Long lived agile teams – are they still practical in a COVID world?

There’s a temptation in times of crisis for leadership to feel the need to redeploy people. The idea is that urgent priorities are best handled by moving people around, creating tiger teams, and putting them on the urgent work.

Organisational agility is about delivering value to customers, always striving to improve time to market, quality and innovation. The performance of agile teams that produces those results are a key factor and agile research suggests that to reach that objective, we need teams which are self-organising, cross functional and long lived. But we live in a different world than we did 4 weeks ago and now teams are working remotely and business priorities and products have changed.  Are long lived agile teams a luxury we can no longer afford?

Ability to respond quickly and change

Due to the high volatility and change in the COVID world, the need for team stability is being challenged for the following reasons:

  • new skills and capabilities  may be necessary to teams to meet changing priorities
  • necessity to increase capacity of the team
  • people needing to be diverted to other areas of need in the business and/or change roles
  • re-organisations could take place with a smaller cadence than in the past

One of the main drivers for executives for moving to agile is to have the ability to respond quickly if the plans change. In our current environment, is see executives and managers playing chess with “resources” and sorting out which people to deploy, divert or stand down. people are being formed into teams  and spun up for an immediate short term response to a crisis only to potentially change and disband the team again in a matter of weeks or months.

The change currently happening is at such a fast paced extent, that agile teams need to be adaptive and fast also at forming and adjusting when new members join an existing team or ta change in the type of work they do and capabilities they need to deliver. The resilience of using existing formed teams  is that they can self organise and quickly adapt and respond and this is one of the key benefits of an agile approach. .

As a result the focus on leadership and managers is about how to help build resilience and support teams through to the other side of this rapid change rather than trying to arbitrarily swap people in and out of teams.

Bring the work to the team not the people to the work

Moving people around might give the illusion that swift action is being taken, but the reality is that there is significant lead time (up to 3 months) for people who have not worked before to learn how to work effectively. To act swiftly, change the priorities of an existing team and bring the work to them.
This means mobilising teams that have already formed and worked together rather than mobilising individual people to fill gaps.
As Mike Cohn puts it…. a team who has been together for a while will always outperform new teams.

Long Lived Agile Teams

Long lived agile teams have the advantage of being stable and more predictability in delivery and  productivity. It takes a long time to form and get the know who to work together and collaborate to develop as a team and work as a team. Over time stronger behavioral and working dynamics, higher levels of transparency that favor trust and collaboration among its members when facing complexity drives increased levels of performance.

We know from the research that any changes to the team can potentially lead to a drop in performance and that adding or moving team members  breaks stability and forces the team to review its dynamics and create new ones: this produces inefficiencies, reducing motivation.

The underlying message is, rather than break teams up to put people on urgent work, identify the best team to do the urgent work, and bring the work to the team. Agile teams benefit from some consistency.

How long should a team stay together?

Changing team composition frequently wreaks havoc on predictions made with velocity. It takes time to gel as a team. To really see a benefit, it takes at least two to three months to maximise the  benefits of working together as a team.

When the team have been together for awhile, there tends to be a sync where each member knows the relative strengths and capabilities of each other and works together to achieve goals. This is a connectedness that is so important for high performing teams.

Agile mindset and principles

Maintaining a focus on an agile mindset, principles and values will equip agile teams with the capability to self organise and work out as a team, how to address issues and problems as they arise. Focusing on principles will also help them to build resilience and be able to quickly shift gear and respond to changes in new priority work and learn to inspect and adapt each sprint to promote continuous learning through regular feedback loops.  without losing momentum to deliver against tight deadlines and critical pathways.

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