Building high-performing Agile teams: top 7 factors

Unlock the potential of your Agile teams with this 7-step guide. Learn how to build, support, and grow teams for a successful Agile transformation.
Whether you're looking to make a complete Aagile transformation or simply want to introduce Agile gradually, the fundamental unit remains the same: the team.
Different organizations may have different approaches to adopting Agile - some might opt for a sweeping, all-at-once transition, while others prefer a more gradual, team-by-team approach. Regardless, the success of Agile largely depends on the successful adoption of Agile principles at the team level.

It's crucial to understand that the team is at the heart of an Agile organization. For the organization to succeed in Agile transformation, every individual team must also succeed and embody the Agile mindset. But what does it take for a team to be truly Agile? In this post, I will delve into the key factors that can help set up an Agile team for success, ensuring that each team is well-positioned to contribute to the overall success of an Agile transformation. Let's dive in and explore what it takes to build a thriving Agile team.

The power of cross-functional teams

What does it mean to have a cross-functional team? To put it simply, it's about having all the capabilities and resources within one team to manage a product from end to end. Gone are the days of having isolated "UX teams," "dev teams," or "QA teams". Instead, an Agile team might include people with UX, development, and QA skills (or any other set of skills they need to get job done) all in one cohesive unit.

At first glance, this might seem impossible, especially for large products. That's where you need to get creative - think about slicing your product into individual features or sub-products, and build individual cross-functional teams around each of these.

The core idea here is for the team to oversee the entire process of product development, from conception to delivery. This enables teams to set their own goals, execute them, and take responsibility for the final results. Not only does this approach improve motivation and collaboration, but it also cultivates a stronger sense of ownership. The team isn't just working on a small part of a bigger picture, they're responsible for the entire masterpiece.

Embracing product ownership

For an Agile team to truly thrive, they need to have product ownership. This means each team should have the autonomy to set the product vision, define goals, create their roadmap, and execute on those goals.

Why is this important? Well, if goals are dictated by someone else, the team loses their ability to experiment, iterate based on customer feedback, and take full responsibility for the end results. The result is often poorly set goals leading to subpar outcomes—a classic case of garbage in, garbage out.

But having the ownership isn't just about setting the goals. It's also about having the freedom to adjust and change the course whenever needed. An Agile team needs to be able to quickly respond to market changes, customer feedback, and emerging trends. In other words, they need to stay Agile.

Hence, product ownership isn't just about autonomy—it's about empowering teams to be proactive, responsive, and accountable for their work.

Prioritizing training and support

Proper training and support are essential for the success of newly set Agile teams. Each team should receive comprehensive training and hands-on support at the beginning of their journey, ideally provided by an Agile coach or an experienced Scrum Master.

One critical mistake many organizations make during Agile transformation is attempting to convert too many teams to Agile without having the necessary resources to support them. They often resort to mass training programs, leaving teams to navigate the Agile waters on their own. Unfortunately, without the required support, many teams quickly revert to their old ways of working.

So, what should you do if resources are tight? First, consider slowing down the pace of your transformation. Make sure each team gets support for at least the first 6-8 weeks. Alternatively, consider hiring contractors for temporary help. Lastly, running an internal bootcamp to train enough in-house Agile coaches or Scrum Masters could be a solution. Just bear in mind that these newly trained coaches will also need to be mentored by an experienced coach.

In summary, proper training and hands-on support are not optional—they are necessities for a successful Agile transformation.

The importance of an executive sponsor

For every Agile team, the role of an executive sponsor is paramount. The sponsor is typically a senior leader who provides guidance on organizational goals, shares expertise, and shields the team from unreasonable requests by stakeholders.

In an ideal world, each team would be self-sufficient and capable of eliminating hurdles independently. However, the reality often differs, particularly for newly formed teams. New teams often struggle to say "no" to stakeholders, especially senior ones, and tend to sideline their priorities when faced with an "urgent" request.

That's where an executive sponsor steps in. They help the team build resilience and protect it until it can independently handle challenges—the training wheels of the team, if you will. As the team matures, the involvement of the sponsor gradually reduces.

However, it's important to note that an executive sponsor is not a team's manager. They do not dictate what the team should do, but rather guide, mentor and protect.

Ensuring organizational goals are clear

A common obstacle I've witnessed in the journey of new Agile teams is the lack of well-defined organizational (or departmental) goals. Each nascent team begins by establishing their goals, which should ideally align with the broader objectives and values of the organization. If these overall goals are murky or non-existent, the team might be left floundering in guesswork.

The importance of well-crafted goals can't be overstated: they create purpose, foster motivation, and fuel a sense of accomplishment. Goals should clearly articulate the value we aim to deliver to our customers and business, besides being measurable and specific.

I once worked with an Agile marketing team serving as a pilot within a larger organization. The parent department's objective was "to launch 5 marketing campaigns in Q2". This goal proved problematic for the Agile team, as it did not encourage the creation of value-oriented campaigns. One can launch a thousand campaigns without adding any real value to the business or its customers!

If the goals were centered around enhancing customer awareness about a particular product, the team would have experienced fewer constraints and could have generated a more significant business impact. By focusing on awareness, they would have a wealth of strategies to choose from, not being limited to just campaigns. It's a perfect example of how clear, value-driven goals can make all the difference.

Provision of necessary tools and resources

This might sound obvious, but it's vital for every team to have access to all the tools and resources they need to succeed. Surprisingly, this isn't always the case. During an Agile transformation, it becomes critical to reevaluate the financial planning process and make the procurement of additional budget, resources, or tools as straightforward as possible.

I often see teams that initially seem set up for success and are enthusiastic about their goals, but end up being stuck for weeks trying to secure a license for essential software or get a budget for customer research approved.

Yes, all expenses need to be justifiable, but we must also aim to cut through bureaucracy and maintain maximum flexibility. Many Agile organizations have adopted a system wherein teams can spend up to a certain budget without prior approval, with any additional expenses requiring no more than a simple sign-off from the team's sponsor.

The higher the level of flexibility you can provide, the better – all the while ensuring accountability is firmly in place. Having the right resources at their disposal allows teams to maintain momentum and focus on their core objectives, fostering a more Agile and productive environment.

Fostering team health and psychological safety

Let's face it, change is uncomfortable, and a lot of people resist it. Agile transformations are particularly challenging in this regard. Resistance is almost a given, which is why it's critical to create a space where individuals feel they can voice their concerns and genuinely engage in the process.

As an Agile coach, I've learned that individuals and teams will only embrace change when they themselves perceive the need for it. Simply put, you can't force someone to change if they're convinced they're fine as they are. If you try to impose change, they're likely to undermine the process.

Psychological safety - the sense that everyone can express their thoughts, concerns, and opinions without fear of judgment - is an essential element of this process. You need to establish and maintain this safety, making it clear that all voices are valued and heard. A team's health is vital to its success, and that health is deeply rooted in psychological safety. It is the soil from which productive and successful Agile teams grow.

In conclusion, there's an array of aspects to consider and get right when setting up Agile teams. The process might seem complex, and that's because it is - but don't let it intimidate you. The success of each team is crucial for the overall success of the organization during an Agile transformation. It's like a jigsaw puzzle, every piece is essential, and they all need to fit together to create the complete picture.

Remember, teams are made up of individuals with their own strengths, ideas, and concerns. It's vital to lend an ear to each member, acknowledging their contributions and addressing their worries. Nurturing their growth is not merely an act of kindness; it's a strategic investment. When your teams flourish, so does your organization. Patience, support, and a keen ear can turn the challenge of Agile transformation into a rewarding journey of growth and discovery.
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