Agile Teamwork in Practice

First published in The Agile Zone, 5 June 2013

"Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results"- General George S. Patton

What's the best way to encourage agile teamwork? It's a tricky question, because so much of Scrum and Kanban practice is predicated on the assumption that collaborative behavior will "happen". Empowerment is often presented as the mechanism for achieving this success. If you just press the empowerment button, developers will then choose to self-organize and will go on to deliver sterling results. Patently however, that isn't the case. I'm sure that many of us will have experienced teams that are actually less than the sum of their parts. Technically skilled people can be more focused on stack traces than on individuals and interactions, and may view each other as unwanted complications or impediments. All too often the social graces that underpin effective agile teamwork have to be elicited painfully, like drawing teeth.

Whenever I consider this matter, the above quote by Patton often comes into my mind. It isn't the perspicacity of his argument that I find compelling, or even that it was said so long ago. I suppose that these days we have just become more accepting of such observations. me the interesting thing about this quote is that someone of Patton's background and temperament said it.

You see, George Smith Patton was arguably the most hard-boiled U.S. General in World War 2. He was spit-and-polish to the core, and an absolute stickler for discipline. Even tiny misdemeanours would incur his wrath. His idea of a touchy-feely management style was to kick people in the pants after slapping them about the chops, and he frequently railed against "malingerers" who he reckoned ought to be court-martialed and shot. We have yet to hear Esther Derby or Johanna Rothman prescribe such remedies for disaffected team members. Perhaps the most politically correct thing we can do is to categorize his beliefs as an alternative viewpoint. Anyway, it's difficult to imagine anyone less likely than Patton to be sympathetic to agile principles, nor anyone more likely to try and micro-manage those they might consider to be their sub-ordinates.

It seems we need a deeper insight if we are to explain this unlikely patronage of a central maxim of agile development. I suspect that Patton knew that if a team is to self-organize and deliver value successfully, then discipline will be key. It can't really be about empowerment, because an empowered team can still be sloppy and never cut the mustard. While good management isn't about telling people how to do their jobs, it is about making sure that they understand the rules of best practice and are competent to follow them, preferably with very little oversight. Strangely perhaps, this is a route to freedom rather than constraint. It releases individual initiative. I think that's what Patton was getting at. Who are we to empower others, after all? What gift is that? Where is the transfer of value? How much better it is to instil the best practices that make people more effective, and thereby become more valued themselves.

Development Team Membership

Now, a development team is made up of individuals, so when we talk about the rules of team membership we are largely talking about what those individuals do. More specifically, it's about what they do in respect to themselves, and with respect to the wider team of stakeholders including the Scrum Master and Product Owner. So before we go any further, let's look at the behaviors that we can expect a disciplined agile developer to exhibit.

What a good team member will do:

  • Agree with other team members and the Product Owner to deliver a valuable and achievable piece of work every Sprint

  • Understand the Sprint Backlog and how it correlates to the Sprint Goal

  • Participate fully and actively in daily standups, planning sessions, reviews, and retrospectives

  • Work with the rest of the team to meet each Sprint Goal (self-organize)

  • Help other team members and the Product Owner to clarify requirements, such as by writing user stories and acceptance criteria

  • Pro-actively remove skill silos, such as by pair programming or cross training, and without being told to do so

  • Work with the Product Owner on an ongoing basis, so that work is understood, reviewed, and approved continually

  • Make sure that the work done is transparent, such as by updating Scrum and Kanban boards

  • Understand that they, and all team members, are stakeholders in the agile process

  • Estimate work so that the Product Owner and other stakeholders can plan ahead (e.g. for release planning)

  • Fully support and encourage the elicitation of metrics, and be able to interpret them and act on them

  • Resolve outstanding or impeded work before actioning new work from the backlog

  • Limit work in progress so as to maximize throughput

  • Act immediately on impediments by appraising other team members and the Scrum Master of any issues, and help to resolve them

  • Accept personal responsibility for the team's success

  • Accept personal responsibility for their work meeting the team’s Definition of Done

What a good team member doesn’t do…

  • Fail to give the best unpadded estimates that can be provided at the time. Estimates should be given and received in good faith.

  • Cherry pick work from the Sprint Backlog. The backlog is owned by the team and must be actioned in accordance with the team's Sprint Plan.

  • Attempt to work on more than one item at a time. A good team member will pro-actively limit work in progress.

  • Expect somebody else, such as a Scrum Master, to update the Scrum board or Kanban boards. Information radiators are owned by the team.

