Bridging Ambition and Ability

Agile Teams Must Learn to Walk Before They Sprint


Rebecca West, PMI-ACP, ShopperTrak, Chicago, Illinois, USA




Agile is everywhere

but not every organization is ready for it.

According to the 12th annual State of Agile survey published by CollabNet VersionOne, 41 percent of organizations cite a lack of skills or experience with agile approaches as a major barrier. It's up to project managers to determine how to bridge the gap for teams that are agile-deficient or agile-resistant. Whether these gaps are caused by a lack of knowledge, an indifference to new approaches or a philosophical opposition, getting team members up to speed on agile approaches takes proactive and persistent engagement from start to finish.

“Every organization wants to use agile, but very few know how,” says Daniela Chiricioaia, PMI-ACP, PMP, senior project manager for software development company Vauban IT Romania, Bucharest, Romania.

Training and knowledge sharing throughout the project can help project managers build agile confidence across teams. It's also incumbent upon project managers to empathize with agile fears and look for opportunities to show real-time benefits and long-term value.


Project managers first need to conduct an audit of sorts, determining the agile maturity of teams and what skills might be missing. Charaka Gunatilaka, PMI-ACP, PMP, senior agile project manager for Oakton, a digital advisory, solutions and managed services organization, Melbourne, Australia, starts his projects by compiling a detailed list of the responsibilities for each role and sharing that with his team. Prior to kickoff, he conducts agile-specific interviews with his team members to pinpoint any skills gaps and the percentage of agile-proficient versus agile-deficient team members. That analysis helps him determine how much time it will take to get everyone up to speed.

Surveying team members is another approach project managers can take to evaluate agile capabilities. At the start of each project, Giorgio Lippolis, PMI-ACP, PMP, development team lead, Gallagher, London, England, uses online surveys to assess the agile maturity of the teams. He makes the surveys anonymous to encourage candid responses. The surveys ask agile-specific questions, such as how frequently team members groom their backlog, what is the average time for them to complete one user story and if the product owner is engaged in daily conversations with them.

“The questionnaire is a tool for me to understand the team members' perceptions of the team strengths and weaknesses,” he says. He discusses the results with the entire team at once, rather than treating agile maturity as any one individual's issue.

But agile self-evaluations can backfire. For starters, team members might overrate their agile skill set. Other times, asking team members directly what they know about agile can generate responses that are canned rather than candid, says Rebecca West, PMI-ACP, leader, agile project management office for retail analytics firm ShopperTrak, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Ms. West says going into observation mode can help project managers gain a more realistic assessment of team members' agile maturity.


of organizations cite a lack of skills or experience with agile approaches as a major barrier.

Source: State of Agile, CollabNet VersionOne, 2018

For instance, when she temporarily took on the role of scrum master last year, Ms. West spent her first sprint listening and watching in standups as team members provided updates and exchanged information. She also asked project-specific questions, such as how they identified the acceptance criteria as they wrote their user stories. That approach gave her a reliable measure of the team's agile skills. “I got a more natural response than I would have by asking, pointblank, 'How much do you know about agile?'” she says.


Filling agile gaps starts with training—efforts that project managers can steer swiftly and consistently. Ms. Chiricioaia has her agile-deficient team members participate in her organization's agile training program, and she shares with them a database of documents about agile approaches. Mr. Gunatilaka has his less-experienced agile team members participate in formal training programs delivered both internally and externally. They engage in the training prior to project kickoff, when the statement of work and other contract negotiations are still being finalized.

“During that process, we get the team prepared in the background,” he says. With that foundation in place, he moves from the theoretical to the practical. “They should be educated on how practicing agile will help with the specific project we're about to embark on, how it will help them deliver it more efficiently and effectively,” he says.


—Charaka Gunatilaka, PMI-ACP, PMP, Oakton, Melbourne, Australia

When Ms. West joined ShopperTrak in 2015, she developed an agile training program with 30-minute sessions that first introduce teams to the roles of an agile team, such as product owner and scrum master, and then to processes such as grooming the backlog and running a retrospective. “We take them from a high-level overview of the players in the game to an explanation of how the game works,” she says.


For many project professionals, agile represents significant change that can stir resistance and fear. Rather than dismissing those feelings, project managers should try to explore and understand the cause of them. It's the first step toward changing negative agile mindsets—often the result of team members who believe there's no need to stray from previous approaches.

“Resistance stems from two things: One is a general resistance to change; the other is people's doubts about the benefits of agile when the methodologies they already follow work for them,” Mr. Gunatilaka says.

When team members express agile reluctance, “I listen to them,” Ms. Chiricioaia says. Then she gives them specifics about why agile would help on their particular projects—for example, how working in iterations delivers value to the customer faster and allows the client to test functionality and provide feedback so that the team, the client and the project all benefit.

Listening helped Mr. Gunatilaka convince a team that agile was a better alternative to their tried-and-true waterfall methodology. Before kickoff, he held a series of discussions that illustrated why an iterative approach would help the team's client achieve its objective. “We got a majority of the team to say, 'Yes, we also think agile is better in this scenario,' before the project even started,” he says. The rest of the doubters bought in during the project when the change delivered benefits after the first and second iterations. “We gained buy-in by showing results.”

Carrots and Sticks

Project managers can do a lot to further their teams' agile progress—but it helps to have enterprise-wide support. Here are three ways organizations can encourage a culture of agile maturity:

1 Executive Support If C-suite executives attend an agile seminar, they're better poised to become agile advocates for the entire organization, says Rebecca West, PMI-ACP, leader, agile project management office, ShopperTrak, Chicago, Illinois, USA. “The first thing any organization adopting agile needs to do is make sure that upper management understands its benefits,” she says. “Without that top-level support, it's a struggle.”

2 Build a Network Organizations can establish communities that accelerate and sustain an agile culture across the enterprise. For example, developing online discussion boards or blogs can help celebrate agile achievements and promote growth. “That creates momentum around agile,” says Giorgio Lippolis, PMI-ACP, PMP, development team lead, Gallagher, London, England.

3 Require Leadership Organizations can help develop agile leaders—and encourage them to groom the next generation of internal agile champions. At Vauban IT Romania, the human resources department makes agile mentorship a necessary step for job progression, says Daniela Chiricioaia, PMI-ACP, PMP, senior project manager at the software development company. “That motivates project managers because they know that in order to advance, they have to share their knowledge of agile with others,” she says.



Agile Obstacles

The top challenges organizations cite for adopting and scaling agile:

img 53% Organizational culture at odds with agile values

img 46% General organization resistant to change

img 42% Inadequate management support and sponsorship

img 41% Lack of skills or experience with agile methods

img 35% Insufficient training and education

img 34% Inconsistent processes and practices across teams

img 31% Lack of availability of business, customer or product owner

img 30% Pervasiveness of traditional development methods

img 24% Fragmented tooling and project-related data or measurements

img 21% Minimal collaboration and knowledge sharing

Source: State of Agile, CollabNet VersionOne, 2018

One source of fear is uncertainty of how agile will change team members' roles, including the possibility of losing their jobs, Mr. Lippolis says. When one of his project managers last year expressed concerns that agile would make his role obsolete on scrum teams, Mr. Lippolis allayed that fear. He explained that, while the scrum masters focused on delivery, the project manager would provide high-level stakeholder management, as well as oversight of the scrum projects' interdependencies.

By nature, agile lends itself to building buy-in on the fly. Each iteration provides an opportunity for teams to try agile, assess and then try it again, Mr. Lippolis says. “I tell them they don't need to buy in to everything at the start. I ask them to try it for a couple of iterations, and then I sit down with them and ask them what they think.” As a result, team members become active participants in their agile journey, not passive recipients of it.


—Giorgio Lippolis, PMI-ACP, PMP, Gallagher, London, England

When Ms. West worked with a developer who simply did not want to adopt agile, she asked him to give it a try for just three iterations. She sought his feedback after each iteration. He said he liked sitting by himself in his cubicle so he could focus, not having to constantly interact with others. Her compromise: Rather than forcing him out of his cube, she lowered its walls. He also said he felt he was being perpetually interrupted, making it hard for him to concentrate. Her compromise: She allowed team members to place an orange cone beside their chair to signal to others that they should not be interrupted. “I ask them to meet me halfway,” she says.

For Mr. Gunatilaka, compromise sometimes means letting resistant teams use a hybrid of waterfall and agile during a transition period. This approach allows team members to build confidence by starting at the shallow end of the agile pool. During a team's day-to-day activities on a waterfall project, he sometimes starts introducing agile elements, such as a Kanban board to track in-progress and completed tasks.

“The hybrid approach during a transition period helps teams get familiar with agile and change their mindset, which is extremely important,” he says.


Project managers can identify and designate agile champions—including themselves—to sustain learning and growth. Those champions can pair up with people less adept at agile, or they can take other opportunities to spread agile knowledge among teams. Experienced peers can help mentor simply by describing their own success with agile, Mr. Lippolis says. “It's better that those success stories come from their peers, not from me, because to them, I'm the one trying to sell them on agile.”

When Mr. Lippolis was a senior project manager at Thomson Reuters, he asked agile-proficient team members to share their experiences with the entire team. They explained how, by using agile, they completed projects in less time than initially planned—which helped bring onboard their doubtful peers.

“When teams get to see that senior folks believe in agile and follow it,” Ms. West says, “that helps get buy-in and share knowledge at the same time.”


—Rebecca West, PMI-ACP, ShopperTrak, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Ms. West is able to find potential agile mentors during her initial discussions with teams to assess their skills. She makes sure each of her teams has at least one senior person who can educate the others. “That way, it's not just me as the scrum master telling them what to do,” she says.

Having agile champions and mentors helps impart skills, secure long-term buy-in and garner support for agile growth at all phases. Mr. Gunatilaka uses each sprint's retrospective to monitor and support his team's progress with agile. “During the retrospectives, the teams freely and openly express how comfortable they've been with agile in the previous iteration and what they think they need to elevate their skills,” he says. “When it comes to mentoring teams so they're agile-proficient, it's a marathon, not a sprint.” PM



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