Leadership

Agile teams: Focus on the people rather than the process

Rick Freedman believes the agile PM's most important roles are to create a collaborative environment that enables teams to achieve creative results and to encourage contributors to focus on group goals and agendas rather than the individual.

The NBA Finals are over, and LA Lakers coach Phil Jackson has broken the record of the legendary Red Auerbach by leading his team to the NBA championship for the 10th time. Jackson's ability to coach superstar players Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and to get superstar results from role players Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher, illustrates that leadership matters, and that a group of skilled, confident, and occasionally arrogant individuals can be guided to success and can coalesce as a team.

While other coaches struggle with players who are more interested in individual statistics and personal highlight reels than in getting team results, Jackson has been able to channel the ambitions and skills of his players, both in Chicago and Los Angeles, towards team achievement. Shaquille O'Neal and Scottie Pippen make winning championships a bit easier, but, despite all the outstanding players in the NBA, no other coach demonstrates Jackson's ability to inspire teams to great outcomes.

What does the NBA have to do with agile PM?

Like Jackson, agile project managers often have teams composed of supremely skilled and confident contributors. Like Jackson, many agile project managers often struggle to get arrogant or immature team members to subsume their personal ambitions and instead focus on team results. And, like Jackson, agile project managers must develop a leadership style that inspires and enables team members to achieve.

The coaching metaphor is, in my view, an appropriate analogy to illustrate the type of project leadership that agile methods require. Great agile project managers are coaches, with the critical understanding that, whether it's shooting hoops or developing software, only the player can make the right decision under the pressure of the moment. Creating the environment that enables the experts to do what they do and setting the strategy while allowing the players to create are attributes of a winning coach and an agile project leader.

Notice that I use the phrase project leader rather than project manager; this is a key distinction, and one that is made repeatedly in the literature about agile management. "Most projects are over-managed and under-led," Jim Highsmith notes in his book Agile Project Management. While the tools of project management, such as plans, budgets, and schedules, are necessary to control the complexity of IT initiatives, no team member was ever inspired by a Gantt chart. When projects travel beyond the realm of the known and require innovative ideas and deliverables, these guideposts become less relevant and inspirational and enabling leadership becomes a key success factor. Remember that the first statement of the Agile Manifesto asserts that the signatories value "individuals and interactions over processes and tools." Creating a collaborative environment that enables teams to achieve creative results together and encouraging contributors to focus on group goals and agendas rather than the individual are the agile PM's most important role.

There can be a conflict between the traditional, tool-and-process focused style of project managers and the agile approach. Many project managers have difficulty stepping away from the techniques described above, such as scope, budget, and schedule planning, and migrating into a world of changing requirements, evolving expectations, and self-directed teams. The evolution from traditional project management to agile techniques requires an evolution for the PM as well, from authoritarian, top-down management to collaborative, influence-based leadership. The ability to migrate from a world of tightly-bounded scope and schedules to a world of change, vagueness, and uncertainty is the key distinguishing factor for successful agile project leaders.

Agile teams are not only about the project manager -- the right atmosphere and contributors are also critical. Highsmith describes six elements to the creation of a self-directed agile team:

  • Get the right people
  • Articulate the project vision, boundaries, and roles
  • Encourage interaction
  • Facilitate participatory decisions
  • Insist on accountability
  • Steer, don't control
One error I repeatedly see project managers make is to recruit team contributors solely based on technical capabilities. In agile teams, technical genius is not enough; behavioral aspects and maturity are, in my view, even more important. Every experienced project manager has dealt with the technical expert who is self-focused, needy, argumentative, immature, and disruptive. Agile teams don't have time for this behavior. Unfortunately, in the highly-charged environment of exploratory IT development, one monkey can stop the show, when that monkey constantly requires special handling and disrupts the collaborative effort.

Agile project leaders understand that there's a big difference between a spec sheet and a vision. Inspiring a team to create something unique and valuable requires more than a requirements definition; it requires leadership that paints a picture of what could be, if the team is creative and innovative. Agile teams internalize the idea that team intelligence is always smarter than even the smartest member and that participatory, interactive decision making results in direction that everyone buys into and drives toward. Without accountability, all of these elements are meaningless. Accountability requires tough mindedness, since it implies that, when a team contributor turns out to be a poor fit for the project, the project manager and the team will take action rather than sheltering and protecting an unproductive member.

