In this actionable guide, Brian Laehn distills his 20+ years of experience as a Senior Business Analyst, Scrum Manager, Project Manager and Agile Team Lead.
Has your organization identified the need to create a new project team? You may be wondering what the best way is to form this new team that will allow the organization to deliver the highest value output of work.
This guide will show you how to get the entire organization behind the Agile team mindset and form a new effective Agile team. Once your culture has decided to become Agile, then you can take the necessary steps to form and evolve effective Agile teams.
What is an Agile Team?
Before we move forward, it’s important to define an Agile team so we’re all on the same page. An Agile team is a cross-functional group of people that each have roles and responsibilities that contribute in a team environment to achieve a common goal.
Patience is Crucial
There is one word that is extremely important while forming effective Agile teams and that word is patience. It is truly an investment for your organization to create Agile teams, and one that will show a positive return on investment and lead to a better way of working together and delivering high quality results over the long run.
Your new Agile team will go through the “form, storm, norm, perform” stages of team development, and some stages will take longer than others. It is important that everyone from the top leaders in the company to the everyday team members understand that patience is key, and that it takes time to become a fully performing Agile team.
How to Form Your Agile Teams
Agile teams should be formed to include all individuals that have a mutual interest in producing a specific tested version of a product or service that is to be released in incremental deliverables. Team members must be dedicated and available to focus on the highest value tasks agreed upon by the team to deliver what benefits the entire organization.
Agile teams can be organized around services, products, or features where you have multiple individuals that interact with shared functionality. Aligning teams around business capabilities makes sense for most organizations. Agile teams should be formed to align to the business, organizational, and technical architectures of a business. These cross-functional Agile teams will allow your organization to produce work in an organized way that delivers higher output than non-Agile teams.
Agile teams should be created strategically to ensure that each role on the team is well thought out and necessary. Team members should be set up for success in their roles and clearly understand how their contributions will help lead the team to delivering successful results. Agile is a culture change and must be embraced by all members of the organization to succeed from all teams to all upper management.
Agile Team Working Within the Scrum Framework
It is recommended that your Agile teams should work within the Scrum framework. We can define Scrum as a framework that is used to develop a system through repeated iterative cycles and create work output in smaller incremental portions.
Scrum allows us to take advantage of what we have learned throughout our development process of earlier versions of output and adjust to continuously improve and refine our work. Scrum encourages daily team communication among all team members and creates awareness to what everyone is working on. This helps identify any roadblocks getting in the team’s way so they can be quickly addressed.
Roles and Responsibilities for Your New Agile Team
It is important to clearly define the roles and responsibilities for your new Agile team. Each Agile team is unique, and I want to share insights into some key roles you should consider adding to your Agile team. The ideal size of your Agile team should be between 3-9 team members. Of course, you may have more stakeholders involved that share in the interest and success of your team. Let’s look at some roles and responsibilities that add value to an Agile team.
One of the most important roles on an Agile team is the product owner, and it is required that every team has one. The main responsibility of the product owner is to establish and communicate the vision for the product to the entire team. The product owner must prioritize the work to maximize return on investment (ROI). The product owner ultimately owns the product backlog. Product owners make the decisions regarding what features should be delivered within the scope of the project depending on budget and schedule constraints.
The Scrum Master is a coach, leader, and facilitator that works for the team to improve productivity, remove obstacles, and resolve impediments. Scrum Masters are responsible for making sure the Scrum values are upheld. Scrum Masters are servant leaders but also willing to do whatever they can to help the team succeed. This role is required for your Agile Scrum team.
Developer / Software Engineer
Developers and software engineers are responsible for turning the requirements and creative designs into working software. Developers are at the heart of the Agile team in making sure the team performs the agreed upon work during each sprint. Developers are responsible for development tasks, as well as performing unit testing and system integration tests on the code develop. Developers play a key role in helping estimate the work items and their individual tasks to help determine how much work the team can perform each sprint. The development team usually has at least one developer and often consists of several since they are critical to the Agile team’s success.
