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Agile Team Performance – Lessons Learned from Sports

There are a lot of misconceptions about Agile teams performance. Here are a few examples:

  • Is Agile Really a Team of Peers?
  • Is Specialization Inconsistent with Agile Teamwork?
  • Is Individual Accountability Inconsistent with Agile?

We can learn a lot from team sports that can be applied to Agile team performance to overcome these misconceptions.

Agile Team Performance
A rugby scrum pushes against each other

Misconceptions About Agile Teams

There are a number of misconceptions about Agile teams. Many people have the view that an ideal Agile team is

  • A team of peers where there is no specialization among people on the team,
  • Everyone on the team is capable of performing any role, and
  • Everyone on the team is also responsible for everything.

That’s a very idealistic view and may not be the best way for Agile teams to work. We will discuss each of these misconceptions in the following sections.

Is Agile Really a Team of Peers?

Agile is not necessarily a team of all peers but there is no formal hierarchy. For example, it Is not inconsistent with Agile for a more senior-level Tech Lead to provide coaching and mentoring to other more junior-level developers.

My experience in the real world is that you don’t often find teams who are all peers

  • It may not be practical or cost-effective for a company to staff a development team with all senior-level people who are all self-sufficient
  • It may not be effective to have a team of all junior-level people with no one who is capable of providing leadership to the team

The key thing is that you can have people at multiple levels of proficiency on a team without creating a formalized hierarchical structure that inhibits individual productivity and initiative

Is Specialization Inconsistent with Agile Teamwork?

Is it inconsistent with Agile for individual people on the team to have defined roles like QA testing and does that limit the ability of the team to be cohesive? As an example, think of an American football team – each player has a role that he specializes in and is good at that role. An American football team probably wouldn’t be very good if there was no specialization and everyone did a little bit of everything.

  • The center might be a 300 pound gorilla who is very good at blocking and tackling, but he probably would not be very good at throwing touchdown passes
  • Imagine the 180 pound quarterback attempting to play on the front line and blocking and imagine the 300+ pound center attempting to play the role of the nimble quarterback throwing passes

Specialization on a team doesn’t preclude developing high-performance teams with very cohesive teamwork. Having someone on a team who is skilled in QA testing and is specialized in playing that role is a lot different than having a separate QA group outside of the development team who specializes in QA testing.

Is Individual Accountability Inconsistent with Agile?

Some people seem to think that having well-defined individual roles and individual accountability is inconsistent with having overall team accountability – shouldn’t everyone on the team be responsible for everything?

Think of a football team again – everyone on the team, as a whole, is responsible for winning; however, what if everyone on the team:

  • Just ran around without defined roles that they were responsible for?
  • Was trying to figure out what to do without defined plays to get the ball across the finish line?

Teams where “everyone is responsible for everything” and there is no individual accountability for anything are not likely to be very effective. That kind of team wouldn’t be very likely to be a very high-performance, winning team.

Overall Summary

There are many misconceptions about Agile teams. There are a lot of lessons learned from sports that can be applied to Agile teams to help overcome those misconceptions.

Additional Resources

This is only a very brief, high-level overview of the misconceptions related to Agile teams. If you want to learn much more detailed information, check out my Online Agile Project Management Training Courses. The first course is free!

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