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An agile approach to strengthening any team

Yvette Francino Agile Consultant

When asked this year if he would change anything in the Agile Manifesto, signatory Alistair Cockburn said he would "drop the software." Others nodded in agreement.

He made this statement during a roundtable discussion at the Agile20Reflect conference in May, which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Agile Manifesto and where 13 of the industry's most influential leaders answered questions about agile philosophies.

The first value statement of the manifesto, "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools," reminds us of a core principle of any agile organization: Strong relationships must be a high priority in a company's culture and are key to success.

However, these soft skills are neither taught in school nor easily codified in a framework. Here are the agile skills that are most important in fostering strong relationships in the workplace.

Embrace change

One of the biggest ways that agile project management differs from traditional project management is that it teaches people to embrace change. This is more than accepting change as an inevitable hardship. It's embracing change as a welcome opportunity.

When you recognize that change is continual—in our world, in ourselves, and in other people—you stop the natural inclination to resist it and look for opportunities to take advantage of it.

This one mindset shift can alter the way we look at everything we experience. When your clients, teammates, or bosses change their minds from a previous point of view, rather than get irritated or annoyed, you need to understand and listen with curiosity.

Ask why the change is important. Don't judge as right or wrong, but dig deep to get an understanding. If the change would cause other issues, discuss and look for a win-win solution.

Agile frameworks allow us to handle change by working in small iterations and continually getting feedback. However, getting and giving feedback isn't always easy either. Equip your team with the skills to both give and receive feedback in the most effective way. Help them provide and solicit detailed, valuable feedback.

When delivering constructive feedback, offer creative options for resolving something that could be made better. When giving positive feedback, be specific about what you liked and why. When receiving feedback, make it a practice to be grateful for all feedback, recognizing that there may be a variety of opinions.

Provide safety in failure

“The greatest teacher, failure is.” ~ Yoda

When I heard the famous Star Wars character utter those words on the big screen, I whispered to my son: "Yoda is very agile!" Soon thereafter, I started seeing this quote appear on colleagues' desks and in articles preaching the merits of agile thinking.

Reframing "failure" to "learning" gives people the safety to try new things. You can't embrace change if you don't allow yourself to try new things, recognizing that not everything will work the way you hope it will.

While traditionally that is thought of as failure, in agile circles it is more appropriately thought of as learning. You must reflect and, once again, change to incorporate those learnings in order to improve, and eventually reach success.

As a leader, you want to make it safe for your staff to take informed risks and learn from those experiments. Allow them to do things differently than you would do them. Discuss your thoughts with your team, but make it okay for them to make their own decisions. Help them figure out how they can monitor to see if progress is being made according to plan.

When you encourage a growth mindset, employees learn that they can improve any skill. Gently pushing them out of their comfort zone to try new challenges allows them to gain skills and confidence as you support them through learning.

Agile principles promote self-organized teams, but many team members don't feel equipped to deal with problems outside of their specific area of expertise. Help members gain skills in decision making, accountability, and conflict resolution by coaching them and providing a safe space for them to learn and grow.

Take advantage of differing personalities and skill sets

Cross-functional teams, as agile recommends, give team members opportunities to recognize and take advantage of diverse skill sets. However, sometimes conflict comes from not understanding that differences don't make one person wrong and another right. As a leader, you can help foster emotional intelligence skills on your team.

Emotional intelligence begins with self-awareness and the recognition that we are unique in our personalities, preferences, and styles. This diversity in personality types is one of the things that makes relationships incredibly complex.

Though there are myriad personality assessments available and many organizations take advantage of them to understand team dynamics, it's also important not to label someone and make assumptions based on their personality type.

Some systems, such as CliftonStrengths and the VIA assessment, focus on individuals' strengths. With knowledge of the interests and skills of various team members, a diverse team could take advantage of catering to each member's preferences. Rather than everyone doing the same tasks, have an analytical team member crunch the numbers and the extravert do the presentation.

Be careful, though, to allow for growth opportunities for employees who want to build skills they may not have a natural inclination for. When a team openly discusses preferences, it's easier for that team to cater to each member's strengths and preferences.

When there are conflicts, the key, once again, is active listening and communication. Be available regularly to talk to employees about their work. Observe their body language and tone of voice when describing the ups and downs of their tasks. Help them discover their passions. When are they in the zone and operating at their best?

Building a culture of trust both at work and at home

As a leader, when you foster communication and relationship skills, you create a culture in which there is acceptance, support, and collaboration. If you are transparent and lead from your heart, your team members will see you as a respected leader who is helping them gain transformational skills that will help them in both their professional and their personal lives.

Using agile frameworks such as Scrum in people's personal lives is becoming more common. Understanding and adapting agile principles to your personal life can greatly improve your relationships. Recognizing that you need to put down your cellphone and pay attention to the people in front of you is a perfect example of the manifesto's first value state: People need to come first.

As employees learn effective communication and relationship skills, they soon find that not only are their teams stronger, but their personal relationships are stronger as well.

Next steps

Meet with your team and gather their thoughts on these topics. Listen with curiosity, provide a safe space for them to speak freely, and talk about their strengths. Work with each team member to provide a development plan for career growth. Support the team members, helping them learn from failures and celebrate successes.

Adopting an agile mindset means honoring relationships, valuing change and growth, experimenting and collaborating, and celebrating our differences. These mindset shifts are instrumental in strengthening relationships and your wellness and happiness both at work and at home.

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