Business Analysts (BAs) are responsible for eliciting and documenting requirements for the team. A key responsibility is helping the team create user stories that are often stored in a product backlog. BAs can help coordinate and facilitate testing. BAs are often the bridge between the IT and business areas and facilitate discussions that are critical to uncovering the highest value requirements. BAs work with dev team members to fully understand the user stories and assist in any way they can to help the team.
UI/UX Expert / Creative Designer
It is extremely beneficial to have an Agile team member who is responsible for developing the creative design and graphics elements for a project. The creative designer could help design a website UI or review custom application functionality from a usability perspective. User experience and creative experts review content as necessary to ensure the visual appearance is appropriate.
Technical / Solutions Architect
A technical architect is responsible for designing functional technology solutions. They should help the development team by providing technical leadership and support to develop solutions. Technical architects help identify the appropriate way to break down the development work into smaller manageable tasks. Technical architects may be involved with helping the team make hardware and software decisions, and they must be able to communicate and lead development resources effectively.
Quality Assurance Analysts
Agile teams run smoother with dedicated QA resources. Quality analysts are responsible for writing test cases with input from client subject matter experts. They develop test plans and coordinate execution of the test plan. If any defects are found during testing, the QA resource should document and ensure the bugs found during testing get prioritized.
Infrastructure resources are responsible for the configuration of required software development environments. The infrastructure resource will provide support to the project team as code changes are deployed and moved through the various software development environments that an organization has set up.
Database admins may help assist a team with database-related tasks. Each organization has their own structure setup; sometimes the development team handles database tasks. This is just another example of a potential role that could benefit your Agile team if it makes sense to become an official member of the Agile team.
Compliance / Legal Resources
Many industries have certain industry guidelines and need to ensure their work complies with industry standards. While these resources may not be needed full time, they are often critical in ensuring the team has successfully met the compliance and legal requirements for a project.
Other Stakeholders & Subject Matter Experts
The possible stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs) for your project team are endless. It is the responsibility of the organization when forming an Agile team to consider all stakeholders and subject matter experts and to include them in communication and involve those who share in the interest of the project’s success.
Stakeholders & SMEs can come from business or technical teams throughout the organization. You may find departments such as finance, accounting, marketing, and human resources are stakeholders for your project. The key is to identify the best resources to keep informed and add to your project team.
For example, if the Agile team is focused on creating a new Human Resources system, then you will want to involve someone from Human Resources as your subject matter expert. This person should be an excellent source to provide requirements and understand what key elements would make the new HR system successful. Engage stakeholders and SMEs often throughout the entire project, and make sure you have daily access to them to help answer questions as they arise.
The Agile team shall be formed with the key roles of Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Development team members being identified by the person(s) responsible for forming the team. Key stakeholders and subject matter experts should be engaged, and everyone should understand the vision the team is working towards. Once formed, the team should create an initial product backlog of the highest value features that are needed for their initial project.
4 Scrum Events
The Scrum framework includes four key events that should be performed by the Agile team during every team iteration of work. Let’s assume our Agile team will work in 2-week sprints, meaning these events are to be repeated during each new 2-week sprint cycle.
1. Sprint Planning
The Agile team can begin their iterative sprints once a product backlog has been produced. During each sprint planning session, the Product Owner should communicate their vision for the product and what is desired to accomplish during this upcoming sprint iteration. The Agile team should focus on the highest priority product backlog items that will be worked on in the next sprint. They should also discuss each user story and make sure the work is decomposed down into manageable tasks that can be completed in the sprint.
2. Daily Scrum
Every single day, the Agile team should meet for a time boxed 15-minute meeting that includes all team members. Each team member should identify what they did yesterday, what they plan to do today, and identify any roadblocks that are getting in their way. The Scrum Master will help the team remove these impediments. This daily communication between all team members is key, and it should start the day off well because everyone understands what they will be focused on accomplishing.
