Six tips for successfully piloting agile teams

Illustration of people rowing a boat, with a leader pointing the way, symbolizing an agile team and the agile pilot
Published
August 6, 2021
Category

Strategy

In the pursuit of health and happiness, people try practices seen in some of the healthiest and happiest communities on earth — forest bathing, hygge or a daily glass of wine. Unfortunately, focusing on these individual practices overlooks the importance of culture and mindset. The same is true when implementing agile practices in the digital-first era.

The State of Agile Report cites culture as the biggest challenge in implementing agile. Agile methods are a different way of working. They can't flourish in an organization that is resistant to change. Use these six coaching tips to cultivate an open mindset and organizational culture where agile teams can thrive.

Understand the culture agile methods are trying to create

Regardless of the agile method you choose — Scrum, Kanban, lean development — your goal is to replicate the feeling of autonomy and motivation that we typically see in a bootstrap startup. 

In a bootstrap startup, the founder’s own money is on the line. That financial pressure forces them to prioritize and focus on activities for survival and growth. Their success or failure depends on who they have on their team and what they accomplish together. Founders who succeed choose their team wisely. They assemble a small group of people with the context and skills they need to find solutions to the challenge at hand and the power to act.

Part of ING Belgium’s agile implementation included the formation of squads. These small, multidisciplinary groups are autonomous, self-steering teams with end-to-end responsibility. 

Coaching tip: Implementing agile practices is a way to take a bootstrap mindset and scale it to a larger organization or apply it to an established enterprise. Implementing agile practices without embracing this mindset of autonomy will hinder your ability to reap the benefits.Give agile teams the right people to solve any problem

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Give agile teams the right people to solve any problem

Google the characteristics of an entrepreneur and you’ll find a list that looks something like this: motivation, vision, passion, creativity, confidence, risk tolerant, never gives up. 

But not everyone with entrepreneurial traits starts a business. Many of them are applying their entrepreneurial energy on projects within larger organizations, where they are known as “intrapreneurs” or as we like to call them: builders. 

Builders are people who embody the builder ethos, a drive to take action and solve problems regardless of their role. These are doers. They don’t just have a good idea; they find ways to bring ideas to fruition. And in the digital-first era that means being unafraid to push the boundaries of technology, move fast and learn from mistakes. 

Builders have the entrepreneurial spirit agile teams need to operate like a bootstrap startup. But you must choose your team wisely. Just as a startup needs a mix of skills, so does an agile team. Choose a handful of builders with all different job titles who have the context and skills to address the challenge at hand in one room. 

Bringing together a group that has what they need to work autonomously is vital when piloting agile. Their measure of success is how fast they can go from concept to cash compared to traditional teams that are handing work off to areas of specialization, waiting for other departments for help and reworking things that were forgotten in all that back and forth.

Coaching tip: Choose people who are excellent at teamwork, open to trying new things and eager to try an agile approach. Then ensure that they collectively have the skills and resources they need to work as an autonomous unit. 

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Take the initial focus off delivery and embrace the right problem  

While bootstrap startups need to work fast, they also need to work smart. When piloting agile, it’s important to embrace both speed and clear prioritization. Diving straight into delivery is a common mistake. Agile teams need to take the time to identify the right problem and define what success looks like to create value for both your company and your customers. 

While digital leaders might be eager to see agile teams get a running start, they need to give teams time to make sure they’re running in the right direction. Deeply understanding the problem together avoids teams spending valuable time on something customers don’t need or want. Multiple sprints working on the wrong thing can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, plus give competitors time to get to market first.

Coaching tip: Encourage agile teams to identify the problem first, define success metrics and get their priorities completely clear for the best business and customer outcomes. Skipping these steps can undermine an agile pilot regardless of the agile method you choose.

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Include people with different perspectives at every step

In a small startup everyone is looped in so they can work effectively together. In larger organizations the people delivering the work are often excluded from the start of the project. For example, one team might meet with customers to identify a problem and then hand off that information to the developers who will build the solution. Or a team will send a representative to a meeting and ask them to report back.

Every expert on a digital team brings a different perspective and background to the table. If we only send one person to talk to customers and relay that back to the team, that representative applies their own lens and misses things the tech or UX people or someone with a commercial background might pick up on. It becomes a game of telephone where bits of information get lost. Having people in the room to hear conversations firsthand and ask clarifying questions helps everyone get the information they need to better understand the problem and priorities. 

Including agile teams in customer conversations gives them more perspective. Referring back to these real customers can help your team find inspiration and successfully drive through challenges together. You can make customer conversations even more valuable by using structured interviews that pose the same questions to all customers. This method provides an opportunity to see patterns in the interviews and to see different personas emerge. This is super important, to gather key info — synthesis in User Experience and Product Design.

Coaching tip: Embrace the value of different perspectives by encouraging people with different roles — developers, content creators, designers, project managers — to join all meetings related to the project. Extend this to customer perspectives as well by using structured interviews that can surface patterns.

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Expect continuous improvements not perfection

Agile isn’t about implementing an agile method perfectly. It’s about learning to make continuous improvements so that you are constantly adapting to the changing environment around us. Without continuous improvement, businesses are faced with the need for painful fixes — such as ripping and replacing legacy platforms — by the time they see a deficiency. They also lose valuable time-to-market improvements.

Agile teams need a safe space to figure out how agile works for them and to evolve that process  as the team, company and the market change. As you scale bigger, you have opportunities to get better at agile and operations. New people bring new ideas and experiences. Too much focus on doing agile correctly misses the point of using agile as a way to adapt to constant change. Agile is intended to help teams scale on different dimensions and provide a means for processes to evolve as teams outgrow previous operation methods.

Coaching tip: Give teams permission to try new things and learn from successes and failures. Involve the team in creating their own ideas for improvement. If you have your doubts that it is the right direction, choose a few weeks in the future to evaluate the change with the team and decide to continue, pivot or revert back.

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Think of launch as a beginning not an end point

An agile mindset helps teams succeed in a changing world by embracing continuous improvement over a distinct endpoint. This extends from how teams implement agile to how they view the work they deliver. 

Traditional workflows follow a project mindset where they push a project live and then move on to the next project. In agile, thinking of work as having a distinct end point, after which it is largely forgotten, is a mistake. Instead of leaving that iteration to age untouched, agile teams keep defining opportunities for improvement and working with customers to help it grow. They build on their previous work to keep delivering more value. 

This can be a hard concept to grasp, especially when digital leaders are used to asking when a project will be done. It can help to think of your agile teams as gardners. They could just dig the garden bed, plant seeds and move on to the next garden, but you’ll get more value from those gardens if you allow the team to nurture them. Instead of becoming stagnant, those gardens will keep delivering value and improving to provide juicier fruit, bigger vegetables and more beautiful flowers. 

Coaching tip: Just as a well-tended garden delivers more value and more opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t, staying invested in a project after going live maximizes the value of your work and gives you opportunities to build on that value. 

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