Tuning the Agile Team Engine

Why is Team Success so Important?

An organization without strong teams is a like racecar driver without a car. You will go nowhere fast. Healthy, performing teams are the building blocks of a successful organization, especially one that desires to scale agile from the Team level to the Program and Portfolio levels. No matter what endeavor an organization undertakes nor how advanced the technology used is, it will either succeed or fail based on the quality of the people involved and how well they work together. The greatest challenge facing any organization is how to get people with diverse experiences; skills, opinions, beliefs and motivations working together as a cohesive unit toward a desired, common goal.

There are many techniques to assess and tune an Agile team in order to maximize their performance. This article provides a survey of techniques and ideas to improve the overall performance of your Agile team.

Recognize Team Dysfunction

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni is an excellent resource for ScrumMasters. Lencioni’s book does a great job of defining key dysfunctions teams experience and informs you as to how to recognize and address them in order to effectively remedy them.

Below is a break down of the Five Dysfunctions from wikipedia:

  • Absence of trust—unwilling to be vulnerable within the group
  • Fear of conflict—seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
  • Lack of commitment—feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organization
  • Avoidance of accountability—ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behavior which sets low standards
  • Inattention to results—focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

These dysfunctions impede a team’s ability to evolve to a state of high performance and keep a team in the Storming and Norming stages defined by Bruce Tuckman in the 1960s and discussed later in this article.

Become Aware of Team Smells

Just like as a racecar driver is attuned to every nuance of their car, from the sounds the engines makes to the smell of its exhaust, the ScrumMaster must be aware of their Team’s nuances in order to determine if adjustments are needed.

A ‘smell’ is as an anti pattern and an indication that something isn’t working right. Below is a list of potential ‘smells’ that may surface on your Agile team. Each smell is a manifestation of one of the five dysfunctions defined by Patrick Lencioni.

Examples may include:

  • People working in functional silos
  • Developers not assisting Testers
  • Excessive information handoffs
  • Only the BA is in requirements discussions
  • Only a few team members show up for Retrospectives
  • Team members show up late to meetings on a regular basis.
  • People multitasking in meetings
  • Team Members hogging tasks rather than only signing up for a task if they have capacity
  • Too much work in process (WIP) – not enough swarming
  • Tech Leads sizing work for the whole team
  • ScrumMasters assigning work to team members as opposed to team members taking ownership.

Dealing With Growing Pains

Team Formation Bruce Tuckman

As people come together to form a team, they follow a natural pattern as they learn to work together to achieve a desired goal. Bruce Tuckman observed the stages of team development during the 1960s with his definition of the Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing stages. A team must pass through each stage in order to achieve the ideal state of performing. Rushing through any one stage may hinder the team’s maturity and cause it to revert back to a prior stage. The ScrumMaster should be aware of these stages so they can take the right steps to steward a team through this process.

The diagram above lists the behaviors exhibited during each stage. It may take a team approximately 2 months or so in each stage to properly mature. The goal is to achieve the Performing stage and then to monitor and adjust team behavior in order to sustain this state.

Assess Natural & Adaptive Behavioral Styles

Diversity of thought, experience and skills is essential to creating high performing teams. However, it also poses the greatest challenge to a team since each person is unique with their own behaviors, opinions and beliefs. Psychologist William Marston developed a theory that centers on the four personality traits: Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance. This theory was expanded upon by other psychologists who developed a personality assessment tool known as DISC. There are many personality tools available, such as Myers Briggs, but DISC has proven to accurately assess a team member’s natural and adaptive behavior styles.

Your natural style is how you behave when you are being most natural. It is your basic style and the one you adopt when you are being authentic and true to yourself. It is also the style that you revert to when under stress or pressure. Behaving in this style, however, reduces your stress and tension and is comforting. When authentic to this style you will maximize your true potential more effectively.

Your adaptive style is how you behave when you feel you are being observed or how you behave when you are aware of your behavior. This style is less natural and less authentic for you or your true tendencies and preferences. When forced to adopt to this style for too long you may become stressed and less effective.

