Cake Solutions – our perspective on building agile teams

Every project team goes through the five stages of team development, as identified by Bruce Tuckman. His theory, called ‘Tuckman’s Stages’ was based on research he conducted on team dynamics. He believed (subsequently born out by experience) that these stages are inevitable in order for a team to grow to the point where they are functioning effectively together and delivering high quality results. The five stages are:

  • Stage 1: Forming
  • Stage 2: Storming
  • Stage 3: Norming
  • Stage 4: Performing
  • Stage 5: Adjourning

This paper offers insights from Cake’s working experience of building successful agile project teams, through each stage, and discusses the successful adoption of agile principles and the visibility of outcomes, through all five stages in terms of a teams’ agile performance in terms of its velocity and effectiveness.

Stage 1: Forming

The ‘forming’ stage takes place when the team first meets each other. In this initial meeting, they share information about their backgrounds, interests and experience and form first impressions of each other. They learn about the project they will be working on, discuss the project’s objectives/goals and start to think about what role they will play on the project team. They are, effectively, ‘feeling each other out’ and finding their way around how they might work together.

During this initial stage, it is important for the agile team leader to be very clear about team goals and provide direction. They should ensure that all of the members are involved in determining team roles and responsibilities and should work with the team to help them establish how they will work together adopting agile principles. The team is dependent on the team leader to guide them.

From an agile perspective, at this stage the benefits looks like:

  • Greater visibility into teams’ work and outputs;
  • The business’ ability to redirect effort based on changing needs.
  • Team development and work process designing the agile way
  • Team regularly reporting progress from a business value perspective.

A key component of ‘Forming’ agile teams is the emphasis and focus on creating business value. Rather than planning in terms of technical considerations, such as software layers, plan in terms of the business value and benefit their ‘customers’ will see from their software, typically with user stories. In addition to user stories, the agile techniques of product backlogs, retrospectives, and iterations, Sprints, and velocity boards are established.

The benefits include:

  • Transparency: Management knows when the team is building the wrong thing, or isn’t making progress, and has the ability to positively intervene.
  • Achievement: The team regularly reflects, retunes, and adjusts its process to provide more value.
  • Alignment: The team works collaboratively, reducing misunderstandings and delays.

Agile teams regularly report what they’re working on and how it’s progressing from a business value perspective. This is the core metric for agile teams, it’s not the only thing you should see, but it’s an easy, quick way to check if agile is working.

Stage 2: Storming

As the team begins to work together, they move into the ‘storming’ stage. This stage is not avoidable, every team goes through this part of development. In this stage, the team members compete sub-consciously or in the open with each other for status and for acceptance of their ideas. They have different opinions on what should be done and how it should be done – which causes conflict, although the agile philosophy and processes help drive transparency and openness in communication and behaviours.

As they progress through this stage, with the guidance of the team leader, they learn how to solve problems together, and settle into roles and responsibilities in the team. For team members who do not like conflict, this is a difficult stage. The team leader needs to be adept at facilitating the team – ensuring everyone learns to listen to each other and respect their differences and ideas. The team leader will need to coach some team members to be more assertive and other team members on how to be more effective listeners.

This stage will come to a closure when the team becomes more accepting of each other and learns how to work together for the good of the project. At this point, the team leader should start transitioning some decision making to the team to allow them more independence, but still stay involved to resolve any conflicts as quickly as possible.

Some teams, however, do not move beyond this stage and the entire project is spent in conflict with low morale and motivation, making it difficult to get the project completed. Usually teams comprised of members who are professionally immature will have a difficult time getting past this stage.

From an agile perspective, the key outputs at this stage are:

  • Low defects and high productivity
  • Frequent releases of working software

Continuous integration, test-driven development, pair programming, and collective ownership are visible. Teams fluent in agile – despite the team dynamics – at this level consistently and predictably deliver business value.

The benefits include:

  • Transparency: Fast concept-to-delivery cycle times reveal software bugs and flaws early.
  • Achievement: Low technical debt leads to lower development costs, and low defect rates lead to more time invested in developing features.
  • Alignment: High technical quality and frequent delivery results in high morale, and more productive work

Agile is now proving its worth, the ability for frequent releases and getting a consistently low-defect product, are measurable outputs.

This is the most skill-intensive agile level. There are a lot of techniques to learn. Some, such as test-driven development, are of the ‘moments to learn, lifetime to master’ variety. Although many of these techniques have been around for a while, they aren’t consistently taught or used, so the challenge lies in bringing all team members up to a high standard.

The benefits from this level of agile team development are substantial – frequent release, low-defect software and keeping technical debt to a minimum all means they have more time for delivering features. It takes time for pre-existing technical debt to be paid off and for the benefits to appear, but once they do, you’ll see much higher quality software and dramatically improved responsiveness.

Stage 3: Norming

When the team moves into the ‘norming’ stage, they are beginning to work consistently effective as a team. They are no longer focused on their individual goals, but focused on developing the agile way of working together. They respect each other’s opinions and value their differences. They begin to see the value in those differences on the team. Working together as a team seems more natural.

