Keith Cerny's Blog

Attributes of a High Performing Agile Team

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Attributes of a High Performing TeamIn an earlier post I talked about what defines a high performance agile team. In this post I will attempt to outline some of the key attributes or characteristics that I’ve noticed high performance agile teams have. Some attributes depend on the context for a team. For example, what is needed for a team in a large enterprise to be high performing may be unnecessary for a team in a startup or smaller organization. A team of 3-4 people may not require all the same things that a 7-10 person team may need to become high performing. If your team is employing Scrum, Lean, or Kanban it could have an effect as well. After seeing many teams there are some common attributes that stand out:

The team has a vision of where they are going

The best teams have a clearly defined vision and shared purpose. It is difficult for team to act as “One Team” and pull together if they lack common vision and SMART goals. Many teams create a team charter where they capture information around their goals as a team, how they work together and their expectations of each other. I believe it is highly valuable for a team to also establish an identity by naming themselves, having a team page or site and their own physical space, if possible. Also, techniques like Impact Mapping may be effective to ensure focus remains on the important business goals.

Everyone on a high performing agile team trusts their team-mates

One of the primary reasons it can take a while for an Agile team to get to a high performing level is it takes time to build up trust. Speed and trust are directly connected. In a high trust environment there can be a free flow of ideas, constructive criticism, and open communication enabling continual improvement. In a low trust environment things slow down to a crawl (think about going through airport security, a notable low trust environment). Understanding the relationship between speed and trust is important and a great resource is Stephen Covey’s book.

Top performing agile teams have a culture of continuous improvement

It is a wonderful thing if team members like and trust each other and that is necessary but not sufficient to get to high performance. If your team is not focused on relentlessly improving (Kaizen) they will stagnate and never reach a high performance level (i.e., they get stuck on the OK Plateau). The best teams have a relentless drive for improvement and look for any way to be more effective and efficient. They will map out an action plan to get there.

I believe that in any project there are two key deliverables, the product or service you are creating and ultimately a better team. Retrospectives, for example, can be an effective tool to help a team discuss and focus on continual improvement. Generally these are held at the end of an iteration but could actually be held at any time. I have seen through experience that teams that hold truly meaningful retrospectives, capture the areas they want to improve, prioritize them, and focus on the changes they have will to improve see the best results over time.

High performing agile teams are skilled

Talent matters. A team can have trust and a shared desire to improve but without skills, knowledge and experience it will take longer to get there. Every individual in a high performing agile team makes it a priority to improve their knowledge and skills for the sake of the team. If there are skill or knowledge gaps the team will identify those and map out an action plan to close those gaps. Experience will come in time, if it is lacking, but the best teams also reach out to others who have the experience for their guidance and wisdom (often it is better for a team to focus on their strengths and bring in others to address weak areas).

Your teams will not get to a high performing level if you keep moving people around

Another critical attribute is having stable teams. People need to work together for extended periods of time to build up trust and if team members are coming and going the clock keeps getting reset. Often companies route people to the work (we need Dave to work on this feature…) rather than route work to the people (we have this high value work for the team(s) to pull in next). Keep your teams together and give them time to blossom.

High performing agile teams meet regularly

What, more meetings? How can that possibly help? The fact is that high performing teams do meet regularly, many of them every single day. The difference is that their meetings are highly focused, efficient, productive and relevant to all attendees. Actually these meetings may be better described as meaningful conversations. Tools like Basecamp, Trello, and Google Hangouts or Skype can also be great low cost ways for distributed teams to stay connected.

Top performing agile teams validate their work with their customer(s) regularly

Sometimes I hear that becoming agile is all about speed to market but first it is about building the right software for the customer. It does not matter how fast you build it if it off target. The most successful teams will show their work regularly to their customers as it is coming together, not just at the end. In Scrum this can usually takes the form of a sprint review with customers present. In large enterprises the product owner may serve as a proxy to the customer, accepting the work as it completes. This may be fine for your team but high performing agile teams will take any chance they can have a real customer validate their team’s work.

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4 Responses

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  1. […] established trust is a critical element as trust is at the core of a high performing agile team. Without trust there can be no open communication and without open […]

  2. Great post Keith. Look forward to many more.

    Donal de Paor

    March 15, 2011 at 3:42 am

  3. […] previous posts I talked about what defines a high performance agile team and some key attributes of high performing teams. This post is oriented toward specific actions that leaders in larger organizations can take to […]

  4. […] High Performance Teams Attributes of a High Performing Agile Team Building Project Teams – Project Management how to build trust  […]


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