The Culture of Agile–Self-Organizing Teams


This is a discussion of the main qualities of the culture on an agile team, based on the discussion in chapter 4 of the Agile Practice Guide.

Reviewing from the previous post, the main elements of agile culture are:

  • self-organizing (working out problems as a group rather than expecting a leader to assign people work)
  • dedicated team members (striving to have team members working exclusively on a single project rather than than dividing their time among a lot of projects)
  • colocating (having a common workspace where meetings can take place to monitor progress on the project and to discuss solutions to any impediments that may come up)

Let’s talk about the first element, that of self-organizing teams.

If you have worked on a project as a project manager using traditional methodologies, the biggest culture shock you experience when starting to work on a project using agile methodologies is the command structure.   Rather than waiting for assignments from the project manager, the team members not only do the work, but they divide the work up among themselves, based on their own experience and their affinity towards the various parts of the work that need to be done.

My first experience of a self-organizing team was not at work, but at home during a family crisis.   My father was getting ready to go in for surgery on his gall-bladder after a severe attack.   It was a Friday when he went in to the hospital.   I saw him on Saturday and, other than the pain he was experiencing, he was in good spirits.   I told him I would come in and see him again on Sunday after I got out of church.

I was just about to step into the car on my way to the hospital when my sister called me to say that, 15 minutes ago, our father had suddenly died.   The nurse was actually in the room tending to the other patient when she heard my dad cry out and when she opened the partition between the beds she saw him, trying to sit up as he clutched his chest and calling out my mother’s name–then he collapsed, and … he was gone.

I was on my way to the hospital anyway, so I told my sister I would meet her there.   I went to the hospital and said my goodbyes to him, and then sat in the chair waiting for them to give me some paperwork to sign.   I always have my planning notebook with me so I took it out and started sketching what my siblings and I would have to do to prepare for the funeral.

When my sister came in, and we hugged and cried together a bit, she went to visit with him one last time, and as she came over and sat down beside me, she noticed I was writing in my journal.   She asked me what I was doing, and I said I was starting to put together a list of all the things we would have to do to get ready.   She looked it over and said, “do you mind if I add to the list?”  That was her polite way of saying, “hey, you missed a spot.”   Well, that occupied her while I went over to talk to the nurse to get ready to call the funeral director.

In the meanwhile, my younger brother came in, and he ended up adding to the list.  Now that we were gathered together, we called my older brother who was in living in California to relay the bad news to him.    Eventually, after dealing with the emotional impact of what had just happened to us, I mentioned the “funeral project” to-do list we had been working on, and my older brother asked us to send it to him so he could contribute as well.

After he sent it back to us with his additions, we had a conference call and divided up the work.   As you might guess, those items which people cared about the most and added to the plan were the ones most often that they chose to take care of.

I thought about how our “funeral project” felt different than other projects where I was a project manager.   Well, first of all, I wasn’t in charge–we all were sort of in charge, at least of our portion of what had to be done.   I laughed when I thought about what my siblings would have said if I had asked to be the project manager–they never obligingly took my orders for them to do things when I was a kid, and there was very little chance they would start doing so now that we are all adults.

But the other difference was, the fact that we all chose the work we wanted to do, while still being willing to help the others out if they needed it, meant that we worked cohesively as a team.   The work actually brought us together and, of course, brought us together with all the friends and extended family whom we invited to the funeral.

So I experienced the culture shock of being on an agile team under circumstances that were emotionally very trying, but for me the cohesiveness of our little team blunted a lot of the emotional trauma that I might have experienced if I had been facing it alone.

I thought that if my father’s consciousness did survive death, he would have been proud to see us working together, like the many times he and my mother would stand poised outside the living room watching us having fun together playing a board game.  My father was now gone and, my mother having passed about a dozen years ago, we were now truly on our own.   But we still remained a family nonetheless, and that’s what I remember of my first experience being on an agile team.

The next post will cover the second element of agile culture:  dedicated team members.

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