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  • Writer's pictureValentina Zanetti

Recipes for a Great Agile Team

Having the right ingredients is vital, but mixing them together to get the best brewed team is equally important! Today we offer some tips on how to bring great teams together!


Mixing ingredients for a great team

In today's edition of the Alchemist's Digest, I'll discuss the tricks and tips I've used over the years to bring a team of people who have never worked together ready for the stressful environment that is digital product development.

When developing highly agile teams, your team's forming and storming period duration is a direct result of the efforts you've made prior to actually forming the team and the importance of these efforts is not to be underestimated. And the first and most important tip is to always remember that there are people behind the roles and expertise you've selected for your team. Below you can find a step-by-step guide to get your people ready for the first challenge - your first planning session!


Get to Know the People Behind the Roles


Don't save time on getting familiar with the people you're about to spend half your waking life with during the next months and (hopefully!) years. Too often do we see people simply being assigned to projects or teams with minimal context and without any real familiarization with the people they're going to be closely collaborating with and spending a substantial amount of their time. Yet we expect the team to start functioning properly immediately. Ask yourself honestly, how realistic is that expectation?


This also sends a poor message to everyone involved:


🔻It's dehumanizing to assign people like resources to be distributed

🔻It leaves no room for personal agency and investment

🔻It doesn't send a message that you're trying to form an actual team


So, whether you're an HR professional, a Project Manager, Product Owner, Scrum Master or Team lead, when you've identified your future team members, before notifying them via e-mail or simply sending them an invite to the team kick-off meeting, try instead:


🔹Take time to speak to each prospective team member alone in a more informal setting

🔹Take an interest in the person behind the role, ask about their lives, hobbies

🔹Ask them about their career plans and aspirations to see how it fits in with your agenda

🔹Inform them about your plans for the team and ask if they're interested in joining

🔹Let them know who else you plan to onboard to make sure there are no conflicting relationships

🔹Ask about their hopes for and apprehensions about the team and the work and the team

🔹Convey your personal enthusiasm about the new team and their potential contribution

🔹 Allow them time to think about it, and confirm after a few days


Remember that your team members are people, and treat them as such. Allow them agency in their own career choices, their involvement, and most importantly - allow them the option to choose. It will not only provide a more positive outlook on the whole team, but also more personal investment in the efforts ahead.


Onboard Everyone Together to Form a Great Team


One of the first things to do before actually forming a team is to identify and onboard all of the team members before the team has started work. If you have the content strategy, UX and design teams already starting work while you still haven't onboarded or even identified the development team or the QA team, you're setting your 'team' up for failure.


When you start work on one part of the project with a part of the team, while the other part of the team is not yet identified, this is what you're actually doing:


🔻Showing the people involved that they're not actually a team

🔻Enforcing siloed work with difficult hand-overs

🔻Increasing the risk of difficulties in development to achieve goals

🔻Preventing creative contributions from the development/QA team

🔻Preventing the team to self-organize


Now, not all team members may contribute equally to each segment of the development lifecycle, but they should participate as part of the team anyway. It will provide a sense of teamwork, egalitarianism, and garner more personal investment and motivation in the product. Additionally, being thoroughly familiar with the context of the product is really important for each member of the team, and it will facilitate risk identification and continuous improvement.


Introduce Everyone To Each Other Before Starting Work


Give the people you've chosen to be on your team a chance to get familiar with each other before putting them in high-stress situations like a 4-hour long planning session. An informal setting will help loads to smooth things along. 


Try this exercise:

Gather your new team in an informal setting, whether it's a pizza place (one occasion where pizza and beers are a great idea!) or a more-or-less fancy restaurant, somewhere outside their usual 'work setting'. There's nothing quite like breaking bread together to get people to relax and get to know each other. Try to choose a venue where there aren't too many distractions so people can talk, but just enough distractions so they don't feel obligated to engage with each other. Avoid team building exercises or gaming, loud places or generally places where conversation can't flow naturally. You should already have an idea on what your team likes and dislikes from the previous one-on-ones you've had with them so you can build on that, or simply just ask them where they'd like to go.


Also, try to adhere to the following:

🔹Don't force anyone to participate

🔹Make it known that this is an informal setting for people to get acquainted with each other

🔹Introduce each team member, their expertise, why you chose them for the team and what is the expertise they'll be bringing

🔹Share excitement to have them on the team

🔹Share excitement about the upcoming work efforts

🔹Allow the rest of the evening to unfold naturally, whether the conversation is steered towards business or more personal matters


This will give you a jump start on creating good team relationships. It will allow for the team members to see each other in a 'real life' situation, humanize one another and see beyond their individual roles, alleviate social anxiety, enable trusting and transparent relationships, improve communication, foster empathy, grow positive excitement, and generally create a better starting point for the team.


Meanwhile, you will be able to more accurately gauge:

🔸Each team member's communication style/personality

🔸Who are the more dominant/passive members on the team

🔸Who are the complementing team members

🔸Expectations/worries from the team regarding their work together

🔸Potential sources of conflict or clique forming within the team


Although it might start out awkwardly, and some (or all) team members might find it a bit uncomfortable at first, but it'll be only that much more difficult to 'throw them in the water' later on in a lengthy, stressful planning session and expect them to be at their top game.


Remember, don't force work talk and keep it light, you're talking to people right now and getting to know them, not screening or managing your team. Your team will be grateful to you and respect you that much more for treating them like human beings!


Invite Knowledge and Idea Sharing


Once you've gotten familiar with your team and allowed them a chance to get familiar with each other, it's time to start delving into the work at hand. And the first order of business to create a team environment where knowledge sharing and brainstorming is welcomed. To foster such an environment, you should lead by example, whether you're a team lead, agile coach, or product owner.


Start with:

🔹Open both formal and informal communication channels for the team and try not to silo them into domain expertise, and onboard your team members into all the code repositories, documentation and PM systems (Git, Jira, Confluence...)

🔹Share ALL the documentation you have on the workload ahead (yes, including budgets and contracts, there's no purpose nor benefit in hiding these from your team)

🔹Point your team members to the parts of the documentation that, in your opinion, might be relevant for them and their domain

🔹Allow them the time from their daily obligations to go through everything, think about it, consult about it with team members or their domain authorities, and time to let the information sink in and percolate

🔹Ask for ideas, and offer your own ideas - make them outrageous and ridiculous as often as possible, outrageous ideas help people step away from the problem and re-examine their own assumptions, and they enable and foster creative thinking and 'getting out of the box'

🔹Encourage your team to discuss the work amongst themselves before the first official team meeting, encourage informal sessions and chats

🔹Ask them when might be a good time to go over the documentation together and get organized, and what might be the first topics they'd like to discuss

🔹Share some memes, too, there's no harm in laughter 🙃


If all goes well, by the time of your first planning session, your team will already have read the documentation, consulted amongst themselves, considered the risks and hindrances, and might already have some great ideas on how to proceed.


Set The Stage for a Great Team


Hooray, you've formed your team and you're finally ready for your first team planning session! But there's one more thing that needs to be done before you delve into the official planning stuff... And it's to set the stage properly for the first planning session, and to bring the right energy and state of to the team, so everyone can benefit. Set aside a half an hour to an hour out of your first planning session to set the stage properly.


A few tips on how to go about this:


🔶 Firstly, forget the generic 'business-like' approach, forget the hierarchy, the politics and the overly-courteous pageantry, you will need a completely different approach if you want to grow a high-functioning, agile team. Planning sessions last several hours, there's A LOT of information to absorb and a constant creative effort is needed, which is intellectually and emotionally very draining. So they're very fertile ground for conflicts. Forcing politics and business pageantry on top will only increase the risk of conflicts and make the conflicts that much worse.


🔶 Be open and honest about your domain of expertise (not role or position), why you're on the team and what you're supposed to help with. Be open and honest about your shortcomings and let your team know that you depend on them. Let your team members do the same. Nobody is perfect and we all need help from our teammates, no matter how experienced an expert we are in our field.


🔶 Let your team know that they can always come to you if they have any issues, and that you're there to help them resolve the issues, not berate them. Foster a blame-free culture in your team, and focus on finding the root cause of the problems and addressing that, instead of shifting blame and finger-pointing.


🔶 As a segway into the actual planning work, try to always ask the following question: 'What is the absolute best result that might happen from this collaboration? What is your ideal scenario here?' It will give your team an inspiring visualization of the possibilities ahead of them, and it will set a standard of excellence to aspire to in their work, their relationships and within themselves.


Conclusions


A team doesn't consist of experts and procedures and processes. A true team consists of people. The true success of the team is in their relationships, the shorthand communication they develop, how they're able to listen to and hear each other, how they help each other with their shortcomings and most importantly - the trust they develop. So in order to form a truly high-functioning, highly adaptive team you need to treat just like that - a team. A group of people. You need to treat them like who they really are.


Next week, I'll be discussing how to establish ways of working for a self-organizing team, so stay tuned and subscribe, if you'd like to hear more!


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