Leading agile teams through collaboration



The term collaboration is widely used and has various definitions, depending on the context. We expect co-workers to collaborate to solve work challenges. We ask students to collaborate with their peers to complete an in-class assignment. And, we hope that neighbors collaborate with each other to form tight-knit communities. While collaboration is key in nearly every environment, we find that it is still sometimes difficult for projects, particularly agile projects, to enjoy the level of collaboration required for success.

The Agile Manifesto places great emphasis on customer collaboration, with a keen focus on a highly skilled, motivated team in constant interaction with the product and the customer at every phase of the project. As a result of this collaborative, customer-centric view, agile requires even sharper people skills than the more process-driven traditional project management approach. Agile demands a specific set of leadership competencies within such an iterative, fast-paced environment. This paper will provide a guide to the challenges that a lack of collaboration on project teams can bring, as well as parameters to encourage not only team members, but also key stakeholders and clients to think more collaboratively from project inception to delivery.

The agile approach requires more than technical expertise to gather requirements and develop and test new product lines. It also requires knowledge about how to apply those skills in a more malleable, people-focused setting. While the traditional project management approach requires less continuous customer interaction, agile project managers are called upon to team up with customers in a constant stakeholder dialogue. Constant customer collaboration brings with it great opportunities to measure project success by gauging the level of customer satisfaction throughout the life cycle of the project. It provides the framework for faster time-to-market and a more nimble process to deliver successful project outcomes.


Much of the focus on agile success has been on the “technical” aspects of working in an agile environment. There has been much focus on Scrum, XP (eXtreme Programming), and Kanban. Each of these approaches to agile emphasizes that collaboration is a key to success for agile project delivery. However, detail behind what defines successful collaboration in an agile environment has been lacking. This paper addresses what is meant by collaboration in an agile environment, how collaboration is seen during the stages of team development, as well as the skills that enable collaboration and its application of these skills in the agile project.

What Does Collaboration Mean in Agile?

An agile environment contains seven distinct elements that every organization and its leaders exhibit:

  • A collaborative leadership style
  • An ability to embrace change
  • An iterative approach to product development and testing
  • A people-driven focus (versus process-driven)
  • A concentration on features instead of systems
  • Project managers who are facilitators, not controllers
  • Project simplicity
The agile environment

Exhibit 1 – The agile environment.

As seen in Exhibit 1, leadership and collaboration are high on the list toward ensuring that an organization is ready to successfully work in an agile environment. Referencing the 12 principles, as outlined in The Agile Manifesto, is a good starting point in understanding why collaboration is key to the foundation of agile.

The Agile Manifesto's view on collaboration

Exhibit 2 – The Agile Manifesto's view on collaboration.

Exhibit 2 shows how The Agile Manifesto showcases the use of collaboration in agile projects. Customer collaboration over contract negotiations is the third governing aspect of The Agile Manifesto; however, The Agile Manifesto does not go into detail about what exactly is meant by this. We can only infer the meaning behind this governing aspect is that we need to engage our customers thoroughly and frequently verses a once and done negotiated aspect of a need as is typically done in contract negotiations.

Because The Agile Manifesto was created to focus more on development than management of a project, it leaves us with a need to infer what collaboration means, not only from a development perspective, but also from a management perspective. The Declaration of Interdependence from the Agile Leadership Network seeks to add some clarity around the management principles for project managers of agile projects. In this case, as project management professionals, we would defer to these six management principles in conjunction with The Agile Manifesto. On 15 February 2005, Jim Highsmith defined the multiple meanings behind the title Declaration of Interdependence. Its two-part meaning can be best described from the perspective of what we typically call a “core” project team as well as from the perspective of what we typically identify as the “extended” project team. The “project team members are part of an interdependent whole and not a group of unconnected individuals. It means that project teams, their customers, and their stakeholders are also interdependent. Project teams who do not recognize this interdependence will rarely be successful.” Exhibit 3 depicts the Declaration of Interdependence and its lens on defining collaboration.

The Declaration of Interdependence's lens on collaboration

Exhibit 3 – The Declaration of Interdependence's lens on collaboration.

Given what we have learned from the guiding principles of agile in the above references, we can identify that collaboration requires:

  • Frequent interactions with everyone needed for project delivery. Everyone is defined as project team members, their customers, and their stakeholders.

That these frequent interactions will yield:

  • Ownership or accountability (a characteristic of collaboration)

Now that we know the core requirement of collaboration and the outcome that collaboration brings, we can begin to delve into the specifics as they pertain to the skills that enable collaboration.

Collaboration during the Stages of Team Development

During each stage of project delivery, the project manager, or in the case of agile, the project leader assumes different roles. According to Bruce Tuckman's model, project managers (leaders’) leadership styles move from forming to storming to norming to high-performing (Tuckman, 1965, p. 384).

During the forming stage, the project leader acts like an authoritarian figure, orienting the team members to assume the task. During this stage of forming, the project leader provides specific “structured” activities that will enable collaboration to begin. This can typically be found during the Speculate phase of an agile project.

