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How to create and lead high-performing agile teams: 8 secrets

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By Mary Thorn, President, Vaco and Bob Galen, Agile Methodologist, Practitioner and Coach, Vaco

At Vaco we are often asked about the keys for setting up and building solid agile teams. While the recipe isn't too complex or challenging, you can't imagine the facial expressions we receive from IT and other leaders when we explain some of them.

The reason: Many of our suggestions go against traditional views of organizational and team dynamics, pushing the leaders far out of their comfort zones.

That said, here’s our Magic 8 Ball of team-building questions and answers for new or current agile leaders. Consider this advice the next time you set up agile teams.

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1. Keep my teams small? All signs point to yes.

When we say to keep your teams small, we mean really small. The sweet spot for team size is five to eight members.

The key thing is to consider paths of communication during team collaboration. You've probably seen those network diagrams with communication paths that increase exponentially as the number of network nodes grows. The same thing happens in development teams.

Smaller means streamlined communication and collaboration, which leads to higher performance and, often, increased output.

2. Create cross-functional teams? It is decidedly so.

Your team should comprise individuals with all of the skills necessary to effectively deliver the work on their backlog. Usually this means developers across the application stack and, of course, testers. It could also mean architects, business analysts, and user experience (UX) folks, if those activities are necessary to get the work done. 

There's this notion in agile teams of delivering a vertical slice of functionality in each sprint. You can't do that if the team doesn’t represent all aspects of the slice. So the magic is in composing the team with a broad set of skills that's focused on delivering value.

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3. Part-time team members? My sources say no.

We often get asked whether you can have part-time team members on a solid agile team. I think the correct answer is, "It depends, but try to avoid it as much as possible."

If, for example, everyone on a given team were at 50% availability, that would be a terrible idea. You’d clearly need some team members to be fully engaged and focused on the tasks at hand in order for the group to come close to being able to deliver as a team.

The key point here is focus. Multi-tasking is the enemy of the efficient and effective operation of your agile teams. So there's magic in focusing your teams on one thing or a small set of things at a time. The results will be better.

4. Distributed teams? Don’t count on it.

Distributed teams are hard. They're out of the sweet spot of agile team norms: co-located and cross-functional teams.

Does that mean you can't make agile approaches work in distributed teams? Of course it doesn't. But you should adjust your thinking when it comes to setting up your teams. Here is our magical guidance for making it work:

  • Keep the team together in local "chunks" as much as possible.

  • Spend what you need on tools, because virtual development support tools become incredibly important.

  • Try to have the Scrum master and product owner with the largest chunk of the team.

  • Reduce the number of time zones between team members. This might be hard, but you can do it.

  • Get the entire team together when you kick off a new product effort. And reserve funds so that you can support team members visiting each other in all directions.

5. Break up your teams? Outlook not so good.

Try to keep your teams together. They're not resources that you can move around without seeing negative effects in the long term. High-performing, cohesive teams take time to build, so you don't want to ruin them by moving folks around too much. The secret sauce of agile delivery (the magic if you will) is a team outcome. So keep the team together.

6. Give teams a purpose? Yes—definitely! 

Beyond keeping the team together, it's really important to establish a purpose for each team. There's the notion of feature teams in agile, where a team owns a particular area of the application. They own the features, maintenance, architectural evolution, UX, and customer support.

In essence, they have total ownership of something. If you can establish this sort of identity for each of your teams, it creates better results. There is incredible magic in empowering your team to own the customer experience, deliver value, and improve overall product quality.

7. Do you really need a full-time Scrum master and/or product owner? Without a doubt.

Both the Scrum master and the product owner are seriously helpful roles in well-performing agile teams. And the reason we push back so much is that it's the No. 1 challenge we hear from organizational leaders. Some of the common challenges (excuses) include:

  • We don’t have the budget for these roles or we can’t seem to find them.

  • What does a Scrum master do anyway?

  • Can we make our project managers Scrum masters and our functional managers product owners?

If you want to get started on the right foot, you need to invest in these two roles. And not with untrained, multi-tasked, overloaded, part-time people. You need solid, capable people in both roles if you want your teams to be successful. And yes, this applies to Kanban as well.

8. Assimilate team leaders? Signs point to yes.

You can follow all the tips above and still not set your teams properly. They need to be enabled, empowered, understood, supported, coached, and challenged by leaders who effectively understand the shift—and change—that they're undertaking.

Too often, organizations focus on the teams and forget to train and coach the managers who lead them. Effective care and feeding of your leaders is the first step toward creating high-performing agile teams.

So, there you have it: The eight keys to forming highly effective teams. Keep this Magic 8 Ball in the back of your mind when leading your own agile teams. Shake it vigorously, and please consider all of the answers before moving forward.

Mary Thorn and Bob Galen are teaching two half-day workshops focused on building and leading agile teams at the AgileDev + DevOps Conference , which runs June 7-9 in in Las Vegas, Nevada. Please join them for a much deeper journey than the Magic 8 Ball can provide.

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