Agile Development

The 3 Stages of Agile Teams – Which Stage Is Your Team At?

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June 2, 2016 Posted in Agile Development

All agile teams aren’t created equal. Some miss deadlines and focus purely on their own survival, while others achieve amazing things, are self-sufficient and continuously improving their processes and capabilities. What’s the difference between these teams? And how can you evolve your team to hit these targets?

We’ve defined the three stages of agile teams with practical tips on how you can get your team to the ultimate goal – being cross-functional, self-sufficient, innovative and proactively improving.

1. Survival

Agile teams
The first stage in becoming an agile team is survival mode. All teams, whether agile or not, start off here. They’re trying to get projects up and running, fix bugs and deliver some form of solution. Focused purely on ‘surviving’, getting work done and following new processes, there isn’t much time for innovation or proactivity.

How to progress to the next stage

  • Observe your team as a whole and each individual during standups and planning meetings to determine what improvements are needed.
  • What personalities make up your team?
  • What impediments are they encountering?
  • Are their impediments to do with their interpersonal skills, or technical capabilities?
  • Do your team members live your company values? If not, which ones are missing?
  • Are they meeting their short-term goals? If not, are their failures repetitive?

Your team will learn from experience, however, with proper planning and structure, this learning process can be sped up.

  • Keep your team’s pipeline organised to enable them to focus on what’s important.
  • Evaluate future tasks and identify the required resources by selecting people who will work the best together on that particular task.
  • Give your team members visibility on their current and future tasks. This helps your team to prepare themselves both psychologically and practically.
  • Try to plan all resources needed for projects three months in advance to prevent over-scheduling your team.
  • Ensure your team are aware of your client’s long term business goals and values.
  • Remove interruptions (such as asking your team for the location of login information) from your team’s work and eliminate multitasking.
  • Have your team contribute to weekly status reports. These act as a snapshot of how your team are tracking in their projects at any time and will include: what was achieved and next steps, general concerns and positive outcomes, hours used, leave schedules and sprint burndown charts. These help to identify and improve upon problematic areas within your project, identify team members strengths and weaknesses, and plan slack time accordingly.

Creating slack time is important to transition your team from survival mode to the learning stage. By freeing up small pockets of time for your team and giving them new skills (both technical and non-technical) to learn, your team will begin to transition. However, there is risk involved.
Allocating too much time for learning can reduce the speed of project delivery (at least in the short term).

If you have enough slack time, use it to improve your team.

  • Set challenges for growth in the areas you know they need help in. If a lack of skill is hurting the team, they will take it as a personal challenge to improve.
  • Empower your team members with greater responsibilities, giving them the motivation to learn and improve in their own time.

Things can be frantic in this stage, and if you don’t have the time to begin learning, your team can get stuck in survival mode indefinitely. You may not have the budget or resources to hire additional team members to help free up time, so, how do you create this slack time?

  • Adequately observe and manage your team.

Implement new processes to increase efficiency.

  • Increase the level of seniority in your team. A greater ratio of senior to junior team members will decrease the time required to upskill juniors.
  • Use more efficient practices, such as wall boards, work logs, improved development workflows and the application of scrum methodology.

Transitioning from survival mode to the learning stage is the most difficult part of becoming a fully agile team, as you also need to be able to overcome resistance to change. You need buy in from the stakeholders in your business – if they’re not on board with your team learning and increasing efficiencies, then you will struggle to increase this slack time.

2. Learning

Agile teams
In the learning stage, teams are one step ahead of those in survival mode. Their teething problems are gone, and they have the time to learn and improve their work, processes and skillsets. Team leaders and project managers are now able to take the time to implement these improvements to their team.

How to progress to the next stage

Stakeholders need to be educated about why project delivery may be slower (due to time taken to learn), so your team’s performance won’t be judged by the same criteria as before.

During this stage, your team learns how to work with each other. It’s important to give them enough time to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses. By applying DISC profiling tools (dominant, influencers, steady, compliant), you should be able to get a good mix of personalities to form a high performance team

Training your team doesn’t need to be expensive. Pairing juniors with senior team members is a great practical way for your team to up-skill whilst maintaining their productivity. External training can also be beneficial for some team members, in the form of seminars and workshops.

The learning stage involves more than just upskilling your team. To progress to self-sufficiency, you need generate motivation for the team to upskill themselves by establishing their career aspirations and the pathway for them to achieve these goals.

Upskill your team by:

  • Improving their technical skillset.
  • Improving how they communicate with clients and teammates
  • Improving their attitude and language to ensure clear communication. A simple change from ‘I might be able to finish this by Friday’ to ‘I will deliver this on Friday at 2pm’ can make a big difference.

Provide motivation to upskill:

  • Discuss their career aspirations and determine how they can upskill to achieve these
  • Using SMART goals, one on ones and surveys can help determine if your team are achieving personal and career goals.

Becoming a cross-functional team is one of the goals of a highly agile team. To be cross-functional, each team member needs to have some understanding about all areas their team works in. How can you become cross-functional?

  • Cross-train individuals to enable team members to help others who may be struggling
  • Expose team members to projects that they’re not as familiar with, which increases the likelihood they’ll develop new skills.

As your team up-skills and works more fluidly with each other, your Team Leaders and Project Manager’s responsibilities will begin to decrease as the team transitions into self-sufficiency.

3. Self-Sufficient

Agile team
The final stage and ultimate goal for any agile team is to be in the self-organising and self-sufficient stage, allowing for rapid and flexible response to change. At this point, processes are clearly defined and followed. Adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery and continuous improvement become part of the day to day processes for a completely agile team. Team leaders are able to step back and observe the team and identify opportunities for improvement, rather than having a direct hand in the everyday running of projects.

Becoming a self-sufficient agile team takes time. Experience is what makes an agile teamwork. Your team members need to have been part of a team for a while, know how to communicate and interact with each other, and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This enables them to organise quickly and efficiently, and make proactive decisions. Self-sufficient teams can easily change their approach, and are open and flexible to this change if it makes their processes better, and delivers better outcomes.

Agile teams will have retrospective sessions to discuss what they’ve learnt, what went well and what didn’t. These meetings review outcomes and learnings from projects, how they can change their approach, improve and try again. This is essentially a form of trial and error, learning from experience to improve in each following project or sprint.

Team Leaders and Project Managers will have the least day to day involvement in this stage, as they will only be called upon for critical guidance and higher-level decisions rather than the day to day processes or fire fighting.

Overall, a highly agile team will be able to reliably deliver projects quicker and with less errors than those in the previous two stages. Their proactivity and ability to learn and innovate enables them to make an essential, and extremely valuable contribution to your organisation.

So, which stage is your team in?

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