Guide to Agile teams — definition, benefits, tips, and more
Agile project management has transcended its roots in software development. It’s become a vital framework for managing operations for more than 70% of companies in the United States. For businesses looking to create or grow their own Agile teams, the process can feel daunting — especially since Agile project managers juggle a steady stream of inputs and still have to act in the best interests of the team.
But not having an Agile team can create a different kind of challenge for companies when there’s a sudden market shift, disruptive newcomer, or unexpected development in the industry that requires a fast change in routine and approach.
Understanding Agile team methodology can help organizations adjust quickly and effectively to new situations, from higher customer demands to delayed product iteration. Adding Agile to operational approaches can produce a 64% success rate compared to the 49% experienced by businesses that follow other strategies.
To better understand Agile and how to apply its framework to current operations, this guide will explore the following:
- What is an Agile team?
- Advantages of having an Agile team
- Characteristics of an Agile team
- Agile team roles and responsibilities
- The different Agile frameworks
- Tips to form an Agile team
- How to improve team collaboration
What is an Agile team?
An Agile team is a group of individuals with different multipurpose skills who are dedicated to the success of an Agile project through all stages of development, testing, and delivery. Agile teams are usually made up of 5–10 people who have been carefully selected for their expertise in specific business areas.
These groups are curated and have been given a direct purpose to fulfill for the company, usually tied to a specific business goal. They are also self-directed and self-organized, share accountability, and provide cross-functional assistance to meet goals.
These teams follow an Agile methodology, which is a project management practice that breaks down larger objectives into smaller phases with the goal of continuous iteration, progress, and improvement. This follows the definition of the term Agile itself, which refers to a team’s ability to move without restraint, recalibrating in the face of challenges and successes.
Advantages of having an Agile team
The flexibility and scalability through good and bad times are just a few of the advantages of having an Agile team to perform duties within an organization. Many companies are turning to Agile team approaches — for software and beyond — because of the countless benefits it offers. Here are a few:
- Boosted customer engagement and satisfaction. Agile’s iterative approach allows companies to continuously turn out new products or services, helping refine customer relations and retention.
- Higher quality products. Process improvement is a key focus of Agile, where contributors are asked to identify areas for growth. This helps processes evolve more quickly, removing stopgaps and improving quality control.
- Increased levels of adaptability. Being able to adjust helps teams overcome roadblocks or incorporate positive change with little to no downtime. Teams also have the freedom to assess their priorities as they move forward, allowing for more consistent delivery.
- Better control of the project. With the ultimate project goal set, Agile teams can control their outcomes along the way with continual progress and frequent group review of deliverables.
- Reduced risk. The progressive approach also minimizes the risk of missed goals. Instead, team members are able to recalibrate expectations and methods to achieve the desired outcomes in novel ways.
- Improved collaboration and feedback. Since members meet regularly to provide feedback, progress reports, and ideas for how to improve moving forward, communication is valued and actively encouraged on Agile teams.
Characteristics of an Agile team
While Agile teams will certainly differ from one another in their design and execution, there are several specific traits that all successful Agile teams share. Keep in mind that one of the goals of Agile methodology is to remove silos and encourage a sense of collaboration that is as positive as it is productive.
First and foremost, the most successful Agile teams have a sense of “teamness” — or oneness across the group — that permeates all actions and interactions. Team members are encouraged to share in successes and failures equally, working together to propose or celebrate solutions as needed. Working together as a single unit can help with overall team performance and the ability to achieve assigned goals.
By working as a unified group, the Agile team should also demonstrate high productivity. Being clear on who is responsible for what and when a task is due can help each contributor understand their place in the team and achieve their tasks in the least amount of time.
Cross-functional Agile teams are often compared to T-shaped ones, and they are similar. But team members who are cross-functional are more likely to possess skills outside of traditional disciplines. It’s this wide-ranging skillset that lets them contribute to various projects, which in turn increases an Agile team’s velocity. The math isn’t complicated — when you don’t have to wait on external resources, you get more done in less time.
While team members should be willing to help one another as needed, having clearly defined tasks and responsibilities for each individual can help streamline efforts and attention. Project managers or Scrum Masters can ensure there is no overlap between tasks. This will help keep contributors productive and efficient by making boundaries and assignments clear.
Self-organized around value
Agile teams perform best when they understand the projected value they will bring to the organization. Leaders should make goals and outcomes clear from the start, defining value and demonstrating how the iterative tasks of today roll up into the final product or service of tomorrow.
On the train
Trains are another aspect of Agile methodology used by the most successful teams. These scheduling tactics help all team members remain on track while making iterative stops across the journey to the final destination — or desired outcome.
Agile projects can be stressful at times, with team members striving to meet clear deadlines with pinpoint deliverables. Agile teams with a high level of emotional intelligence are able to manage these times of stress, whether professional or personal, by separating them from the work at hand. This can lead to more progress, rather than panic, when times get tough.
Adaptable and willing to learn
Agile team members are chameleons who move from one environment to the next with little disruption in output. They often display a well-developed understanding of the professional environment that suits them best, which helps them find the most productive spot in whatever situation they’re in.
Advanced T-shaped skills
Team members who are T-shaped are said to understand most aspects of a project at a basic level (the horizontal line at the top of the “T”) while having deep expertise in one area of specialization (the vertical line in the center). This ability can be a benefit to teams looking to help drive development or process in certain areas.