  • Work in a "skills silo". A good team member does not view their work as a speciality that only he or she is able to work on.

  • Claim that work has been completed if it does not satisfy the team’s Definition of Done

  • Claim that work is complete if it does not meet the specific acceptance criteria that have been agreed for it

Shot at Dawn: Teamwork and the Prime Directive

If we were to apply the Patton philosophy in extremis, I suppose that an agile team would shoot its own malingerers following a retrospective, the Scrum Master standing by to deliver the coup-de-graceif needed. Although this lurid concept is absurd, how many experienced Scrum Masters have never secretly wished for a revolver in their desks, even for just a fleeting moment? It highlights a problem that the agile community is often evasive about. What should actually be done about a developer who causes problems for the rest of the team? Is it possible, or even desirable, to correlate the occurrences of those problems to the individual concerned?

In a Sprint Retrospective, for example, no blame is ever meant to be directed towards any one team member. In fact the format of the session precludes the establishment of such a correlation, or even the inference that a particular individual may have been remiss in some way. Known as the "Prime Directive", this article of faith is meant to be recanted at the beginning of each retrospective session, and it has to be said in earnest.

"Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand."

The question is: what if we don't believe it though? What if all the evidence in the world is stacked against it? Should we go along with the directive anyway, and just kid ourselves for the duration of the session? If so, how can it possibly help? Where is the transparency, which we covet in agile practice, if we subscribe to this devil's credo that makes a mockery of the truth?

The answer is potentially quite shocking, and certainly little understood. Don't think of the Prime Directive as a creed, or even as the temporary suspension of disbelief for the sake of the meeting. Think of it as a pre-condition that must hold, and genuinely be true, before a retrospective can happen at all. The underlying principle is that all of the attendees must be fully able to participate. All are expected to be professionals who can fulfil their duty to each other and to the Scrum process, and inspect and adapt their working practices accordingly. It isn't enough just to leave your knives at the door. You actually have to trust the people you are working with. Really trust them. Given that most developers are assigned to their teams by managers, and not by each other, this expectation of trust is indeed potentially shocking.

It gets even scarier than that. Think about what all of this really means should trust be absent, or somehow lost. It means that you can't have a Sprint Retrospective at all until the issues around trust are resolved. It means that if a team member must be removed, then that should happen beforehand. Scrum does not go so far as to prescribe a mechanism for this, but it is established that a team will self-organize to remove its own problems. Perhaps they will have to make collective representations to a line manager, or petition for a member's removal through the Scrum Master. It might even mean that the team can deselect a team member by their own consensus. Yet however it is done, it appears that the team aren't too far removed from assembling a firing squad after all.

If this all seems very draconian, let's reassert the key principle here: when Scrum is done properly a team will solve its own problems, including distasteful matters like this. Now, it has to be admitted that most Scrum teams across industry today don't get to operate at such a high level of proficiency. The consequences of this cut both ways. On the one hand a team may not be allowed to get on with their jobs without interference from management, while on the other hand they usually don't have to deal with the nastiness of putting a sick dog down. A few conversations with that same pointy-haired boss could be enough to get him to do the deed. Yet as the industry transitions more fully towards agile practice, this "remedy" will no longer be sustainable. Problems regarding a team member's competence won't be someone else's responsibility; rather, it will be incumbent upon the team to find a solution. In an agile world, greater responsibility falls on self-managing teams, along with their greater rights.

Professionalism: from Team Discipline to Self Discipline

In this article we've identified a range of behaviors that typify good team membership, and we've looked squarely at what should happen when things go wrong. In short, it's up to the team to sort out its own problems when a team member doesn't measure up. Yet this is only part of what disciplined agile practice is about. It isn't enough to put the focus on punitive measures and the threat of sanction, even if the exercising of authority is driven entirely by the team itself. What we need to do is to take things a step further. We don't really want discipline to be enforced by the team, even though they should be the ultimate arbiters. What we want is to encourage a self-discipline that wells up from each individual team member, and which serves as an inspiration to others. Disciplined teamwork isn't about empowerment. It's about cascading the release of potential through the clear demonstration of value.

I look at it this way. There is only one person in this world any of us can change. I don't think I need to spell out who that person is. So, wherever you and your team may be on your agile journey, there should always be at least one person who can be relied upon. If that person does their bit, then they are helping to make the team more than the sum of its parts.

"Don't empower me. Release me. I'll find my own power, and it will be far greater than anything you can bestow on me"

- Tobias Mayer