In this stage, the team has agreed on their team rules for working together, how they will share information and resolve conflict, and what agile tools and processes they will use to get the job done. The team members begin to trust each other and actively seek each other out for assistance and input.

In this stage, the team leader may not be as involved in decision-making and problem solving since the team members are working well together and can take on more responsibility. The team has greater self-direction. On occasion, however, the team leader may step in to move things along if the team gets stuck. The team leader may begin to function as a coach to the members of the team.

With the agile approach now embedded, the focus is on:

  • The team delivering higher value sprints and better product decisions.
  • Social capital expended on building business expertise into team.
  • The team provides concrete business metrics on the project investment.

Agile is now delivering the most value possible for your investment. The team understands what the business needs to do to deliver customer value, and how IT can help meet those needs.

In addition to earlier benefits, the benefits at this stage of team development includes:

  • Transparency: The team reports its results using concrete business metrics, such as RoI, net profit and customer satisfaction.
  • Achievement: The team has broad-based expertise that promotes optimal cost/value decisions and allows them to deliver a product that meets business objectives, market needs, and user expectations.
  • Alignment: Mutual trust between the project team and its organisation leads to rapid, effective negotiation, and the team’s broad-based expertise eliminates hand-offs and speeds decision making.

Reaching this level of agile existence requires the team to incorporate business representatives as full-time team members – examples include product managers, business analysts, and staff from marketing and sales.

Stage 4: Performing

In the ‘performing’ stage, teams are functioning at a very high level. The focus is on reaching the goal as a group. The team members now fully trust each other and rely on each other.

The highly performing team functions without oversight and the members have become interdependent. The team is highly motivated to get the job done. They can make decisions and problem solve quickly and effectively. When they disagree, the team members can work through it and come to consensus without interrupting the project’s progress. If there needs to be a change in team processes – the team will come to agreement on changing processes on their own without reliance on the team leader. It’s a self-directing agile team.

In this stage, the team leader is not involved in decision-making, problem solving or other such activities involving the day-to-day work of the team. The team leader will continue to monitor the progress of the team and celebrate milestone achievements with the team to continue to build team camaraderie. The team leader will also serve as the gateway when decisions need to be reached at a higher level within the organisation.

Even in this stage, there is a possibility that the team may revert back to another stage. For example, if one of the members starts working independently, or if a new member joins the team. If there are significant changes that throw a spanner into the works, it is possible for the team to revert back to an earlier stage until they are able to manage through the change.

A ‘performing’ agile team is now a real asset to the business:

  • Alignment with teams and culture across the business, there are synergistic effects on how IT is creating business value
  • Significant results in establishing an agile organisational culture
  • Team members understand organisational priorities and business direction.

In addition to the benefits provided by other levels of agile competency, benefits at this stage include:

  • Transparency: The team describes its work in the context of the business’s other initiatives, allowing products to be balanced against each other.
  • Achievement: The team and managers work together to optimise the organisational output, and the team values organisational success over their own success.
  • Alignment: The team shares perspectives, context, and innovations with other teams and other parts of the organisation.

People in all parts of the enterprise have started to adopt new agile mindsets, change their familiar behaviours, and learn to value new agile practices.

Stage 5: Adjourning

In the ‘adjourning’ stage the project concludes and team members move off into different directions. This stage looks at the team from the perspective of the well-being of the team rather than managing a team through the original four stages of team growth.

The team leader should ensure that there is time for the team to celebrate the success of the project and capture best practices for future use.

It is likely that any group that reached stage 4, performing will keep in touch with each other as they have become a close knit group and there will be sadness at separating and moving on to other projects independently. However, the learning and success of the project, underpinned by the agile approach, will ensure that they become ‘agile advocates’ and instil this way of working into their new project teams and over time, agile becomes part of the culture, ‘the way we do things around here’.

There are various indicators of whether an agile team is working effectively together as a group. The characteristics of effective, successful agile teams include:

  • Clear communication among all members
  • Regular retrospective session with all members participating
  • Consensus among team members
  • Problem solving done iteratively by the group
  • Evidence of personal commitment to the project and the other team members
  • Stand-up team meetings are effective and inclusive
  • Timely sprint velocity to ensure the project keeps moving in the right direction
  • Positive, supportive working relationships among all team members

Conclusion

In Cake’s agile teams and projects, we’ve seen that teams follow a typical progression in their formation and growth, and their understanding of agile, and the benefits their organisation receives following the above model. We group this progression into stages of ‘agile competency’. Each stage is characterised by unique benefits and distinct challenges to adoption.

From agile fundamentals, the team develops, ensuring agile becomes a sustainable philosophy embraced and embedded into the business.

We’ve seen teams and organisations go through these development phases many times. By sharing our experiences with you, we hope that you’ll gain greater insight into the possibilities agile provides, and greater understanding as to how Cake’s technical and coaching services deliver business benefits.

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