Ideal Environment for Successful Agile Teams

Recently, one of my colleagues asked me an interesting question that I have not heard in a long time: “Why is it that some teams are able to adopt Agile and achieve success and some teams struggle so much?”

This question brought back a lot of memories for me because of the diverse outcomes that I have personally experienced. Although there have been many not-so-great stories, the positive experiences have fortunately outweighed the negative ones. Based on the various projects that I have encountered, I realized that there is a long list of factors that influence how a team adopts any change, and that it is the responsibility of the coach to find out how to cultivate an environment in which teams can thrive.Successful Agile Team

Coaching new teams and helping them adopt a new way of thinking and working can be a huge struggle, but in the right setting, it can also be very rewarding. From reflecting on my past experiences, I have found a few common environmental characteristics in nearly all of the successful projects in which I have participated, and I would like to share a few to see if you agree. Note that these are mainly organizational attributes, which are not necessarily the same as team-level or interpersonal factors that are also important.

  1. Experimentation is encouraged – Not all companies are in a position where they can afford to take risks and run projects without knowing the exact outcome. If you are in an environment where you are able to execute a pilot project, this is a great opportunity to deploy Agile techniques to gain real-world knowledge of how this approach may work.
  2. Failure is expected – The willingness to experience also means that you are willing to accept less-than-ideal outcomes, often called “failure”. If your organization can accept this, it would accelerate your ability to view this experience as a learning opportunity and push the boundaries of “business as usual”.
  3. Management plays the “long game” – If your leadership is willing to explore and learn new ways of working in pursuit of long-term, sustainable benefits, then you are in a great position to apply Agile methods. This does not mean that you will not realize short-term gains; tangible and measurable benefits are usually attained not within a matter of days or weeks, but often over a period of months.
  4. Learning is the norm – Is your organization committed to learning as part of how things are managed? Is learning a natural part of what you do? If so, then you are in a great position to acquire new levels of knowledge and understanding, which can accelerate adoption of any process improvement efforts.
  5. Change is embraced – Change is generally difficult for most people, which means it is compounded at the organization level. Managing change effectively will likely separate the leaders from the followers, which means this is a critical capability to develop for companies that aspire to innovate and grow. If your organization struggles with change, exploring formal change management methodologies may be helpful.

Reflecting back on the original question of why some teams succeed where others fail, my opinion is that the organizational norms (often known as “culture”) plays a significant role in this situation. If an organization encourages learning through experimentation, this can foster a growth mindset which is a key ingredient in building a continuous learning culture. If your organization is “stuck” trying to deploy one or more of the behaviors that I discussed previously, what can you do? It will likely feel very daunting if you are alone in trying to build an environment that is completely different from what already exists. So the first thing to ask yourself is: “Who can help me with this? Who shares the passion for change? Who has the influence to help me build an alliance?” If you cannot name one person who shares the same goals are you do, you may be in a futile situation because this type of change may simply be too much for this organization. Don’t think of this as your “fault” because this is entirely normal. Some organizations simply do not adapt well to change, and need some type of crisis to spark that desire. Many organizations claim that they want to innovate, but they struggle to shed the excess baggage of status quo and historical behaviors. Having the courage to take a risk, even if at a small scale, and be the spark that your organization needs to begin building a new way of operating.

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Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai