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Agile performance: it’s about more than skills!

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What makes a successful Agile team member?

I’ve been asked this question numerous times by people assembling a Scrum or XP team, so I thought I would blog about it. Simply put, attitude is everything.

Sure, you need to be competent at the right technical skills, but I will take 1 person with the right attitude and acceptable skills over 3 technical experts who do not exhibit the right attitudinal traits, every time. And I’ll get more value out of the average guy with the right attitude than I would out of the experts. In fact, I’d put money down that by the end of my project the so-called average guy will be performing at an expert level.

Agile methods value “People over process” and rely on people to come together as a team, self-organize, and be focused on the group result rather than their own individual skills to determine their success.

But what does this mean? And how do I find people with the right attitude?

To get a more specific answer, I’ve broken down the 4 major traits I have seen lead to high performance on agile teams:
Sense of Urgency

  • We want a sense of urgency about getting meaningful work done. This is different from the deadline-driven high-stress mindset that we see all over the place; this arises from a genuine passion for building good software that solves business problems. Such a person will be impatient with spending a day planning out work; he will want to dive in, do enough analysis & design to make sure the concept is thought through, then focus on getting tests to pass while writing flexible, quality code. She will always be looking for ways to work more efficiently, and very likely introduce new tools and practices to the team.
  • Commitment to team results

  • One of the great things about Agile methods is that they shift attention from an individual’s work to the results of the team. Just like a good basketball team is focused on the team’s score and frowns on the glory-hound individual who hogs the ball or plays out of position, a Scrum team member is focused on makings sure he provides what the team needs to succeed, when the team needs it.Of course there is recognition and respect to be gained, but it comes from team members not management, and is earned based on contributions, not gained through achieving artificial objectives.
    This is true because the Agile feedback mechanisms such as velocity focus on the team’s ability to produce working software, rather than an individual’s ability to perform tasks. Both the team and the individual soon learn to value contributions that enhance the team’s success.
  • Transparency

  • A key stumbling block for Agile teams is the unwillingness of members to expose what they do not know, are struggling with, or do not like about the process or work. Instead of seeking help, individuals will tend to ignore problems, paper over roadblocks and try to work through issues by themselves before someone else notices.This reluctance to be vulnerable is understandable, and it stems from a lack of trust in either management or other team members. As leaders, we need to encourage people to ask for help, surface roadblocks, and give public recognition for those brave enough to do so. At the same time, we need to call attention to the time wasted and impact on the team when individuals sit on or ignore problems. The visibility Scrum brings to results makes it easy to spot situations where this is occurring and provides clear examples that can be used to shift the behavior of the team.
  • Willingness to take risks

  • Most people in our society have learned to fear making mistakes. Everywhere from our schools to our homes to our workplaces, we have experienced that mistakes have negative consequences and that playing it safe is the best strategy to achieve stable success in the eyes of others.In an Agile team, this mentality quickly slows the team down. In order to avoid mistakes, people find themselves over-analyzing and over-planning their work. Work expands to fill the time allotted, and technical decisions that could quickly be tested are delayed.To overcome this, we need to invest substantial effort in ensuring that the team environment is one in which it is safe to make mistakes and learn from them. As leaders, we must reward people for acting on limited information, taking their best shot, and then correcting based on what occurs. This does not mean we need to encourage sloppiness or lack of discipline; on the contrary we need to empower our team members to act on their own initiative then share their learnings with the team. This empowerment is critical to forming a team that harnesses the talents and energies of all members. Such a team will quickly establish a culture of initiative, creativity and high performance.
  • It’s about the Team, not the individual

  • Taken together, the above traits combine to enable individuals to come together as high-performance teams producing a large volume of defect-free code without incident. This is the culture and behavior of a successful scrum team, and I have seen team after team achieve this after several months of adjustment to the concept that it is team results, not individual performance that creates success.The trouble is, traditional management practices tend to breed the opposite behaviors. We are an individualistic culture and while we give lip service to the concept of a team, most software development management practices focus on the individual’s performance and contribution to the project. After a few years of professional experience, the average software developer learns to focus on his small piece of a project; set expectations that he can easily achieve, and make sure that management sees the intrinsic value he brings to a project.If she doesn’t succeed at this, she will not be rewarded. If she over-extends herself with optimistic commitments for the good of the project and then fails to deliver, she will earn a bad reputation. Success has been measured by her ability to make make and keep commitments, not her ability to achieve brilliant results. If there isn’t enough time or resource to achieve a specific result, then it is the fault of the manager for not planning properly. A good worker will make a strong effort to deliver anyway, but will make it clear that this is a stretch goal. Some people will seize these moments as an opportunity to save the day, and spotlight their dedication and abilities.The prevailing culture therefore tends to breed a combination of mediocrity in individuals punctuated by individual heroics. The heroics become necessary because of the problems that arise out of the mediocrity; a true high-performance team will not create nearly as many crises to solve.
  • A recipe for success

  • Creating a high performance Agile team involves much more than assembling the right technical skills. As we have seen in this article, we need to assess the soft skills and attitudes of the team members and also ensure our plans allow enough time to make any necessary adjustment in the team’s culture. Establishing the right culture requires experienced leadership, and it usually takes between 1 and 3 months for most teams to begin to demonstrate the level of performance we associate with Scrum teams.
  • <Here's a recipe to help you get started faster:

    1. Build your team around a nucleus of bright individuals with 3-5 years of experience. Make sure they have the right attitude and soft attributes listed above, decent technical skills and that between them they cover the necessary technologies. Don’t expect everyone to be good at everything right off the bat; expect that the team is going to learn from each other.

    2. Carefully add in one or two senior people covering critical technologies. It is very important that these people fit the culture of the team, and don’t come in with baggage such as insistence on specific practices or development process (unless that process is Agile). If you can’t find these people but still need the expertise then consider making them adjuncts to the team; consulting resources to review and support the team but not full team members.

    3. If you can swing it, add one or two proven Agile superstars who embody all the attributes listed above. These individuals do not a record consisting solely of heroics or fire-fighting, but are the type of people who naturally take full responsibility for both preventing and solving problems. These natural leaders will act as catalyst to the above team, leading to a more rapid formation of the culture of team performance. Including these individuals is a good investment, as you will find that their presence will breed future leaders who can in turn catalyze other teams.

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