Team members can take the DISC assessment to determine both of their behavior styles based on the following dimensions:

  • Decisive — your preference for problem solving and getting results
  • Interactive — your preference for interacting with others and showing emotion
  • Stability — your preference for pacing, persistence and steadiness
  • Cautious — your preference for procedures, standards and protocols

The output assesses team members across each of the following values: Aesthetic, Economic, Individualistic, Political, Altruist, Regulatory, and Theoretical. The analysis presents the best way to communicate with the individual.

Creating a DISC profile for each member of the team is a great way to learn more about each other so that we understand our different personality types and how best to communicate and interact with one another. The profiles are very enlightening to a ScrumMaster to determine why certain people on the teamwork seamlessly together and others are always at odds.

Evolve to T-Shaped Skill Sets

Identify Skill Gaps

The ScrumMaster should assess the team to determine what skill(s) is either lacking and/or is an area of growth in order to mature and evolve the team.  Once the gaps are identified, the ScrumMaster should have a conversation with each team member and their functional manager to discuss opportunities for growth and determine which skill(s) the team member is interested in and has the ability to pursue.

The next step is to incorporate the growth in these identified skills into a training plan to achieve the desired result. Fulfillment of the training plan should become part of each team member’s performance review so that the right priority and accountability is established.

Develop a Training Plan

The functional manager and team member are responsible for creating the training plan but ultimately the team member is accountable for its execution. The ScrumMaster provides guidance and an objective assessment of the results of the plan. The plan should be reviewed periodically with the team member so that the necessary assessments and adjustments are made.

The plan itself can be comprised of some of the following:

Formal Training

Formal training can take the form of in-class or online learning sessions. This is a great way to get more in-depth training regarding a skill set and most incorporate exercises that reinforce the concepts learned. The more hands-on the class is, the better since most passive learning associated with training is lost if not applied shortly after class.

Informal Training

Informal training can be as simple as conducting topic driven lunch-and-learns or participating in a Community of Practice that is pertinent to the skill needed. There are also several places on the web to register and attend free webinars.


Pairing entails bringing an experienced team member together with a less experienced one to work together in learning a new skill.

Self Study

There are a plethora of web sites, wikis and books on every subject pertinent to any desired skill set. Any self-study effort should be incorporated into the training plan.


The role of the mentor is to assist the team member on their journey since they may be more accessible than the team member’s functional manager.

Realize There is an ‘I’ in Team

The saying goes there is no ‘I’ in ‘Team’. Unfortunately this is expression is somewhat counter productive. Focusing on just the team undermines the autonomy of the individual, which demotivates the individuals that make up the team. Teamwork is essential but a ScrumMaster must not forget that a team is comprised of individuals and individuals have their own motivations and needs. A ScrumMaster should find the right balance between team autonomy, which drives self-organization, and individual autonomy, which motivates the individual to become a productive member of the team.  Wikipedia defines intrinsic motivation as:

“Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is intrinsically rewarding. This contrasts with extrinsic motivation, which involves engaging in a behavior in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishments.”

As a ScrumMaster, be cognizant of what intrinsically motivates each member of your team so that have rewarding work while working as part a team.

Conduct Retrospectives

At the end of the day, one of the most effective tools to help fine-tune your team is something you hopefully are already doing – the retrospective. This ritual is key to improving a team and evolving it to the Performing stage and keeping it there. An essential reference for effective retrospectives is Esther Derby and Diane Larsen’s book entitled Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. If you are not conducting retrospectives, it is essential to begin doing so. If you are currently doing them, then determine how you can improve them so that you maximize the benefit and keep them fresh and informative. Track the outcomes in a process improvement backlog that holds the team accountable for addressing the items on this list in a progressive fashion.


Part of the ScrumMaster’s role is that of a servant leader and if we return to our analogy of the Agile Team has a high performing engine, then the ScrumMaster’s role is that of a master mechanic. Not only does the ScrumMaster need to understand how the engine works but also what tools and techniques are used to tune the engine for optimal performance. I hope that this survey of some effective agile team tuning techniques will inspire you to apply one or more of them to your team to see if they move the needle on performance.