In proper conditions, Agile teams outperform the sum of their parts. Well-functioning Agile teams are a joy to behold, a pleasure to be part of, and a privilege to lead. They use reliable methods, which they continually adapt — ones that make their lives easier, not harder. Responsiveness to changes in understanding and circumstance is second nature to them. A high-performing, engaged Agile team can handle almost anything.
Would you like to lead a successful team like that? Agile frameworks do not assume that the team has a project manager or reports to a manager, although some frameworks (like Scrum) do assume that the team has a servant leader who helps them deliver value. If you are, or would like to be, that person, this book is for you.
Over the past several years, many ScrumMasters, managers, and team leads have expressed their challenges to me. Many of them were spearheading an implementation of Scrum or some other form of Agile. I would hear them voice sentiments like the following:
“We’ve put in place roles, sprints, meetings, and a backlog. But I’m not seeing any of the promised self-organization, teamwork, or commitment. Everybody still works on their own piece. They’ll stay stuck on a story for three days before telling anyone. In some sprints, they don’t finish a single story — and there’s no consequence! Where are the ‘shared responsibility’ and ‘hyper-productivity’ that we were promised?”
“We try to implement Agile, but we have some real limitations. The team is spread across several time zones. Most folks say they are so specialized they can’t share tasks with anybody; some just won’t work with anyone else. They sit quietly in retrospectives, waiting for me to tell them what to change. Sometimes I wonder whether the Scrum theory works in practice.”
“I used to have a solid track record as a project manager. Now, I get to feel anxious every two weeks. Will the team deliver on their iteration commitments? How will the demo go this time? Senior management keeps interfering in tactical work, asking me to increase productivity and holding me accountable for delivering this project — but I feel powerless to affect its outcome.”
Even people who were running apparently successful Agile implementations expressed concerns:
“I lead the team’s meetings, keep on top of their plans, and help remove the occasional impediment. But I want my role to be more significant than that! I know Agile is so much more about the people than the process or tools, but what can I do to help? Anytime they run into a serious team challenge, I’m told not to intervene — they should work it out on their own. I don’t feel that I add any significant value to the team.”
“We’ve been using Agile methods successfully for quite a while. The team has jelled, and they seem to flow smoothly with their process. But retrospectives yield only minor improvements, and I feel we’ve reached a plateau. How can I help our good team become a great team?”
If you see yourself in some of these people or their statements resonate with you, what would you say is the difficulty in realizing greater value from Agile?
Consider the following three P’s:
- Product: What product do we make?
- People: Who participates in making the product?
- Process: How do we make our product and get it into customers’ hands?
In the early 20th century, the world was busy manufacturing goods. Frederick Taylor was the reigning thought leader, studying how workers could use technology in the most efficient manner. With his Scientific Management approach, the most important P was process. Manufacturing ability and scale were greater differentiators than product design and quality, so the second P was product. People were the third P, as their working conditions made painfully obvious.
Since then, process and product have remained the two key factors. Most businesses still live or die by their product. The process element has been refined, standardized, reengineered, and regulated to be independent of the flesh-and-blood folks who use it. Thus people still constitute the third P.
Yet, when it came to the software industry, process turned out to be a stumbling block. Many workers in that industry realized that streamlined processes that optimize manufacturing and minimize variability really don’t cut it in this type of knowledge work, where development, innovation, and customization are dominant. Agile development emerged as a natural reaction to the fallibility of the Process-Product-People value system.
The revolutionary ordering of the three P’s according to Agile is People-Product-Process.
An Agile axiom is that success and failure are first and foremost about people. If you build an enabling framework for your team, tend to the members on a personal level, tap into their potential, and help them interact effectively, they will take care of the next important P, product. And to do that, they will customize the third P, process.
However, putting people first means dealing with such matters as emotions, drive, conduct, resistance, habits, and blind spots. This does not come naturally to most product development professionals. They are used to thinking of tasks, resources, job descriptions, and technical skills. And their workplaces — cubicles, standardized offices, dreary meeting rooms — conceal the fact that their inhabitants are human beings.
These professionals have few reference experiences that would enable them to recognize, welcome, and foster a core Agile principle: collaboration. Traditional environments have suppressed both interdependence and shared responsibility; people were viewed as “resources,” and management tried to maximize the time they spent on their specialties. Agile moves away from keeping people busy, focusing them instead on delivering value in a team setting.
No matter how technical the system you deliver, you must deal with the people who define and build it. You can’t always choose them, and you won’t always like working with them. However, the Agile framework, fiercely people-first and transparent, will make any difficulties explicit and encourage collaborative solutions. You are not alone.
This book will help you master the human side of Agile so you can lead your team to greatness. You’ll find useful advice, whether you first learned about Agile yesterday or have been leading a successful team for years. Whether your leadership role is formal or not, this book will help you design it for outstanding value and then grow a solid team. It will assist you in engaging people in powerful conversations and being an Agile leader. And when your team is humming along and you’re ready for more, it will show you how to sustain their performance for the long haul.
If you are an Agile team member, use this book to learn what to expect from your team leader and how to apply your innate leadership to help your team prosper. If you are a senior manager, use it to better understand your organization’s greatest asset — its people — and the influences on their performance in an Agile setting. And if you are a coach or a change agent, use this book when you help people integrate that brief but powerful statement from the Agile Manifesto: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”