The topic of High Performance Agile teams is one that comes up frequently in conversations in Agile circles. There is a lot of confusion around it, I think in part because it’s difficult to come to an agreement of how we define a high performing team and what the benefits are. At Stuart we recently had a discussion around High Performing Agile teams in our Agile Community of Practice (CoP). We wanted to gain a common understanding of what we mean by it, what are the benefits of high performing teams, what are some patterns and anti-patterns, and most importantly, what are some tips and tricks for developing high performing teams. So, we put our heads together and came up  with some thoughts that I am now sharing as part of this blog post.

This is the second article in a series about creating and developing a high performance Agile team. If you missed Part 1, check it out here

How can you help your team develop through the Tuckman Model?

7 tips and tricks to help team progress from one stage to the next.

1 – Set a clear purpose and mission for the team and revisit it throughout the process. It’s important to have the answers to the following questions and make sure they are clearly understood by the team.

  • Why does the team exist?
  • Who are the personas that represent the customers of the team?
  • Who are the stakeholders and business sponsors and what are their expectations?
  • What values matter to the stakeholders and to the team?
  • What problem(s) will you solve and why do you need to solve it?
  • What opportunities are you trying to capture?
  • What value will the team bring to the company?

2 – Set ground rules and make sure they are followed. For this we found it useful to establish working agreements with the team.

  • What behavior is acceptable? What is not?
  • How will the team interact?
  • How often will the team meet?
  • What tools will the team use?
  • How will the team organise and remain open and transparent?

3 – Share leadership across the team and create an environment where everyone is empowered to lead.

  • Everyone on the team should be empowered to lead the team, whether it be through a process, a discussion to solve a problem, or an Agile Ceremony such as backlog refinement or a cycle review.
  • Every team should have a facilitator for their Agile Ceremonies but (and this is important) it doesn’t need to be the same person all the time. In fact, it SHOULDN'T be the same person every time.
  • Encourage people to be Servant Leaders and coach and guide them to become one.
  • Choose the most qualified person to lead a particular discussion or exercise.
  • People should be accountable for their solutions, which means they need to be empowered to identify and own them.

4 – Don’t try to avoid conflicts. They are normal and can be healthy.

  • The benefit of working in a team is that you have access to diverse experiences, skills and opinions that aren't possible alone.
  • When members disagree about something, listen to each side. But don't take one. Search for common ground. Disagreements are often a result of people having different perspectives and the best solution is one that combines multiple perspectives.
  • When conflicts are resolved correctly and in a positive way, it can improve team dynamics and bring the team closer together.

5 – Coach the team on how to become an active listener. Active listening is a technique that keeps you engaged with your team in a positive way. It allows the speaker to be heard and keeps the listener open to what is being said. 

  • Each person in your group holds some value, otherwise they wouldn't be there, right? Remind your team to listen and to value each person's insight.
  • Create a safe environment that is open and non-judgmental to encourage everyone to voice their opinion.
  • Encourage team members to actively seek the opinions of fellow colleagues on the team from different disciplines. Getting their perspective could prove invaluable.

6 – Be open to change and to feedback–in other words, strive to continuously improve.

  • Encourage the team to talk about what they are doing well. What do they need to improve?
  • Provide a space where the team can retrospect on how they are doing and identify things they can improve on. Commit to those things as a team.
  • Do not blame individuals for the shortcomings of a team. Work with the team on making things better.
  • Accept that the team will make mistakes, celebrate them, learn from them and make improvements based on them.
  • Identify solutions for the improvement opportunities identified by the team. Do not turn your retrospective into a meeting where everyone complains and nothing positive comes out of it.
  • Tell teams what they are doing right as well as what they need to improve.

7 – There is no “I” in team–everyone contributes to the team’s success.

  • Everyone plays a part and contributes to the team’s success. 
  • When one person on the team is struggling, the entire team struggles. We should work to support each other.
  • It is important to instill this sense of responsibility in the team.
  • Make sure the team has the right tools to collaborate and that they are being used correctly.
  • If you are blocked by someone else’s work, instead of waiting for them to finish so you can start your work, try collaborating with them to complete the work faster so you are working on a common goal.

Why are team dynamics so important? Why should you care about them? The answer is that it’s because team dynamics directly impact team performance. Think about it for a minute. Intrinsically, we know it’s true. It’s true in almost any industry. In sports, for example, there is a lot of information out there about how team dynamics contribute to their success…. or failure. An Athlete Assessment’s article entitled Sports Team Chemistry and Dynamics in Sport talks about this. Team dynamics also play a significant role in business performance of course. Katie Popp talks about this in her article, Understanding Your Team’s Dynamics on the Mission Capital’s website. She also provides a graphical representation of the impact that Tuckman Model phases have on performance (see below).

tuckman's stages of team development

What is particularly interesting to me is that there is a lot of overlap between Logistics and Team Dynamics. Both, for example, speak about setting a clear purpose and vision, using the right tools, team alignment and working agreements, embracing change and conflict. I believe that, as Agile practitioners, we bring the most value to a team by helping to build an environment for success. It’s not by telling them what to do or how to do it. It’s about creating an atmosphere where the team comes together to identify and define their own solutions. Focusing on the areas where team logistics and dynamics intersect is an extremely powerful strategy. It allows us, as Agile practitioners, to work on improving both the operational and interpersonal aspects of the team at the same time.

Do's and don'ts of developing a high-performing team

As part of our discussion in the Agile Community of Practice at Stuart, we discussed some practical tips on what to do and what not to do to develop high-performing teams. We identified six categories that we thought were especially relevant to developing teams. Below is the output of our conversation.

agile table 2

Click here to consult the full table

Our Stuart values

At Stuart we have a set of values we strive to embody and consciously develop within the organisation. These are values that bind us, bring us closer together and provide a north star to members of the organisation. Developing high-performing teams directly supports several of our internal values, including "Build by empowerment", "Start with humility", "Share through cooperation", and "Solve the problem, right".

My hope is that this blog article has given you some insight and food for thought, and that you have some practical knowledge and tools to help you develop high-performing teams. Whether your team is an Agile team or not, it doesn’t matter. Every team and every organisation benefits from high-performing, self-organised and empowered teams!

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