Agile Team Roles

In Chapter 4 of the Agile Practice Guide, the three typical roles seen on an agile team are described.   Here are my notes from the description on p. 41

  1. Cross-functional team member–in keeping with the non-hierarchical structure of the agile team, the cross-functional team member is mentioned first, and NOT the product owner or team facilitator.   They are professionals who deliver potentially releasable product on a regular basis.   They need to deliver work in the shortest possible time, with higher quality, without external dependencies.
  2. The product owner interacts with the customer and stakeholders as well as the team, and they pay attention to the highest value for the customer. They typically have a business background and have deep subject matter expertise.   They create the backlog for and with the team, in a way that delivers the highest value without creating waste.
  3. This role can be called various names, such as a project manager, scrum master, as well as a team lead, couch, or facilitator.  The servant leader, no matter what he or she is called, needs to focus on facilitation of the work done by the team, impediment removal, and coaching.   If the servant leader feels their internal coaching capability is not yet fully developed, then they may invite external agile coaches.

How are these team roles structured in terms of relationships with each other?   That will be the subject of the next few posts.


10 Characteristics of Successful Agile Teams

In the discussion in chapter 4 of the Agile Practice Guide about setting up an agile environment, the discussion centered first on the role of the servant leader vs. the role of the traditional project manager.

Before going through the actual individual roles on an agile team (the material on and after p. 40), the Guide goes through some characteristics that the most effective agile teams have.

  1. They tend to range in size from three to nine members in order to maximize collaboration between members.
  2. They are co-located in the same space–again, to facilitate communication and interaction between members.
  3. Team members are 100% dedicated to the teams, and are relieved from having to “multitask” during the day between multiple projects.   The team has all the necessary skills to deliver completed work.
  4. Teams are self-managed, where team members themselves decide who will perform the work within the next period’s defined scope.
  5. As mentioned in earlier posts, the leaders support the teams’ approach to their work, rather than directing it (the “servant leader” role).
  6. They produce functional product increments frequently.
  7. They have a limit on the WIP or work in progress, so its members can expedite work.
  8. They do not take a waterfall approach, that is, addressing all of the requirements in a given period, THEN tackling the design, THEN doing the building, THEN the testing.   The reason is that some of the assumptions behind the requirements may have changed and then all of that work is wasted.   Rather, the team members collaborate on a small number of features across the board, and work on delivering smaller finished features.
  9. Agile teams work to collaborate in various ways, and use feedback from retrospectives to alter their way of doing things if necessary, focusing on the result more than the process itself.
  10. Agile teams bring a mixture of generalists and specialists, with the aim of producing “generalizing specialists” who have a focus specialty plus breadth of experience across multiple skills.

In the next post, I will go over the material starting on p. 40 of the Agile Alliance Guide that talks about three common roles in agile teams.

Agile Team Composition–The Tale of the Kindergartners vs. the MBAs

In the fourth chapter of the Agile Practice Guide, there is a discussion on implementing an agile environment.

After going through the material on the role of the servant leader (which may be called different things in different agile frameworks, such as a “scrum master” in Scrum), and contrasting that role with that of the traditional “project manager”, the Guide then talks about the agile team–its composition, interactions, and various identifiable roles.

This post will cover the composition of an agile team.   Agile optimizes the flow of value, and a team should be structured in such a way as to maximize this flow by rapidly delivering features to the customer.

If this flow is maximized, then the following good things happen:

  • People are more likely to collaborate
  • Teams finish valuable work faster
  • Teams waste much less rime because they do not multitask.

An example of this flow maximization in an agile vs. a traditional project management environment comes from a story from the book The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle.   He describes how a task was given to a) a group of kindergartners and b) a group of MBA students.   The task had to do with creating a stable structure using nothing but a box that contained toothpicks and marshmallows.

It was the kindergartners who finished the task first.   Why?   The group of MBA students spent a lot of time defining the goal, and then deciding who would take on which role.  The kindergartners essentially dove right in to the task without worrying about who had what role.   In addition, they were highly interactive, giving congratulatory remarks on someone who was able to complete part of the structure, or comforting someone whose part of the structure collapsed and encouraging them to try again.   It was the increased collaboration and the ability to work faster that caused them to outperform a group of people with vastly more amounts of formal education.

