How to help your agile team succeed

How to help your agile team succeed

Wondering why projects are failing and teams are frustrated instead of engaged and productive? Perhaps the problem isn't with agile.

If your organization has adopted an agile methodology and you're frustrated by failure, it's time for a long, hard look in the mirror: Perhaps the problem isn't agile. The problem is your management style. How can you help teams succeed? First, you have to get out of their way, says Selena Delesie, founder and principal at Delesie Solutions, an agile coaching, consulting and training firm, in a workshop held at Agile Alliance 2015 last week in Washington, D.C.

For many managers, agile is a new, radical style of leadership. Instead of command-and-control, agile focuses on team collaboration, independence and autonomy. It's an entirely different mindset for many organizations, especially large, established enterprises, and the managers within. Helping your team succeed means letting go of almost everything you think you know about management and trusting your team to handle that from within.

That means, first and foremost, educating yourself as a manager on the motivations behind agile, its benefits to teams, to the practice and craft of software development and its value to the overall business. Agile Alliance, for instance, is a nonprofit dedicated to evangelizing for the methodology; it offers a ton of great resources and information about the methodology on its website.

There are some common reasons why agile fails, and many can be addressed at the manager level. When organizations jump on this bandwagon without fully understanding the type of holistic, comprehensive transformation that has to occur, it can completely undermine what they're trying to accomplish by switching to an agile methodology.

"The organizations who are trying to 'do agile' instead of 'be agile' are going to fail at it. If they're focused on processes instead of people, control over creativity, tracking versus trust - that's never going to work," says Delesie.

So, what can you do as a manager to nurture your agile teams? Delesie offered some basics for management that can help agile teams flourish, starting with relationship- and trust-building.

Build trust

As a manager, you're the liaison between senior management and your teams, Delesie says. It's important to develop mutually beneficial relationships both ways - upstream and downstream. "Each side has needs that need to be met if the relationship is to flourish. You can't ignore them; you should try to make a personal connection with each stakeholder so that each side feels heard, respected and taken care of," she says.

Honesty about deadlines, obstacles and constraints is key in both directions to build trust: from your team that you will advocate on their behalf to management and from management that you're doing your best to work your teams effectively and efficiently.

See both sides

To get a better sense of what's driving demands, conflict and obstacles from both sides, ask them what they value - but don't be afraid to dig deep, Delesie says. Often, a stakeholder's first or second answer isn't going to be truthful, and a basic fear of change or fear of losing perceived power is at the heart of the issues. As one audience member (courageously, though anonymously) reported, being in a management position was the catalyst for his making a series of bad decisions. "I was afraid to let go and allow my team the space they needed to solve problems and work effectively. It was my first time in a management role - I was the boss. Aren't bosses supposed to have all the answers? So, I was afraid to ask questions and be seen as 'weak.' That fear caused a lot of problems," he says.

Delesie adds that all of these techniques can be applied both upstream and downstream, the trick is to adjust your language for the audience you're speaking to, whether that's your development teams or your executive management.


If management's unclear about the benefits of agile, both for outcomes and for internal team dynamics, educate them. You can hire an agile coach or a scrum coach/trainer, or suggest readings. You can bring in speakers and execs from other organizations to present case studies that will illustrate the positive impact this transformation has on companies similar to your own. "The phrase I always use is, 'There's no how, there is only know-how.' Don't make agile a demand, present it as an option and be able to show definitively how it will make your organization better. And let the choice to move in that direction come naturally," she says.

Remove obstacles

One of the basics of agile involves constant identification of obstacles and problems and continuous iteration to remove those. Make sure you're constantly checking in with your team members and with the execs higher-up in the organization to find out what's blocking progress and how you can help remove those barriers.

In some cases, these barriers can be team members themselves, and it requires a creative mindset to address those challenges. Venkata Kumaran, an IT manager with USG Corporation, says he felt continually frustrated by a few team members who, despite prompting, would never speak up in meetings and share their opinion or their advice.

It wasn't for lack of desire or intelligence, however - these were simply introverts who were too shy and anxious to voice their opinions in a public forum. "For me to remove those obstacles meant I had to think in a different way. Once I realized what the problem was, I would take time to ask these people well ahead of the meeting to share their ideas with me - either out loud or even via e-mail - and then I would handle presenting them to the team. It worked great; I just had to look at the problem a different way and make adjustments to my own way of doing things," he says.

Sherri McLauchlin, a product owner in complex event planning with American Express, says she faced the challenge of a team member who was able to shine when her strengths were used instead of forcing her to work on an area she wasn't passionate about. "All I had to do was shift responsibilities around so that this person was working on tracking financials and ROI metrics - she excelled at it and loved doing it. And that freed up the rest of the team to pursue their own interests, and we were much more productive," McLauchlin says.


It's often much more effective to show, not tell, says Delesie. As a manager, by mentoring team members (and executives) and modeling the behaviors and best practices of agile, you can more fully espouse the benefits of the methodology. "Being an agile leader means making a conscious decision to lead that emphasizes trust, collaboration, empathy and an ethical use of power. There's no room here for empire-building and increasing your own power as a manager - in fact, a lot of agile is in letting go of that outdated command-and-control structure. If you can listen, collaborate, build trust, empathize and incentivize your teams and your executive management, you're doing it," Delesie says.

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