In every business sector today, organizations are adopting Agile approaches—not only in IT, but increasingly across entire value streams. As reported in Digital.ai’s 2022 State of Agile Report, companies have turned to Agile to accelerate time to market, improve delivery predictability, and lower risk.
For firms that have had the most success in transitioning to Agile, the impact on their people is tangible:
- Nearly 70% see increased collaboration among people
- Over half are experiencing better alignment to business needs
- Almost 40% report an improved work environment
But there’s a caveat to these positive reports: only 20% of respondents said they were “very satisfied” with the Agile practices in their firms. About half were “somewhat satisfied”, while 28% were either “not that” or “not at all” satisfied with the current state. This prompts us to ask: if successful Agile adoption produces such excellent results, why do many organizations still express muted enthusiasm about their progress?
This contradiction probably reflects what we’ve observed many times: success with Agile depends on fostering successful teams. Whether you follow Scrum, XP, Kanban, SAFe, or some other approach, teams are the foundation. If an Agile transition isn’t focused on developing healthy, productive teams, it won’t deliver the benefits we all hope for.
So what contributes to Agile teams’ success? What can leaders do to encourage and support them?
The Four Key Traits We See in Successful Teams
If you’ve seen a high-performance team in action, you’ve seen it: great teams are different. Whether it’s a unique shared vocabulary, a palpable sense of connection, or just an oddball sense of humor, every good team exhibits an internal culture that supports their work together.
As we discuss in another post, psychological safety will always be one aspect of that internal team culture. Almost certainly the team will have figured out how to handle conflict constructively, and also how to commit to a goal together. That doesn’t mean all good teams behave the same—every group takes a unique path in their shared growth.
The key point is that healthy team cultures seldom arise by accident. The best teams learn that building their “teaming skills” is every bit as important as honing their technical chops. They recognize the need to consciously create a strong team culture of collaboration and shared learning, so they can all succeed together.
We use this term to describe teams that are both (a) cross-functional, possessing the complete mix of skills needed to deliver their product; and (b) inter-dependent, relying on close collaboration to make the most of their shared abilities. Both elements are key for an Agile team to do its best work.
A team that isn’t sufficiently cross-functional won’t be able to develop and support a working solution on their own. They will be dependent on others for some functions (like design, testing, or deployment), which will constrain the team’s ability to deliver rapidly and continuously. Dependencies also impede the continuous improvement focus so important in Agile—a team may not have the access to change a component they need to, or their attempts at improvement may end up conflicting with someone else’s work.
Even when team members collectively possess all the right talents, the group only produces exceptional results if they also embrace inter-dependence—the level of collaboration that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The most successful teams exhibit a dense interplay of ideas, discussion, and debate that accelerates both productivity and learning. A team that’s highly inter-functional will outperform any pack of lone wolves, no matter how skilled.
One of the great strengths of an Agile mindset is that it allows teams to successfully navigate in environments of complexity and ambiguity. That said, good teams are always looking to establish clarity about the why and how of their work. Especially when the “what” of a solution is unclear, clearly understanding the “why”—the vision and purpose of the effort—provides a guiding light for the team’s choices. You can expect to field a lot of “why” questions when you engage with a good Agile team!
It’s equally important for a team to establish clarity about how they will operate together. How will they structure the work, make decisions, align on goals, and deliver reliably? A defined framework like Scrum is extremely helpful in this regard, providing a well-tested foundation for the team to build on.
The “PDCA loop” (Plan-Do-Check-Act), first popularized by Walter Shewhart almost a century ago, is central to every Agile approach today. Effective teams embrace the “Check” stage when they take advantage of every opportunity to solicit feedback from stakeholders. This may include hearing from customers on the value being delivered, from colleagues about the quality of the product, and even the story being told by the team’s flow metrics.
While various avenues for feedback may be built into an Agile team’s process, successful teams don’t simply accept the information passively—they consistently make the effort to analyze and act on this invaluable data. Frequent feedback allows teams to quickly adapt to changing customer needs, identify problems early, and minimize wasted effort.
If you want to get a sense for how an Agile team is performing, take time to observe them with these characteristics in mind. Ask team members about what limits their progress, and consider whether a focus on one of these traits could be helpful. Yes, we aspire for Agile teams to be self-managing—but even the best teams benefit from the informed support of their leaders and organization.