I’m not saying that the lesson to take from this to go out and hire a bunch of kindergartners for your next agile project; however, you could learn something from the way they cooperate with each other and encourage each other while reaching a common goal.

The next post will cover in more detail the composition of agile teams and how the members of the team should interact with each other.

Project Manager vs. Servant Leader Role

In the fourth chapter of the Agile Practice Guide, the discussion focuses on creating an agile environment.

On p. 37 and 38, the role of a project manager is contrasted with the servant leader role.   After I present what the Agile Practice Guide has to say, I want to relate some words of wisdom from one of the foremost agile coaches in the Chicagoland area, Anthony Mersino, from his Vitality Chicago blog.

Although some agile practitioners feel that project managers are not needed because the project teams are, after all, self-organizing, the guide says that pragmatic agile practitioners can add significant value in many situations.   The key is that they need to adjust their mindset to that of a servant leader.   Rather than explicitly coordinating the activities of the team, they foster great collaboration on the team, remove obstacles for the team to function more effectively, and aligning the needs of the stakeholders.

Here are five roles that a project manager does on a traditional project, and how the role of a servant leader contrasts this (taken from a graphic accompanying the following article on Vitality Chicago

  • a driver, the servant leader is an enabler
  • a decision maker, the servant leader is a facilitator
  • a controller, the servant leader is a teacher
  • communication hub, the servant leader is a supporter
  • translator, the servant leader is a protector

If you are looking for resources in how to turn yourself from a project manager to a great scrum master, go to the above article by Anthony Mersino and see the list he has created.

In the next few posts, let’s look at how agile teams are organized.

The Day after Tomorrow … Today

I was going to do my daily post on agile project management today, but I’m taking the day off–in more ways than one.   It is a Wednesday, and it normally would be a work day, but the plant I work at is closed because of the extreme cold here in the Chicago area.   The temperature will go down to -25 F tonight, with the wind chill factor making it feel like -50 F.   I just spent half an hour in the crawl space in the basement, putting a heater near the pipes coming from the outside so that they don’t freeze and possibly burst during the night.

I was listening to the reports about how the weather will be the coldest it has been since 1985, and I decided to take a day off my normal blog schedule (where I am going through the Agile Practice Guide), and write about a movie I saw 15 years ago called The Day After Tomorrow.

It was a science-fiction movie about the effects of global warming, starring Dennis Quaid as the climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid).   After his warnings were largely ignored by U.N. officials when presenting his environmental concerns, his research proved to be true when an enormous “superstorm” developed, setting off catastrophic natural disasters throughout the world.   Among those disasters were, in addition to the rising of global air temperature levels

a) rising sea levels (caused by the melting of glacial ice in Greenland and Antarctica)

b) the slowing of the Gulf Stream (due to the melting of glacial ice in Greenland mentioned above), which normally keeps the countries East of the Atlantic Ocean several degrees warmer than the countries on the West side of that ocean

c) disruptions in air circulation patterns around the poles causing super-cooled air to be pulled from the stratosphere.

There are other unusual patterns that were mentioned, but the three mentioned above are the ones that stuck in my mind the most.   In the past few years since I’ve moved back to the Chicago area from California, I was worried about the rising sea levels to a certain extent, but was comforted in my mind with the fact that I no longer lived on either coast as I had done for many of the past 25 years.   I was concerned about the slowing of the Gulf Stream, but that was also a more distant concern.   As far as the last item above is concerned, I frankly thought that was tipping out of the realm of “science” and into the realm of “science fiction.”

However, I have heard in the past few years about the phenomenon of the polar vortex, which is a circular pattern of winds in the stratosphere that revolves around the North Pole and essentially “locks in” the arctic cold during the wintertime in the Northern Atmosphere.   North of this polar vortex it is super cold, but south of it, the winter temperatures are cold but not nearly to the same extent.

However, the average temperature in the wintertime in the arctic has gone up twice as much as it is in the temperate climates.   That means that the warm air from that climate zone flows north like a river in the atmosphere, and when it reaches the polar vortex, it crashes up and over it like waves over a wall during a hurricane.   The polar vortex actually gets breached and it splits into two or three lobes, some of which get pushed away from their normal position over the poles.

