What’s the secret of high-performing agile teams?
Agile has become a thing. A roaring industry. Moreover, according to some consultants, riding the megatrends of New Work and Digitization, Agile is the silver bullet for any organization — no matter their size, business or heritage. It is a valid argument that all companies face similar challenges arising from disruptive technologies and shifting values of their younger workforce — the millennials. So they need to become (more) agile to face a modern and complex, and — beware buzzword — VUCA world.
However, what makes me frown with amazement is the advice that Agile works the same way for everyone. How can that possibly be?
My clients often tell me, that something is missing to make Agile work for them, in real life. They say they have introduced agile methods and started adapting them to their needs. They’ve become more comfortable with the Agile framework and have gone from Agile-by-the-Book to a sort of Mixed-Agile-Arts. However, still, something is not clicking. That’s because Agile not only is as a set of methods but also promotes a particular mindset. If you ask people to describe what an Agile Mindest means to them (which I did, I interviewed over 100 agile practitioners in total, see About INSIDE AGILE for more information on the project), you always get a similar answer:
‘’You think positive. You are a team player. You are curious and want to learn new things. You get things done; you are pragmatic. You are willing to fail.’’
Surprisingly I found that most companies are OK to modify agile methods to meet their needs but cling to the promoted mindset as if it was some holy grail. It seems if you are not positive, pragmatic, team-oriented, curious, and daring, you are simply getting the whole Agile thing wrong. Buzz-words like #fail-fast or #get-shit-done are printed on walls, cups or t-shirts to get everybody on the same page. In reality, this often is the source of confusion, and later, the reason for negativity towards Agile altogether.
In my opinion, it is the adaptation of the standard Agile Mindset to something that resonates with the companies very own and grown culture, that is the key to performing in an agile set-up.
During my interviews I encountered two kinds of teams:
1. Low-performance teams, for which Agile feels awkward and collaborating is a constant struggle. The promoted mindset feels fake.
2. High-performance teams, for which Agile seems to make total sense and collaborating feels effortless and smooth. The promoted mindset feels authentic.
Here’s why: There is no ‘right’ mindset per se. A mindset is a collective behavior that is beneficial in a specific situation (goals, team, stakeholders, means, constraints, pain-points).
Although the companies I interviewed were very different in their culture, size, and business, it showed through the course of the interviews that the high-performance teams all seem to be operating in what I call a
coherent context — in which their way of working reflects the systemic forces of their situation.
1. a clear need and intention behind the chosen way of working
2. a mindset that serves the intention
3. values that ground the mindset
4. practices that promote these values
5. actors who live the practices
So how can your team build such a context that feels authentic and tangible?Let me introduce you to the powerful concept of archetypes based on Jungian psychology.
An archetype is a collectively inherited idea, a pattern of thought or an image, that is universally known and present in people’s minds. Everyone in the world has an image of a king — his qualities, skills, and behaviors.
When we are confronted with these psychological blueprints, we react with certain feelings and behaviors.
This is why archetypes are applied to market products and position brands;
e. g. Nike is using the archetype of the Hero to promote their competitiveness whereas Apple uses the Creator to position themselves as the key to unleash your creativity.
What has this got to do with creating a context for an agile team?
In my interviews with high-performance agile teams, I encountered common patterns of feelings and behaviors across companies. Their world, meaning the context they operated in (intention, mindset, values, practices, actors), was interchangeable.
Let me introduce you to three archetypes that seem to perform well in an agile set-up; each of which emerges from a common intention of why a company introduces Agile.
These companies are mostly early-stage startups as well as creative (tech) units within established corporations who need to innovate. They are working on something new and are looking for product market fit.
Intention: to innovate and create something of value.
Mindset: a willingness to learn. Make customers happy!
Values: curiosity and authenticity. What are we missing here?
Practices: Lean startup toolbox.
Actors: a cross-functional team engages in ideas with their customers.
These companies are established players who find their existing customers base demanding more flexibility in how they cater to their needs.
Intention: to increase speed and effective execution.
Mindset: a willingness to collaborate. Get the job done!
Values: respect and trust. How can we make it work together?
Practices: Scrum toolbox.
Actors: a product-dev team reacts to requirements from stakeholders.
These companies are established players who face the challenge that their public identity starts lacking appeal in the job market or industry.
Intention: to renew and self-actualize their culture and community.
Mindset: a willingness to contribute. Be a good citizen!
Values: openness and diversity. Have we heard all options?
Practices: Community-building, open source protocols.
Actors: all employees and leaders of an organization discuss their mission.
None of these approaches to Agile is the only recipe for success. What is crucial for a successful agile team is its ability to be aware of the archetype they predominantly are. This awareness helps groups to grow agile practices in line with the true needs of their business, strengths, and culture.
If you are interested in insights from the daily-lives of pros in the agile community, I invite you to follow this publication. This is the place where I’ll share my insights from 100 interviews with professionals from 20 innovating companies ranging from startups and established SMEs to global corporations in various industries such as Manufacturing, Mobility, Internet, Technology, Publishing, and Aviation.
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THANK YOU to all the genuine people who participated in the project INSIDE AGILE. I am grateful for our open conversations.