Many organizations are striving to become more adaptive a means not just to survive, but to thrive. The success of an adaptive organization hinges significantly on the capabilities of its people, which often raises the question of how to select people for agile teams.
Those who excel in an adaptive environment exhibit three key characteristics. To begin with, they welcome uncertainty while maintaining their focus. Secondly, they focus on outcomes over process. Thirdly, they prioritise the health of the team. By focusing on the traits that define successful teams, adaptive organizations can enhance how they select people for agile teams.
The Characteristics of High-Performing Agile Teams
From decades of working with successful agile teams, we have learned that the highest-performing teams tend to have the following characteristics:
- They embrace uncertainty: They exhibit a high degree of flexibility. They focus on goals and are comfortable adapting the path to reach those goals, often starting with minimal information.
- Outcome orientation: They focus on delivering valuable business outcomes, as opposed to frameworks and processes. This often requires them to “loose the training wheels” of agile frameworks once they have built basic reflexes.
- Team Collaboration: They actively contribute as team members, fostering cooperation and cohesion within the team. As individuals, they exhibit skills in empathetic listening, collaboration, and valuing team input over individual ideas.
People who tend to thrive in agile teams avoid spending a lot of time comprehending every intricate detail and potential risk, nor do they meticulously plan. Instead, they are comfortable with enough planning to feel confident in their team's ability to start, accepting that more will emerge as they progress and this emergent work can be discussed and prioritised accordingly. The secret here is choosing what "enough planning" is for the specific context.
Individuals who embrace uncertainty tend to display high levels of curiosity. They use curiosity to foster a mindset of continuous learning and flexible decision-making (a growth mindset). For example, when working with a team on a complex problem, when they speak they tend to ask questions in order to better understand both the problem along with how others are thinking about it. They avoid assumptions and jumping to conclusions.
They also tend to embrace challenges. They see challenges and obstacles as opportunities for learning and growth. They are more likely to take on new and difficult tasks with enthusiasm. they're open to learning from others and seek feedback that enables them to enhance their abilities.
Finally, they are resilient in the face of setbacks and failures. They understand failure is not a permanent state but a stepping stone toward improvement.
When considering how to select people for agile teams, focus on people's curiosity, approach to challenges and setbacks, their attitude to failure and their persistence to overcome challenges.
Clarity on the business outcomes and goals is critical for an organisation that decentralises decision-making. Yet this is often an area where many teams struggle.
We often see teams that take a narrow view of their work, believing their job is to select product backlog items and turn them into outcomes. This is commonly known as a "Feature Factory" mindset, and only differs from a production line by the fact that it is a team doing the work rather than an individual.
Successful agile teams start with a clear business goal and break that down into smaller iteration-level goals together. They focus on the iteration goal, not the tasks. They
- Are clear on “the why” (goal) of the iteration. Why are we doing this work and what is the intended outcome we are seeking to achieve? Test whether everyone can clearly articulate the goal and what success looks like.
- Co-create “the what” with their stakeholders or product owners. They determine what work needs to be done to achieve the why. If they are working with a product backlog, this means selecting (or creating) work items that align with the goal. Remember the purpose of an iteration is to deliver the goal, not the work items.
- Take ownership of “the how” by creating and owning their plan to get that iteration of work completed. It is vital that this is their plan. Leaders must give the team the space to create their plan. People take their own commitments more seriously than commitments made for them by others.
This helps solve one of the most common failures in knowledge work: the people doing the work dont understand the work.
When seeking people for agile teams, check for outcome orientation. How do they remain focused on goals? How do they achieve this when they are head down in the details? What are their personal habits and traits they use to remain goal-focused?
Successful agile teams understand the nature of the problems they are solving are beyond the ability of individuals and require multiple perspectives to find the best results. They actively contribute as team members, fostering cooperation and cohesion within the team.
This often requires significant shifts in behaviour from individuals. Traditional organisations tend to encourage and reward individual expertise. Agile organisations tend to value skills like curiosity, empathetic listening, mentoring, knowledge sharing and giving others an opportunity to contribute. This requires a significant shift in leadership.
When seeking people for agile teams, look for how they work with others. Do they look around the room to check the levels of participation of others? Are they comfortable accepting a direction a team wants to go in when they personally disagree with it? How do they approach such situations? Ask for examples!
Process for Selecting Team Members
Choosing the right team members can be approached in various ways, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.
Our preferred approach is for teams to choose their team members. They identify the gaps they are looking to fill and the behaviours & values they are seeking. They interview potential new members and have the autonomy to decide.
The risk of this approach is affinity bias and groupthink, where the team tend to look for people like them, whereas diversity tends to result in better teams. A good way to mitigate this in an enterprise setting is to engage with a People and Culture (HR) business partner/advisor. They’re experts in people and can help avoid blind spots.
Sandy Mamoli has had success with self-selection and has written a book about it. We’ve used varying levels of self-selection, depending on the context. We’ve learned that culture plays a key role in self-selection. A colleague of mine who works in the field of team dynamics and human psychology shared an interesting piece of science on the topic recently. He said, “when a new group forms, they always seek a leader to provide the structure necessary to move towards an emergent order.” This is an important point – psychology suggests the role of the leader in self-selection is enough structure for emergent order to occur.
In our experience, this is the worst way to form a team. It assumes one person is better placed to make the decision, despite the fact that they won't themselves be involved in executing the work. It can work and we have consistently helped organisations to get this approach to work, but in our experience, the other options are more effective.
No matter the approach, selecting team members based on values, behaviours and diversity is key.
Successful agile teams are not solely composed of the most technically skilled individuals but those with the right personality traits and values. The important traits to look for are the ability to handle uncertainty, an outcomes-oriented mindset, and people who focus on team collaboration. These factors are instrumental in building strong and adaptable teams ready to thrive in today's dynamic business environment.