For decades, most organizations structured their projects and teams around a concept known today as the “waterfall” approach. This methodology provided a linear, sequential model for completing design-oriented tasks, with progress moving from one clear step to another until the project was completed. The model originated in engineering, where escalating costs throughout the production process made it difficult to implement changes to any aspect of a project once it was underway, but this top-down approach to workflow became common in many industries throughout the 20th century, often resulting in heavily siloed departments that handed projects off to one another.
In the early 2000s, software development companies pioneered the “agile” approach, a non-linear methodology that utilized interdisciplinary teams to break large projects into specific tasks that could be completed concurrently. This approach allowed for continuously iterative product development, making it possible to incorporate changes and adjust to shifting parameters throughout the process. Faster and much more versatile than traditional project management, the agile methodology quickly spread from the software industry to other organizations. The unique characteristics of agile teams also forced organizations to rethink what leading a team entailed.
While there are several advantages to utilizing an agile approach to enhance both conventional and cross-functional teams, they may not be right for every organization or industry. If a company is considering implementing changes to make their teams more agile, here are a few key tips they should keep in mind.
In order to operate effectively, agile teams must be empowered to operate independently. While they still need to be held accountable for outcomes, they should also have enough autonomy to make day-to-day decisions and resolve the sort of challenges that emerge during the course of a typical project without having to wait for senior leadership’s approval. This is especially true of cross-functional teams where lines of authority are not entirely clear.
Independent agile teams are able to react quickly to changing circumstances, making them well-suited to dealing with customer/client facing projects and rapidly iterating solutions. When assembling these teams, it’s a good idea to preassign whatever funding and resources they might need to accomplish their goals. This affords them the flexibility and discretion to complete tasks without forcing them to constantly seek new resources whenever their scope or focus changes.
Since agile development teams have so much latitude to decide how the work gets done, it’s important for them to clearly establish the goals they intend to accomplish. Team members need to understand how their tasks contribute to a greater whole. This not only ensures that everyone’s efforts are in alignment, but also helps people recognize which deliverables need to be prioritized in order to complete a project successfully. An effective team shares resources to meet its goals, and they have a unified vision and sense of purpose.
Shared goals also make cooperation and collaboration desirable. When a team fails to clearly identify and prioritize goals, its members may withdraw into a silo mentality and focus solely on their own work. This can create serious problems because of the way agile teams work concurrently to complete tasks. If tasks aren’t prioritized appropriately, key deliverables may not be completed in a timely fashion because people lack the resources necessary to finish them. By identifying goals and clarifying timetables for completion, agile teams can keep team members accountable and keep projects moving steadily along without interruption.
Communication is critical to any team’s success, but it’s an essential agile team characteristic. Frequent check in meetings that allow team members to update everyone on what they’ve accomplished and what they’re currently working on keeps the focus on the team’s ultimate goals. If anyone is encountering problems the entire team will know about it and do whatever they can to formulate solutions that will get the project back on track.
Regularly checking in on team members’ progress also helps to promote accountability, one of the key agile team characteristics. Since agile teams are so interdependent when it comes to task management, everyone has to take responsibility for their own work. Failing to complete a task promptly can undermine the entire team, preventing other members from completing their work and compromising the team’s ability to accomplish the goals it set out for itself. Fortunately, agile teams have a wide variety of communication tools (such as project management software, virtual office chatrooms, etc) at their disposal that allow them to share information and resources quickly, as well as check in with one another.
Whether a team routinely meets its stated goals or struggles to deliver satisfactory results, it’s important that they take the time to reassess their performance on a regular basis. In the case of a poorly performing team, this review is something of an autopsy, identifying what went wrong and why. But even for teams that think they’re doing a good job, a thorough review that identifies and tracks key performance indicators (KPI) may reveal that the team is not quite as effective as its members believe. Teams can then use these metrics to set benchmarks for ongoing improvement and help members be more accountable.
Tools like internal assessments and surveys can also provide feedback on the team’s internal culture and processes. If team members are struggling with accountability or communication, there could very well be some toxic behaviors in play that are making it difficult to align goals and execution. Ongoing reviews may also help prevent valuable team members from falling victim to disengagement and turnover.
While not every team is well-suited for agile methodologies, implementing some of the strategies used by agile teams can help organizations transform the way they deliver results. Agile principles can help teams be more independent and versatile, allowing them to set goals and determine the best way to pursue them without being slowed down by cumbersome, top-down decision making processes. In industries where speed and flexibility are crucial, agile teams can provide companies with significant advantages.