everyone will be willing to get on board with the changes.  Some employees will even be violently unwilling to adapt to a new way of working. (Why fix it if it ain’t broken?).  Expect that during a transformation or transition period, objections to change may cause a delay in time and productivity – in the meantime at least.

Resistance may be subtle. Here are some that may look familiar to you:

  • A deeply rooted status quo and high employee retention.
  • People fearing that they would be required to accept cross-functional tasks that are outside their area of expertise… and may affect their scorecard.
  • The apprehension that they are being closely monitored (lack of trust because of the increased level of interaction within the team and various project stakeholders).
  • Skepticism and distrust. (Sometimes and surprisingly so, this type of resistance may even come from top management.)
  • Management’s unwillingness to change. In such cases, making significant organizational change above the team level is next to impossible.
2. Lack of coaching

Agile teams seem simple enough in theory – put a team together with the necessary skillsets together then get to work. But this isn’t as simple as adding water to the mix.  Proper coaching with the awareness of group dynamics and group process or the lack thereof, has become a source of conflict for many organizations.

One critical condition is WHERE coaching is done.  Teams must be coached in their real work environment.  This is because a change in mindset is hard to accomplish through training sessions alone. Coaching numerous teams also poses the same dilemma.  The demand for coaches often exceeds the availability of qualified ones.  As a result, organizations aren’t able to replicate the success of a pilot Agile team. To keep up with a schedule, less experienced coaches are hired and unfortunately, Agile practices aren’t taught correctly.  In cases like these leadership fundamentals training becomes a non-negotiable.

Workloads are not adjusted

Many organizations began their Agile transformation at a time when they were committed to deliver a certain project.  More often than not, they were over-committed.  Over-committed teams won’t be inclined to change their behavior nor learn new ways of doing things. Of course, it’s reasonable to expect that doing things the usual way works to fulfill those old commitments.  But ignoring new agile practices (or be averse to at least giving it a go), is a bad environment for change to take place.

This means that team sponsors need to be educated in their roles. Managers must be brought into expectation alignment. And the sponsorship role must be added to a leaders annual goals and score card.

Concepts aren’t understood

Agile development can be comprehensive. We usually see this methodology in software but it’s also seen in change initiatives where a team is responsible for planning steps in the overall change management plan.

In reality, it’s an efficient and straightforward concept but describing it and introducing it to a team (who may be hearing Agile jargon for the first time) can be an abstract concept for many.  From the get-go, it’s easy to misunderstand the Agile manifesto, practices can be carried out without everyone understanding its purpose.

For instance, it could easily be misunderstood that Agile teams are just a means of faster delivery.  Then there are issues of documentation and design tasks.  Many teams present unfinished work during reviews, which then leads to a backlog of errors. We’ve learned this first hand. Incomplete processes with holes left in them require damage control and this takes time.

Last but not least, it’s easy to get lost in all the literature. Agile methodologies are heavily documented and discussed by experts.  Implementing it is far trickier.  Finding that subtle balance between by-the-book and flexible implementation is key.

America’s Top 500 corporations have used the Agile methodology in their workflow.  See how this methodology can work for your organization too.

Care to dig deeper into the topic of agile teams?

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Copyright TIGERS Success Series, Inc. by Claudia Craven

About TIGERS Success Series

TIGERS provides a comprehensive, multi-pronged and robust system for improving your workforce behavior, work culture, profitability and project management and team leadership success.

We specialize in building cooperation among employees and collaboration between departments for profitable agile, high performance team outcomes.  Scaled to  grow as your organization and leadership performance improves, our proprietary TIGERS Workforce Behavior Profile, Micro-Training technology and group facilitation methods result in your high performance team outcomes and change management success. We also license and certify elite internal and external consultants and project managers to use our resources for similar outcomes.