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.

Get weekly PM tips in your inbox TechRepublic's IT Project Management newsletter, delivered on Wednesday, offers tips to help keep project managers and their teams on track. Automatically sign up today!

By Rick Freedman

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...