Agile team roles and responsibilities
Agile teams typically divide up the responsibilities clearly across roles, and there are many formal roles available when it comes to Agile methodology. When looking to roll out Agile in a company, these are the two that are most pivotal to success:
The product owner in an Agile team is responsible for setting the tasks, deadlines, and expectations as they align with broader corporate goals. Also seen as overseeing the “what” of the project, the product owner — or project owner in Agile marketing — is the assigned leader of the team. This position is typically filled by a leader already in the company, such as a CMO, director, or manager. The main objective is to help break down assignments into manageable iterations that align with Agile development.
The Scrum Master helps make the task lists prepared by the product owner a reality by creating team processes and structures that allow everyone to work efficiently and effectively. This can be seen as overseeing the “how” of the project and is also a role critical for internal and external team communication.
The Scrum Master, a role specific to the Scrum methodology and sometimes included in the hybrid methodology Scrumban, filters requests that come to the Agile team, manages the backlog, and facilitates all Scrum meetings. This role is not necessarily a leadership role. In fact, it can be a rotating role held by anyone on the Agile team.
While product owners and Scrum Masters take the focus when it comes to Agile teams, other roles are also important. For example, an internal stakeholder may be the one to request the project or outcome and be kept up to date on progress as they coordinate with other teams regarding a launch or update. Stakeholders provide critical feedback that can affect task direction.
Individual contributors like developers in Agile development are also part of the Agile team and help make up the team’s primary source of productivity and output.
The different Agile frameworks
There are a number of different Agile frameworks with no single tried-and-true method. Many leaders choose to combine elements from different frameworks to create an approach that works best for their team, industry, or organization with an eye on improving their performance and achieving their objectives. Here is an overview of some of the most popular approaches.
Popular among software development, Scrum framework is an Agile approach that allows team members to self-organize based on a provided assortment of tasks approached iteratively. By collaborating toward a common goal through a series of structured meetings and tools, Scrum participants are able to provide feedback and move forward through a development cycle incrementally while building up to a final product. Scrum is best for environments that require frequent change and adaptability.
Kanban is a lean workflow management approach best designed for teams looking to streamline their work in progress and that have a consistent flow of incoming requests. This approach works well because the process visually represents the work queue, moving items forward depending on the stages or resources they require. The workload — not the workers — is managed by the project owner, who populates the queue and allows team members to pick up individual items for development or review.
Placing emphasis on communication and interaction rather than processes, a Crystal Agile framework empowers team members to be vocal about the roadblocks or efficiencies they see to self-direct their workflow. Following general guidelines for collaboration, the teams are also permitted to share information with one another rather than following restrictive documentation and reporting requirements. Crystal can work well for teams that have members who get along well and can prevent scope creep from becoming an issue.
4. Extreme Programming Framework (XP)
Refocusing on software development, extreme programming takes the Agile methodology and emphasizes the importance of following engineering best practices. While collaboration is still encouraged, the team members adhere more strictly to a set of 12 processes that support iterative, endless sprints to continuously promote development progress. This includes aspects such as miniature releases, consistent integration, and ownership of code.
5. Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)
For companies looking for more rapid releases, DSDM may be a fit. This approach is designed to create strategies that emphasize quick releases with many iterations and the expectation that there could be revisions and reworks along the way or after the fact. Agile team members are still required to follow processes and procedures but will work at a quicker rate than their purely Scrum counterparts.
Tips to form an Agile team
An ideal Agile team size is small — around three to seven people. This helps keep communication active and reduces complications that can arise from working in larger numbers. Many companies assign a project owner for each Agile team, though it may work to have multiple Agile teams report to a single project owner. This is a person who they are likely already reporting to. If you have more than seven people on your team, you can create multiple smaller Agile teams.
Here are some tips for building Agile team structures:
- Understand, align, and map your business capabilities. When crafting a team, defining business goals and outcomes can naturally lead to demonstrating how to achieve those objectives. This includes assembling the right contributors based on business needs rather than other priorities.
- Establish team expectations and boundaries. Leaders should clarify what is and is not included in the plan. This can help prevent scope creep from other stakeholders as well as spinoff work resulting naturally from team collaboration and innovation.
- Instill the value of self-organization within the team. Team performers need to feel empowered to speak up, contribute, and take ownership of their tasks for an Agile team to remain productive. Leaders can look for contributors with these attributes and empower them to new levels in the right Agile structure.
- Manage work, not people. The team puts forward individuals who are best suited to determine how to achieve the goals set forth. Leaders should focus on keeping priorities, requirements, and deadlines for the work items clear and allow the team to self-organize.
- Create means of communication with the product owner. Product owners drive task alignment with business goals, but contributors need to be able to provide essential feedback that could change future plans.
How to improve team collaboration
Strong and effective communication remains one of the most important components of effective collaboration. It can empower decision-making, allow teams to meet responsibility, and expedite progress. As leaders form Agile teams, there are measures they can take to improve that collaboration — and outcomes — for the team as a whole in the long run:
- Ensure that every team member is aligned with the vision and task at hand.
- Include a varied skillset that does not overlap too much with other team members’ specialties.
- Establish and use regular feedback loops that are built into the learning cycle.
- Avoid members of an Agile team being members of another team.
- Identify and manage different work types on a Kanban board.
- Introduce classes of service to increase predictability.
- Visualize cross-team dependencies to streamline collaboration.
Your Agile team can succeed with the right tools
Project managers and leaders can create more successful project outcomes when they understand how an Agile approach addresses specific roles and functions. Once everyone is put in their precise position, leaders can also make use of tools and software to aid in the implementation of their chosen Agile framework.
When you’re ready to get started, explore Agile project management software that can help manage projects at scale. Adobe Workfront is designed to help project managers collaborate with teams and stakeholders while monitoring projects in real time, no matter where they are.