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The Agile Project Manager—There is no ‘I’ in Team

Feature_Apr_11_36585587_XSA couple of weeks ago I was teaching a group new to agile some of the basics surrounding Scrum and related agile practices. It was going well. And, as is sometimes the case, I was getting full of myself and feeling over confident. Things were going smoothly, the attendees were “getting agile”, and life was very good.

Then it happened—from left field and without warning.

We were talking about the nature of a self-directed agile team. I was trying to paint the picture of group-based accountability and responsibility. How empowering it was and how it led to the best results. How teamwork, well basically ‘Rocked’, and how agile teams truly collaborated around the customer to deliver creative and high-quality solutions. I asked if there were any questions and someone from the front of the group raised their hand. He said something along these lines:

We can’t work as a team. Our company incents us individually. We’re measured as individuals and I get my bonus paid to me because of my individual accomplishments. All of us do. How in the world are we going to work as a team, if we’re being paid to only care about ourselves?

I was sort of frozen in my tracks. At least from my perspective this was a really hard question to answer. It went to one of the more challenging adjustments facing agile organizations. How do they shift, or even do they shift, from an individual-focused system to a team-focused system.

I’m going to share with you exactly how I answered the question. I’m not sure I’m satisfied with my answer, but it was the best I had at the time. Once I get through my answer, I’m going to ask all of you for help in crafting alternative responses and to weigh-in on this important topic.


Without Further Ado—The Answer Is…

So, when I’m under pressure as a coach, I often pull a sports analogy or example out of my pocket. It’s a pretty lame response on my part and not everyone likes sports, but it’s often the best I can do. And certainly team sports aren’t the worst analogy one could come up with.

It turns out that the Los Angeles Lakers were having some organizational problems a few days before my class. I’d been watching ESPN and became aware of it. Lakers management had put Pau Gasol on the trading block and there were trade rumors flying about. Pau is a center / power forward on the team and a very good complimentary player to Kobe Bryant. They won an NBA Championship a few years ago together and he’s one of the anchors of the team.

It seemed he was getting distracted by his own trade rumors and it was affecting his play. He was also getting quite emotional about it within the locker room. Kobe came out in defense of Pau and blasted management for not taking a firm stand—either declaring their intent to keep Pau or trading him immediately. He reminded management that keeping it ambiguous was simply cruel.

As a further response, Kobe gathered the team together in a closed-door meeting. Reports said that in it he encouraged them to:

  1. Ignore all of the distractions of their confused organizational leadership
  2. Ignore any rumors or other things outside of their control
  3. Asked them to trust each other and to re-commit to the team
  4. And focus on working as a team, leveraging their strengths, and focusing on winning games

I felt that this news was a fortunate coincidence and took the opportunity to share it with the class as a segue into my true answer below—


A Choice

I went on to say…
I think agile teams within most organizations are still measured primarily as individuals. It’s taking HR and Organizational systems time to catch up to the different, and in my opinion, more effective team-based reward and performance measurement models. So I think that challenge and reality is “out there” for most agilists. The question is, and this is where I think Kobe was going, we still have a choice in how we respond to these dynamics.

Blue pill

So, do we…
Behave as an individual—solely working for our own benefit? Caring only about ourselves and avoiding helping others because it’s not in our best interest. Being self-centric in everything we do and measuring our worth against everyone else’s contributions.  In a word, are we nuanced towards self?
Or do we…

Red pill

Embrace the reality of individual measurement and rewards, but chose to work as healthy, collaborative, and self-directed teams? Do we embrace our team and throw ourselves into attaining shared goals? Do we help each other and challenge each other to deliver excellence and continuously improve?

Do we supplement our personal performance measure against how we deliver as a team? And finally, do we count innovation and creative solutions as part of our deliveries and not simply count lines of code or executed test cases as a means of performance? In a word, are we instead nuanced towards team?

It’s a choice.
As for me and the teams I coach, I try to influence them towards the red pill. And that was my final point to the student’s question. But that’s just me…

And In Teamwork…Often Everybody Wins

The other implication to the “red pill’ is that if you’re part of a high-performing team—then your individual performance will shine along with your team. You should minimally reap what you would have done by working alone and it should be easier to achieve as a team.

I would even say you stand a better chance of being recognized and rewarded as an individual IF you complement your team members and embrace the team. I can’t think of a single exception to this in my experience—when I reflect on the agile teams I’ve coached.

And remember, you’ll get the chance to help others on your team. If you’re truly more experienced or more skilled, you’ll have the wonderful opportunity to grow and mentor others. You’ll get their thanks and team recognition in addition to your more formal performance recognition. I don’t know about you, but I think peer level recognition matters a great deal.

Wrapping Up

I believe an effective agile project manager has to set the tone for their team. They can continuously emphasize and reward outstanding teamwork. They can discourage Lone Rangers and Fire-Fighting, instead emphasizing solid engineering practices, careful craftsmanship, quality focus, and cross-team collaboration.

Sure, they deal with individuals and their performance. But they can establish a firm grounding of team-focus and team-work. I think you first do this by example, blending your own role into the team and gaining your own rewards through and within the team concept. So as to become a role model that talks about the team, but also walks with the team.

Now for my challenge…I still feel less than satisfied with my answer. I know there are far better ones “out there” with better perspectives that don’t include sports analogies. So, please share how you would have handled my situation.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

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