The next phase results in storming, during which time the team members react emotionally to the task, raising resistance and exerting influence. In the traditional project management approach, project managers spend most of their time in this position and “manage” the conflict. In an agile project, to foster empowerment, the project leader typically will shift the responsibility of managing the conflict to the team, thus creating another opportunity to collaborate.

The norming stage refers to in-group cohesiveness in which new roles are defined and acted out. This stage in an agile project comes with a certain degree of trust in one another to complete the work that the team, as a whole, has agreed to do for each iteration. This trust element is a critical component in ensuring that collaboration is successful.

Finally, the project manager can move into the high-performing stage of constructive action, because the team has embodied the self-organized, empowered team to which collaboration is the foundation of this. The team members have achieved a level of collaboration that allows them to constructively work together, while the project leader removes impediments that could derail the team's progress. Retrospectives provide the agile project team with a venue to improve on their team collaboration approach and ensure that moving into the next iteration, they have identified what has worked well for them, what didn't work well, and who among the team members will take ownership of the action items generated for improvement to ensure the next iteration has incorporated the feedback.

The Skills that Enable Collaboration

Understanding the stages of team development and how collaboration plays into each stage helps the project leader understand how to empower a team. An empowered team delivers innovative, fast results, which in the end bring about customer satisfaction, because the customer “feels” that what the customer sees as value on a project has been delivered.

Frequent customer collaboration brings with it great opportunities to measure project success by gauging the level of customer satisfaction, which is a success metric that can be standardized across all agile project teams and throughout each iteration of the project. It provides the framework to which every member of the project team can contribute to faster time-to-market and a more nimble process to deliver successful project outcomes. Aside from technical expertise on an agile project, successful agile project delivery relies heavily on collaboration and is the key for the integrated project team.

As discussed in the Introduction, The Agile Manifesto provides an expectation of customer collaboration. We can further understand The Agile Manifesto's intent by looking deeper into the 12 principles supporting The Agile Manifesto. These 12 principles, which are the building blocks of agile, identify three areas that lend themselves to successful collaboration. These three principles are as follows:

  • Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

Based on the above three principles, successful collaboration among the team relies heavily on three key skills:

  • Feedback
  • Communication
  • Motivation


So, how does this work in a team environment? What is the most successful way to deliver feedback on an agile project? Remember that feedback during the iterative development work of an agile project must increase awareness and insight as well as foster innovation, yielding positive alternatives. Having the business as part of the core the agile project team creates the environment for continuous feedback and an opportunity to take positive risks in doing things differently, which is the very nature of why the project is being done in an agile setting. Within the iteration work, it is essential to provide feedback that:

  • Contains a clear purpose
  • Is specific and descriptive
  • Offers positive alternatives

For all members of the agile project team, it is important to identify what to start, stop, and continue doing when it comes to iteration work. This is where effective feedback is most often used. You can easily integrate these practices into your daily stand-up meetings to prep for the day's work.


What makes effective communication? When it comes to communication, it is important to deliver information in a manner that is understood by the receiver, which means we need to get past the receiver's filters and ensure that the individual understood the intended message. Exhibit 4 shows the typical sender/receiver model of communication and depicts how information can be incorrectly translated.

Typical sender/receiver model for communication

Exhibit 4 – Typical sender/receiver model for communication.

To get past those filters, we, as the sender of this message, have a responsibility to understand how our receiver takes in information. Does he or she communicate in a direct manner? Is he or she considerate in his or her messaging? Understanding your receiver's communication style will help you provide feedback that enables effective dialogue.


When you combine productive feedback with effective communication, the foundation for motivation has been established. Motivation is built on encouragement, partnership, and compromise without making concessions that damage trust. Working together to ensure that barriers, impediments, and unrealistic expectations do not derail the creative impulses of the team brings about team unity. When the agile project manager delegates to team members the authority and responsibility to complete features to which they've committed, he or she has created an environment of trust, partnership, and self-directedness. By creating this environment, the team can discover their patterns of working, comfort zones, and creative space, which ultimately lead to high-performing, self-motivated teams.

Although the agile movement was originally focused on software development and the developers, it was quickly recognized that the way a project manager manages in an agile project must be different. The founding principles hone in on constant customer involvement as a key to success for agile. Including not only the project team members, but also the customers, users, and stakeholders into more of a partnered, collaborative whole has created a high-performing integrated project team. Ensuring that collaboration is woven throughout the stages of team development and project iterations brings about achieving the initial intent of the guiding principles of agile, which is creating ownership on or accountability for a project that leads to customer satisfaction.


Declaration of Interdependence. Retrieved from www.pmdoi.org

Highsmith, J.A. (2009). Agile project management: Creating innovative products. Boston: Addison-Wesley Professional.

The Agile Manifesto. Retrieved from www.Agilemanifesto.org.

Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384–399. This article was reprinted in Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal, Number 3 (Spring 2001) and can be retrieved from http://dennislearningcenter.osu.edu/references/GR0UP%20DEV%20ARTICLE.doc.

© 2012, Nancy Y. Nee
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings — Vancouver, Canada



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