When the bottleneck of an Agile team is the team itself

Most often, we have observed that agile implementations fail in spite of putting efforts towards educating the team about Agile principles, training the team on Agile practices, and getting the right people for Agile roles. Have you ever wondered why? There are chances that the culprit is the team itself.  The team could be plagued with several dysfunctions (refer to  “the five the dysfunctions of team” model from Patrick Lencioni). If you discover this in your teams, how would you go about dealing with it? How can we overcome the dysfunctions and thus help the team implement agile successfully?

Well, there are ways to do it. There are instruments and techniques to do it. But all these would fail if you don’t have good leadership skills. I would like to share my experience with similar situations, with success stories, challenges and the lessons learnt. Here is a case study which I would describe in three sections:

  1. SITUATION: Problem statement
  2. APPROACH: Key skills used
  3. SOLUTION: Results obtained, challenges faced, lessons learnt

SITUATION

The situation was exactly as outlined below. It was a nine-member team, suffering from dysfunctions (mentioned inside the pyramid). As a result, the team was exhibiting the dysfunctional characteristics (mentioned on right hand side of the pyramid).

when the bottleneck of agile teams is the team itself

Problem statement

  • The team was slipping on deadlines, unable to fix critical issues and could not removeits  high dependency on two key technical people.
  • There were also side effects:
    • Decrease in the morale of one of the key technical people
    • The other key person not being able to focus on continuous improvement

APPROACH

The team members were trying to follow Scrum as their way of implementing Agile, and there was a technical person who was struggling to play the ScrumMaster role. I had joined this team as a development manager. Irrespective of my role, I had to take charge of the situation to identify the bottleneck. The first thing I did was to take out the teams for a couple of lunch sessions (we decided not to wait for company sponsorship with the budget approval).

Those sessions, coupled with a team assessment instrument, helped us figure out as a team what the dysfunctions were that were affecting us. The rest was all about leadership skills (refer the inverted pyramid below).

5 dysfunctions of an agile scrum team

Key skills used:

  • Situational leadership
  • Conflict management
  • One-on-one feedback
  • Time management

SOLUTION

As a responsible leader, I had to drive the team in a slow and steady manner on the following aspects:

  • Making retrospective meetings effective
  • Open evaluation of team dysfunctions
  • Consensus on tackling “trust” and “conflicts” (which were affecting the team most)
  • Enabling the team to share personal details (strengths and weaknesses)
  • Effective sprint planning
  • One-on-one discussions between me and other team members

Results obtained

After a period of 6 months of continuous experiments (I call them experiments since there was no single way to address “trust” and “conflict” issues), we achieved the following:

  • Completion of tasks on-time, with better quality
  • Significant reduction of technical dependency on individuals
  • Improved “self-organizing” capability of the team
  • Increased morale of the team, as well as the “key technical people”
  • More critical issues were identified and fixed
  • The other key technical person got opportunity to improve his “leadership” skills

Challenges faced

  • Convincing the people on abstract concepts like “dysfunctions”
  • Time management
  • Dealing with different personality styles

Lessons learnt

  • Most of the radical changes require “paradigm shifts”
  • “Going first” or “being vulnerable” is the first step
  • “Constant focus” is needed to bring real changes

Conclusion

Any successful Agile implementation requires a good leader who can drive the team by identifying dysfunctions, helping the team overcoming them, and facilitating the process of change management if needed. Any of the team members (especially management people) can do this and they should do ONLY this and nothing else. Rest, the team figures itself out. Ending with a quote from Henry Kissinger:

“The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.”

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