Author: Dr. Laurence Lock Lee

How is your Project Team Performing as an Agile Digital Team?

2020 was a year during which project teams were involuntarily immersed in digital collaboration environments, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

2021 is the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. These two events will likely conspire to create the greatest leap in agile management practices since its conception.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella famously claimed; “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months” as Microsoft raced to support the explosion of remote working. For project managers pre-COVID-19, regular tensions existed between the traditional top down Project Management Office (PMO) and the more organic agile project management approaches. As project team members have now largely been forced to working remotely, with the likelihood there will never again be 100% co-location; the cards are now clearly stacked in favour of agile management practices. While agile software projects have been shown to be twice as successful as traditional waterfall methods, a majority of medium to large organisations still sustain significant traditional PMOs.

The Challenge

Whether we like it or not, current circumstances now dictate a more rapid transition to agile teams and ways of working. The COVID-19 bomb has forced project teams into remote and distributed work. Many are struggling. There is no opportunity to go agile one project at a time. No opportunity to coach agile teams one team at a time. No time to coach traditional PMOs into agile PMO methods. The challenge now is whether you can turn the current disruption into a once in a generation positive change opportunity, or be left to a somewhat forlorn hope that things will quickly return to the way they were.

Digital can be your friend on this journey

The good news is that the management research community is rapidly reacting to the challenge. We are now seeing new remote/co-location workplace models being developed, which according to the Boston Consulting Group (BSG) could result in up to a 40% rise in team productivity and 40% less absenteeism, up to 15% less turnover and up to 20% reduction in real estate costs. The BSG notes the pandemic has forced managers to focus on the relationship aspects of work, with proximity no longer possible; referring to this “relationship productivity” as the undiscovered “real work”. This is completely consistent with agile principle No.1; “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”: are your teams collaborating and behaving like an effective agile team?

Accenture recently published a report on “Decoding Organizational DNA: Trust, Data and Unlocking Value in the Digital Workplace”, which identifies the unique insights derived from analysing employee interaction patterns. They claim that when employed responsibly, organisations can reap a trust dividend worth more than a 6% increase in revenue growth. For the ‘want to be’ agile team, these within team to outside team analytics will become critical.

Relational Productivity – What is it and how can we measure and manage it?

Relational Productivity is not a new concept. Social Network Analysis (SNA), or its Enterprise version Organisational Network Analysis (ONA), has been used to measure relational productivity for decades. In the context of (Project) Teams, ONA can surface the social capital within and between teams. Heavily interconnected teams are likely more efficient in execution; one element of productivity. The other key element of productivity is creativity and innovation; something that requires diversity within the team; or at least welcomed access to such diversity. 

What do we already know about relationship productivity in (project) teams?

Early in 2020 SWOOP Analytics published its first comprehensive “teaming” benchmarking report from an analysis of more than 5,300 teams using the Microsoft Teams product to collaborate. In contrast to traditional survey based benchmarking studies, SWOOP used the digital interaction patterns and ONA metrics for each team over a three month (pre-COVID-19) period, to identify what we considered “best teaming practices”. SWOOP has continued to monitor a large suite of teams during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What was principally discovered from those exploiting the digital teaming functions was a huge variety in the nature of “teaming” being conducted. SWOOP was able to classify the teaming patterns into the following Team Personas:

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The self-directed personas mimic real-world agile teams. The Communities of Practice were like agile teams who had invited their management into their digital team. Single Leader and Forum personas reflect hierarchically managed groups.


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How are your agile digital project teams organised?

The research found digital teaming tool penetration within organisations was typically in excess of 80%, so it is not surprising a large maturity spectrum for digital teams was discovered. locklee2

In stage 1 of Digital Teaming Maturity we have groups that exist as part of a formal hierarchy. In an IT department facilities management groups are often structured in this way. 

Stage 2 is commonly where most project teams will sit. Agile DevOps teams might also be at this stage. We found that when agile project teams established digital teams they would also include stakeholders from the formal hierarchy. 

Stage 3 is what we have labelled the “Team of Teams” category, most akin to the aspirational agile cross functional team structure. These teams are characterised by the “Self-Directed” persona. High performing agile teams take direction from interactions with peer teams within a fluid team of teams structure.

Questions to consider for your rapid agile teams transformation

Agile Digital Project Teams are regularly at stage 2 maturity i.e. an identifiable collaborating team. Stage 2 teams make good use of technology to support their activities. They are, however, yet to discover how best to leverage digital teaming applications to maximise their productive output. Digital is used mostly for supporting activities, rather than facilitating the activities themselves. Here are some questions to consider when looking to move to the next level:

1. If you have formed a “digital” team to mirror your physical team, does it have more members than your physical team?

2. Do one or two members dominate the digital conversations?

3. Are some members absent from the digital conversations?

4. Does your team over-rely on one-on-one chats and calls in favour of all team discussion threads?

5. To what degree are your online meetings scheduled for ‘reporting up’ versus ‘aligning of’ team member activities?

6. To what degree does your team rely on hierarchical managers to broker inter-team conversations and sharing?

7. How many of your team members are only active in one or no digital teams?

If you find yourself answering ‘Yes’ to many of the above, you are falling short of being an effective digital agile team. Consider implementing digital agile team monitoring that all team members can participate, learn and benefit from.