3. Sprint Review
On the last day of every sprint, the team should hold a Sprint Review to demonstrate what the team has accomplished during the sprint that just ended. All stakeholders should be invited to attend the sprint review as this is another way the team remains in constant communication. During the review, it is also common to discuss at a high level what the team has planned to work on during the next upcoming sprint. Stakeholders are often asked for any feedback as this is a great time to understand any concerns and determine if any adjustments should be made.
4. Sprint Retrospective
It is common for the team to have a team retrospective on the final day of each sprint, sometimes right after the sprint review. The Scrum Master typically facilitates the retrospective, and the goal is to identify what went well for the team, what did not go well for the team, and identify any action items or changes the team can make to continuously improve in future sprints.
5 Recommendations for Creating Your Agile Team
Once your organization determines the need to create a new Agile team, there is likely a manager or a leadership team that will have the responsibility to form the foundation of the team. It is important to identify a solid foundation of key resources that will make up the new team.
One problem I have seen in organizations is they do not put enough thought into who should be on this new team and why they are the best choice to be a part of the team. I have seen Agile teams fail because the initial makeup of the team did not include the right mix of resources and should have been put together differently.
The following are 5 recommendations that should be taken when creating your agile team to ensure you have built the right foundation for Agile team success:
1. Identify the Product Owner and Scrum Master
Identifying the appropriate Product Owner (PO) and Scrum Master (SM) are crucial for the team’s success. The PO must be willing to take on this role and completely own it and set the vision. I would encourage the PO to create a team vision statement that drives the expectations and aligns the goals of what the team is trying to accomplish. The SM should be well versed in Scrum, be a servant leader, coach team members, and reinforce the principles of Agile.
2. Identify the Development Team Members
We have already discussed all the potential team members that can be part of an Agile team. The person or committee in charge of forming the Agile team now really needs to review each potential role and determine if it is needed on this new Agile team. If it is, then you need to look at the available resources in your organization to try to match people that would fit into these roles. Add team members that have functional and scalable roles that can grow within your organization. Evangelize and sell the benefits of each Agile team member with your leadership team so everyone understands why each person was selected to be a member of this Agile team.
Handling Resistance to Agile
One thing I have seen in organizations is some resources are resistant to change and learning how to work on an Agile team. If you feel any resource is not “all in” with how the team is going to do work, then you must have a conversation upfront on how important it is to the organization to shift to an Agile mindset. This gives the resource an opportunity to ask questions and work through any concerns they may have regarding joining an Agile team. Reinforce that a positive attitude and willingness to learn on an Agile team is essential to the success of the team and entire organization.
3. Identify all Stakeholders and Subject Matter Experts
Once you identify all stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs), be sure to reach out to each individual and communicate to them why they are critical to the success of the Agile team. Clearly let them know the time commitment you are expecting from them. Some stakeholders will only be needed a few hours a week, while others need to commit 50% or even 100% of their time to helping the project team. This may require some negotiation among managers and leadership, but it is critical to work everything out before the project begins.
Discuss with the stakeholders and SMEs how you plan to communicate with them throughout the project. One of the roadblocks I have seen is SMEs not being available to answer questions for the team when dealing with requirements. Establish a process for having each stakeholder available to the project team – preferably daily – so questions can be answered quickly. Business analysts and all team members that will help with eliciting requirements should connect with each SME and establish the best way to communicate with each other. It may be beneficial to set up recurring design and requirements sessions to elicit requirements. If so, make sure to schedule these meetings so the time is reserved to focus on what the Agile team is trying to accomplish.
4. Commit to Agile Training for All Team Members and Stakeholders
Your organization must make the initial upfront investment in making sure everyone is in alignment and has knowledge of Agile and the Scrum framework. I recommend bringing in outside consulting help (like us) if your organization does not have Agile coaches or trainers in-house that can train the new Agile team.
