I was teaching an introductory level course last week in San Francisco. There were about 30+ people in the room and they had wide variety of experience. Some were absolute agile novices. Others seemed to be quite experienced practitioners who were looking for more advanced guidance. Some worked at very small companies and many worked at large financial and insurance firms.

So it was an eclectic mix, which is sort of the way I like classes like this.

A young lady in the front row started asking questions about how to control agile teams. Here were some of her questions:

  • How do you make sure the team is working hard?
  • How do you verify that they’re doing a good job?
  • How do you give them enough slack to work on their own, but ensure they don’t take advantage of it?
  • How do you make sure their estimates are good?
  • How do you make sure that everyone is busy; so a developer isn’t idle while waiting for their code to be tested?
  • How do you make sure the team meets ALL of their date commitments?

I learned later that she had an auditing role in her company. So, defining processes and then auditing (ensuring) that teams were “following the rules”. Given that, these questions and concerns made more sense to me.

The Answer

Now I can tell that everyone is hanging on my next statement. How did you answer her Bob? Was she “happy” with the answer? And even—is there a place for these sorts of questions within agile contexts?

I’m actually glad that she was transparent with the concerns. I’d much rather know about them then have her have all of these concerns and nobody know about them. So, I was thankful for her courage in bringing them up. So, here’s how I tried to answer her—

Management’s Role

I first went to the transition that traditional management needs to make in agile contexts. Effectively management needs to shift from:

  1. Micro-managing to goal setting and measuring output results
  2. Telling to listening & helping
  3. The team ‘serving’ them to providing Servant Leadership for the team
  4. From it being about ‘you’ to it being about “the team”
  5. From “Trust, but Verify” to simply ‘Trust’
  6.  From a ‘Push’ model to a ‘Pull’ model
  7. From a failure avoidance model to a failure embraced, continuous improvement model
  8. From a 100% utilization model to a slack encouraged model

Because a central factor, call it the essence of agility, is fostering highly performing, accountable, self-directed teams. That this isn’t lip-service, but that it takes leadership’s commitment to change and a great deal of patience to guide their teams towards this goal. And by serving this goal, they all serve their customer in delivering business value.

Team’s Role

And there is a role within the team as well. Self-direction doesn’t simply “happen” as management shifts. There needs to be strong accountability within each team. Things each team needs to learn in their own journey includes:

  1. Engaging the Customer / Product Owner…in ALL things
  2. Swarming around work as a team; remove silo-based / Waterfall thinking or hand-offs
  3. Committing to doing good work – refactoring when necessary, no hacking, producing high quality software – the first time
  4. Consistently meeting their organizations Definition of Done for ALL work
  5. Working hard
  6. Holding each other accountable to their “agreements”
  7. Being transparent; share bad news as quickly as they do good news
  8. Being open to change; be generally open-minded
  9. Trusting their Management, Product Owner, Scrum Master to do their jobs
  10. Trusting their teammates
  11. Did I say working hard? How about having fun?

Wrapping Up

In the end, my answer was that the most critical success factor within agile teams is—the PEOPLE. It’s not the processes, or the time-tracking, or the rules, or the tools, or the programming language/stack, or the time zone, or following the plan, or any of the things we’ve typically subscribe for our teams.

Instead, it’s about the people. Have you hired well-balanced, competently skilled, passionate, straight-talking, collaborative professionals? If you have, then give them goals, support them, trust them, and literally get out of their way. And did I say—“Trust them”?

One of the reasons I’m so stoked to be working at Velocity Partners is their people. They hire great people. They’re committed to their professional growth and well-being. That’s why their attrition is so low! Then they align them with great clients. Then continuously support each team member in their path, but give them the space to grow, innovate, create, and excel. Ultimately they trust their great people. Not only is this good business from a nearshoring and customer perspective, but it adheres to the lean principle of putting your people first. In other words, they walk the talk.

Back to my class, I believe the young lady didn’t really like my answer. I don’t think she trusted me enough to internalize it or believe it. But minimally I hope I made her think more deeply about the essence of agility.

Stay agile my friends,