In the debate about agile methods, the question often asked is "for what sort of projects is agile management appropriate?" This is an important question; as we've discussed in previous columns, agile methods are especially suited for innovative, creative projects that are producing a new product that's never been built before; agile methods are not as well suited for projects delivering the 20th implementation of a tried-and-true technology. While the right project fit is an important question, we need to remember that an equally important question is "what sort of team is appropriate for agile methods?" Building a team of mature, skilled, self-directed, and collaborative contributors is a critical success factor.

Every agile expert agrees that agile projects are not for novices. Process has its place in bringing order from the chaos of complex IT projects, but creating the right atmosphere and staffing it with the right contributors is the foundation of a high-achieving agile team.

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About

Rick Freedman is the author of three books on IT consulting, including "The IT Consultant." Rick is an independent consultant and trainer, working, through his company Consulting Strategies Inc., to help agile teams and organizations understand agile...

11 comments
RMM2
RMM2

Re: "Many project managers have difficulty stepping away from the techniques described above, such as scope, budget, and schedule planning, and migrating into a world of changing requirements, evolving expectations, and self-directed teams." While many project managers do have difficulty stepping out of their comfort zone and stepping away from the things you mentioned, I don't think you meant to suggest that Agile methods completely eliminate these factors, which is a common misconception about Agile. Considering the Golden Triangle of Time, Scope and Budget, in the Agile world, the primary variable is scope which is determined by the Product Owner on the team and communicated via the Product Backlog and the stories that are brought into each new Sprint Iteration. The scary part is getting out of the way and coaching the team so that they determine what they are able to accomplish in the time box and the uncertainty of knowing if a viable product will delivered by the project's estimated end date. But the trade-off of delivering the most business value as quickly as possible seems to be worth that feeling of uncertainty.

Krepenzis
Krepenzis

?Most projects are over-managed and under-led? - right to a T!

dan
dan

Great post. Any recommended reading on teaching communication skills to project team members?

mga
mga

This is a good article that reminds us all to pay attention to collaboration variables in PM. However, we should all be reminded that task, process and procedure in small group communication research are still three critical variables. We must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water here. While I agree generally with agility management, the theory is without much data to support the claims. Does not mean it is not true, but just a note to be careful about dismissing process. I have been on HP international projects where collaboration helped to lose millions of dollars because few were paying attention to the end results or the processes were not being followed. It is about balance, so we should not say "rather than" but in "addition to" as part of the title. IBM had a great concept some years ago about the wild duck out of formation that worked quite nicely to raise hell inside groups that were not paying attention to both collaboration and processes. It worked well for IBM. We should not be too quick to dismiss someone who raises heck inside PM groups. Good article and food for thought. M. Gene Aldridge President/CEO World Marketing, Inc. mga@zianet.com

JimWetzel
JimWetzel

This article focuses on the key to running about anything. Remove the word agile and the article remains true and accurate. It's all about leadership.

anthony_ieradi
anthony_ieradi

All very good points. Sometime, while working with IBM Co-managers, this seems to be a challenge. Especially when the manager has no subject matter experience with the project. IBM believes that their PM's only need to know project methodology, and subject matter knowledge. What a joke!

Bebedo
Bebedo

While not a fan of basketball, I certainly agree with this article that a collaborative, directive approach is much more in line with building new systems. Identifying the right people, and the right approach, and having a leader and not a manager is the key difference between a successful approach, and one filled with delays and frustration. Kudos for a very good article. Now how do we get senior management to read and understand?! ;-)

Derek Schauland
Derek Schauland

I think that building an agile team in any environment takes a bit of skill. Perhaps with the GM and Head Coach in the same role to use the basketball analogy, or at least working very closely together. Many a PM could benefit from studying the concept of an agile team presented here.

mga
mga

Communication in Small Groups: Theory, Process, Skills by Cragen and Wright is a good textbook for grounding. Case studies work best for me in PM communication management...it keeps the focus on internally driven learning in HR training rather than external learning models. One of the issues left unsaid in the PM formats is the idea that "marketing" needs to be added to the list of skills in PM. All members of the PM team are markting to the client, but often few understand how to integrate this into the skills process and outcomes. I have a curriculum for this at the graduate level if you would like to see it. M. Gene Aldridge mga@zianet.com

andre
andre

you are 100% right. In projects world, it does not matter what methodology is employed. The 'traditional' projects fail not because they use inferior processes but because they have weak 'leaders' that rather manage, following prescribed steps, then lead their teams. Following such steps is much easier and safer - in short term to push blame on someone else - but in the end the projects fail. Another element that is often missing and which agile brings up explicitly - is the communication. Irrelevant, project or business initiatives will fail equally if the proper communication is missing. But after all, one of the key attributes of a great leaders is that they are first of all, great communicators.