While some team members may have more knowledge than others, it is important to start from ground zero and make sure everyone receives the same training. The team should be encouraged to ask questions and collaborate with one another to discuss the best way they can apply Agile principles to their team to be successful. There are also several certification courses you should encourage your team members to pursue – such as becoming a Certified Scrum Master or Certified Product Owner. Attending these courses and studying for these Agile certifications will help make your overall organization stronger as everyone masters how to effectively work in an Agile team environment.
5. Commit to Spending Time Together as a Team
Once the team is formed and stakeholders are identified, spend some time together doing team bonding before the project work officially begins. Make sure everyone understands their individual role, and everyone understands each role on the team.
One exercise you can perform is to ask each team member what they feel makes a great team. Have them write down five traits of a successful team, and then go around the room and have each team member share and listen to what they say! Everyone has their own opinion on what helps contribute to the ultimate team, and this exercise immediately shows that all input is considered and important.
One other team-building technique is to have everyone share their work schedule. This will help the team establish core team work hours and understand if certain team members get started earlier or stay later. This will also help you establish your daily scrum time and any other agreed upon check-ins.
Discuss the team vision and document in writing what the team is trying to accomplish. Finally, set up a system where the team can communicate with the product owner and establish a foundation of rules for following up on any questions. The product owner and scrum master should enforce that it is okay for the team to adjust and continuously improve – and that it will take time for the entire team to perform at the highest level possible.
7 Characteristics of a High Performing Agile Team
Once your organization has gone through the steps of selecting the appropriate team members, training the team, and having the team get to know each other, you should assess the next steps to continue to strengthen your Agile team.
The following are 7 of the most important characteristics that I have observed while creating and being part of many successful high performing Agile teams. If you assess that your team members are lacking any of these characteristics, then it is critical to invest time coaching and mentoring them to focus on these characteristics to become a high-performing Agile team member.
1. Cross-functional / Willing to Share Knowledge
Agile team members must be willing to work in a cross-functional manner and perform various tasks. You might have a developer that helps elicit requirements or a business analyst that helps take on a key role with quality assurance (QA) and testing. Team members must be willing to share knowledge to help a team member be successful, which helps the entire team succeed.
2. Understand Requirements & Estimates
Team members must take an active role in understanding the requirements and ask questions if there is anything that is not clear to them. During planning, team members should take an active role in providing accurate estimates for the work that is to be done in an upcoming sprint.
3. Provide Feedback for Continuous Improvement
As an Agile team strives for continuous improvement, each team member should be willing to provide feedback to the Product Owner, Scrum Master, and other development team members to help the team make better decisions in the future. Everyone should adapt and adjust to continuously help the team work in the most effective way possible.
4. Identify & Address Impediments
Self-organizing and self-managing team members should be conscious of any impediments they uncover and communicate these to the team daily. Team members must be willing to work through and fix these impediments quickly.
5. Learn to Use an Agile Tool
Team members should learn how to use an Agile tool that will help the team work in an effective way. For example, JIRA could be chosen as the Agile tool that will store the user stories that the team creates in the product backlog. All team members should be trained and able to create user stories and edit them using this Agile tool. These tools often have nice features that can be shared with stakeholders to represent a picture of the team’s velocity and communicate the amount of story points being delivered every sprint.
6. Embrace a Lessons Learned Culture
Agile team members should embrace a culture that is open to making mistakes and failing in the short term, as the best lessons are often learned through small failures that occur during each sprint. The team retrospectives are important in discussing what the team can do differently and for committing to making changes that will benefit the team in the long run.
7. Communicate & Understand Road Map Priorities
Communication among all team members and stakeholders is critical and the key to Agile team success. Every team member must understand your roadmap and priority of what user stories need to be completed each sprint that deliver the highest value to the team. The product owner needs to continuously look at the roadmap, quickly identify any priorities that may have changed, and communicate this to the team members so any adjustments can be made.
Forming Agile teams is an investment your company should make to ensure the successful delivery of the highest value project work in your organization. Following the tips in this guide will help you form an effective Agile team.
Does your organization need help with your journey to form effective Agile teams? We can help! Contact us if you would like assistance in forming effective Agile teams.