Today we are seeing the results of this:   a super-cooled body of air that normally would not travel below the arctic circle is going to be passing over the Midwest United States, and the temperatures have been plummeting for the past 24 hours.   It’s now -15 F (-38 with the windchill), and the temperature will continue to go down until it reaches -25 F just before dawn tomorrow.

Now, this is not as dramatic a change in temperature as depicted in the movie (where the drop happened in literally a few minutes), but when you’re actually living through it, it brings home that what was a science-fiction movie actually was based on a lot of science that has proved to be true.

I am sure there will be some politicians who take advantage of the intense cold to cast doubt on the phenomenon of climate change, like the one who held up a snowball a year or so on the Senate floor to demonstrate that there was no such thing as global warming.  I was half expecting him to go to McDonald’s, buy a Happy Meal, hold it up on the Senate floor and say that it proved that there was no such thing as global food insecurity!

But for those of us who are out here living in the consequences of actions taken (or not taken) by the government, this weather we are experiencing is another in a series of warnings nature is giving us, as told in the lyrics of the song Nature’s Way by the band Spirit way back in the 1960s:

It’s nature’s way of receiving you
It’s nature’s way of retrieving you
It’s nature’s way of telling you
Something’s wrong

I hope this will make more people heed the call!

Servant Leader Responsibilities: Supporting the Team

In the fourth chapter of the Agile Practice Guide, the Agile Alliance discusses the role of the “servant leader” (such as scrum master) and contrasts it with the role of project manager found in traditional project management.

In the last post, based on the material on the top of p. 35, I reviewed what the Guide says about the role of facilitation, which faces inwards towards the project team, helping them create acceptable solutions.

The other part of servant leadership faces outwards from the team to the organization at large, and this is where the support role becomes crucial.   The visual image I get of this is of the sport famous in Canada called “curling.”  It is a a sport in which players slide stones on a sheet of ice towards a target area which is segmented into four concentric circles.   Once projected by the thrower, the path of the stone may be influenced by sweeper with a broom who accompanies it as it slides down the sheet of ice, using the brooms to alter the state of the ice in front of the stone.   In the analogy with an agile project team, the team members are the ones who throw the stone across the ice, but it is the servant leader who like the sweeper accompanies the stone on its flight, and tries to sweep impediments out of the way so that the stone can make it to the target.

Here are some of the specific actions a servant leader can take within the organization to smooth the project towards its goal:

  • Streamline documentation processes–identifying “bottleneck” processes involving documentation, and then working with a department to evaluate the amount of documentation required so teams can spend more time delivering a valuable project instead of producing exhaustive documentation.
  • Educating stakeholders–explain how prioritization of work, greater accountability and productivity of empowered teams, and improved quality from more frequent reviews are connected to benefits of business value and therefore of a better “bottom line” for the organization.
  • Advocate for training and career development–consult with human resource development to encourage team members to grow beyond their current roles, benefiting both the team members and the organization as a whole.
  • Support bridge-building activities with groups external to the project, creating positive feedback loops of appreciation and good will based on increased collaboration.

This post and the last one outline the roles of the servant leader.   How does the role of project manager differ from that of a servant leader?   It is important to be aware of this so that project managers can transition to taking on the role of a servant leader in an agile framework.   That will be the subject of the next post.

Servant Leader Responsibilities: Facilitation

In the fourth chapter of the Agile Practice Guide, the Agile Alliance talks about creating an agile environment.   The first focus is on the role of the “servant leader” which is a change from the role of the traditional project manager.

A project manager manages and coordinates the activities of the project team; a servant leader, on the other hand, facilitates cooperation among members of the team.   Rather than making decisions on behalf of the team, they encourage the team to come up with its own solutions.

What does a facilitator do?

  • Encourage collaboration–holding interactive meetings, promoting informal dialog between team members, encouraging knowledge sharing
  • Expose and communicate bottlenecks–if there are impediments having to do with resources, then the facilitator needs to get the organization to provide those needed resources.   If the bottlenecks have to do with navigating the documentation required by the organization, the facilitator assists with this or tries to streamline the process in the organization at large in order to reduce unnecessary documentation that does not add value.  If the bottlenecks are internal having to do with communication issues or personality conflicts, then the facilitator helps resolve these.

The next post covers the other responsibilities of a servant leader.