My Agile Teams Are Broken!

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A few days ago, I shared my thoughts on why Agile Teams Are Awesome, and when they work, the experience is indeed amazing.

When teams operate with a mindset that favors radical transparency, customer participation, feedback, and diversity, we end up with a structure that enables them effective self organize. And we get this without restricting ourselves to a framework, method, or methodology.

Note the emphasis on the word organize. Agile does not mean anarchy, or a free wheeling laissez-fair approach to value creation. Agile means people can better organize themselves into cohesive groups that require minimal management intervention.

The combination of radical work transparency, constant customer feedback, continual experimentation, and diversity of opinion acts as a complimentary set of corrective mechanisms that keep individual teams iterating towards delivering the most valuable work they can, in the best possible way, while minimizing the need for command and control.

This lack of command and control further fosters a sense of ownership and social density, which in turn decreases the need for any traditional management.

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Now for a little dose of reality

As with all concepts, there are some dragons in these hills. I know some of you will be skeptical that this description of agile can work in your context.

And rightly so.

The reality is that the the number of organizations operating according to this highly virtuous description of agile teams are vastly outnumbered by the number of organizations that are not. People that try to move to quickly towards this vision often start encountering some very real, almost intractable problems. There have been a long list of leaders who have been wowed by the possibilities of agile teams, and spear headed agile transformations that resulted in “agile” teams that have fallen way short of the mark.

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There are many reasons. Mindset, culture, values are huge contributors. I won’t even pretend to discount those. We need to continue to strive for a new way of thinking, seeing and being if we really want agility to work. But we can also look at something very tangible, namely how we are organized. A lack of understanding of how to grow organizing structure around the concept of an agile team, causes some huge and largely avoidable pitfalls….

  • I put everyone I needed onto a team and the team is huge! 30 people! 80 people! 200 people!
  • The work requires really specialized individuals, and its never the same ones! Someone is always idle on my team, and its never the same person at any given time!
  • My software architecture is so fragmented that every team structure I can think of results in a spaghetti of dependencies!
  • I have too many customer, and they are all competing with each other! How I can I pick a dedicated customer to act as my customer representative for my team!
  • My teams are all going in a different direction on something that would benefit from some consistency! I can’t get this consistency if every team is self-organizing on every aspect of what they do!
  • My teams is not allowed to deliver unless we get approval with legal/compliance/architecture/agile coaches/quality management/release management/customer experience/security/privacy/audit/finance/data/support/operations!

As a result a lot of people are disillusioned with the idea that agile teams can solve the challenge of increased complexity. What follows next is retrenchment, disillusionment, and some really bad hacks that bring back old ways of working and thinking.

But remember when I said Agile Teams are awesome? They are! But to make them awesome at scale we need to spend some time to understand some of the reasons why agile teams work. (Hint: it has nothing to do with frameworks or methodologies) We need to understand what aspects of teams allow you scale them, and what parts of our definition of agile teams actually get in the way.

To get to these “truths” behind agile teams, I am going to challenge some sacred cows that are part of the established agile dogma. Some controversial topics ill explore include..

  • Stable Teams Erode Agility
  • There Are No Autonomous Teams
  • A Teams view is a Myopic view

My goal in exploring these topics is to help you avoid some common traps you encounter as you think about how to form people into teams. Ill use these truths to pave the way for a more robust discussion on how to effectively grow agile teams. Ill talk about how to set them up, how to support them, and how to help them evolve as things change over time.

Stay tuned for my next article, or better yet download a copy of my book on Agile Organizational Design!

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