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Team Improvement Comes from More than Agile Techniques

Agile is being seen as a way to help improve team performance. If we just go agile we’ll be so much better. The problem is many people are still viewing agile as a collection of techniques. Yes, there are some new approaches. I would argue there are less new techniques and more existing techniques with new names. A few years ago I saw someone introduce an agile technique called “Shadow Me”. This is where you go watch someone do their job to understand current state. We have been calling that observation for a while now. On the flip side, those not completely buying in say analysis is analysis regardless if you are on an agile team or more traditional waterfall team. These arguments or debates miss the point and don’t help teams improve. What helps teams improve is a mindset shift that takes more work to implement. There is a way of thinking that is subtle and makes a huge impact. And this mindset is where the real difference of agile comes in.

Outside of my day job I volunteer for an organization of which my family are members. I was appointed to a special committee by the board of directors. Our committee is working on an initiative where communication to members is critical. We came up with a communication plan and now working on the implementation. One of the items included having printed material at an event where a majority of the members would be attending. Our committee was not given a formal budget so a message was sent to the board treasurer to understand how we should request funds for this initiative. The treasurer’s, let’s call her Commander Cate, response was basically, this initiative is not important enough to spend money on outside resources so we should use our internal copier. Commander Cate went on to tell us what she thought was important enough to spend money on. I couldn’t believe it. When I saw the email my first thought was “who is she to tell us what to do”. She was not involved in the day to day discussions and now she wants to make decisions like this. Our committee was very clear this effort was extremely important and we wanted high quality collateral.

OK, I will admit, the treasurer was correct in this case. Spending the money on high quality printing from an outside resource was not worth it. But that’s not the point. She is in a command and control mode. She was elected treasurer and she holds the purse strings. She may even think it is her responsibility to make the call on every decision. Commander Cate does not have the agile mindset. A more appropriate response would have been similar to, “The committee can allocate x amount dollars to the entire initiative. Spend the money as you see fit. Knowing some of the other items that will require money a better option may be to use our internal copier, or see if we had ideas for raising money to fund pieces of the initiative.” Something other than “no, that is not important enough” would have been better.

This is a situation where the result would have been the same for both approaches and the change in how the conversation is framed is very important. There is a huge difference in how the team reacts and buys in to the decision based on the conversation(s) to come to that decision. What happens when you are on an initiative and someone tells you how to do your job? Frustrating right? Having parameters is important. The details need to be left up to the team closest to the details. There is never one path to get results and if the team is told how to operate within those parameters they will always be looking to those people for direction. If teams look to someone outside the team for detailed direction the speed at which you can react drops significantly. And the people outside the team don’t have all the information and in many cases can make a uniformed decision.

This mindset is not just for people outside the team, it comes in to play on the team as well. In a session where I was working with a team to have more positive conversations a student asked, “Why not just get to the point. If you know the answer, just tell the team and move forward.” You can do that in some situations if you have earned the trust of the other team members. If that is the case the team will acknowledge you have the answer and agree to buy in to that decision. Many times this is not the case. For many reasons the entire team may not trust your judgment fully or have a different approach they think is better. In that case the team won’t be bought in. I’ve written on ways to gain buy-in by being a team player and other fun stuff in other blogs like “It’s Time To Take the “NAKED” Approach to Business Analysis”, “Say Goodbye to Your Ego” and “Don’t Bother Building Consensus”. So, I won’t repeat myself regarding the how of gaining buy-in.

In the end, team improvement comes from how you work together, not the individual techniques you use. Even in those times when you know you are right resist the urge to direct the team if they are not ready to be directed. Yes, that one task may get completed faster if you tell the team how to move forward. Think about the impact to future tasks. Team work is a marathon, not a sprint (seriously, no pun intended).

All the best,

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