The Right Tact
As Agile Teams Move At Lightning Speed, They Must Double Down On Emotional Intelligence
BY KATE ROCKWOOD
ILLUSTRATION BY KEVIN WHIPPLE
In an agile environment, project teams must communicate and collaborate without missing a beat. But with so many quick-hit standup meetings and blunt talk, thoughtful engagement can often get lost in the fast-paced shuffle—and that can be a problem. Emotional intelligence (EI)—the ability to identify and manage one's emotions and the emotions of others—can buoy an agile team.
“Agile teams definitely fail when leaders lack EI.”
—Syed Nazir Razik, PMI-ACP, Eli India, Chennai, India
“Agile teams definitely fail when leaders lack EI,” says Syed Nazir Razik, PMI-ACP, associate vice president, engaged media, Eli India, Chennai, India. “I've seen leaders who lack EI bring down massive projects, and I've also worked with teams in which everyone went the extra mile just because they had a strand of emotional connection with the leader.”
As increased automation and the adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning revolutionize today's workforce, organizations are keen to find more project leaders with EI acumen. While CEOs agree EI is one of the most important skills for their organizations, 64 percent say it's difficult to find as they search for talent, according to a 2017 PwC survey. There's an even greater need for agile project teams: Amid all the sprints, iterations and tests, project managers with strong EI understand team members’ states of mind. They can set the right tone at the right time and build engaged teams that can deliver the goods, says Dev Ramcharan, PMP, program director, TD, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
64% of CEOs say EI is difficult to find as they search for talent.
Source: 2017 PwC survey
“The role of the project manager is absolutely changing,” says Mr. Ramcharan. “Part of our jobs now is to be managers of the emotional climate of our teams.”
That point was driven home for Mr. Ramcharan during a change management initiative he participated in last year. The organizational overhaul cleared up confusion on roles and responsibilities by developing uniform practices and a common set of expectations for all stakeholders. But it also “triggered fears and much anxiety around how this would work and the overall effect on projects and possible resource churn as a likely reaction,” he says. So the manager tasked with overseeing the many agile teams didn't focus only on execution and schedules; she spent time with each of the 20 team members to understand their hopes, concerns, ambitions and skills.
“By applying emotionally intelligent best practices, she won the team over, creating an emotional climate of safety, support and openness to new ideas,” he says. “The team made a huge step forward, and it's fair to say it became one of the division's high-performing teams.”
Here are three ways that agilistas can—with the right focus and discipline—elevate their EI.
1 Push Past Task Lists
While scrum masters know that frequent communication is king on agile projects, daily standups about accomplishments and barriers won't necessarily give team members an opportunity to express frustrations and feelings, says Mr. Ramcharan.
Project pros should schedule and prep for EI check-ins just as they would for any other meeting, says Mr. Ramcharan. Are there team dynamics that need addressing? Is the person feeling overwhelmed or under-supported? Are there any nonproject factors—such as a sick child at home or a maddening renovation project—that the project manager should know about?
By asking about more than the nuts and bolts of the task list, “you've demonstrated respect, compassion and thought-fulness—all of which play into emotionally intelligent project management,” he says.
Project pros should schedule and prep for EI check-ins just as they would for any other meeting.
2 Nurture Remote Connections
Many agile teams are also virtual ones, with phone and email the primary communication methods. That makes it particularly difficult to establish an emotional connection with team members, says Mr. Razik. To combat the cold nature of digital conversations, he pushes to co-locate teams for the first few sprints of an agile project and conducts video conferences so team members can pick up on any nonverbal cues.
“Part of our jobs now is to be managers of the emotional climate of our teams.”
—Dev Ramcharan, PMP, TD, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
For instance, when Mr. Razik launched a product development project in 2016, he brought team members from the Philippines and Florida, USA to India for one sprint to help accelerate a strong relationship—a bond that paid off during crunch time, he says. When the office in Florida had to close during Hurricane Irma because of a power outage, team members in Chennai, India and Cebu, the Philippines didn't hesitate to work extra hours to tackle the tasks that Florida team members were unable to complete.
“The team displayed a great sense of empathy,” Mr. Razik says. “They understood the importance of continuing operations until our teammates in Florida could settle down their families and were able to return to work.”
When text-based tools are the only option for distributed agile teams, even the smallest tokens can help build emotional connections, says Anca Penghis, PMP, project manager, IN Business Solutions, Bucharest, Romania. For instance, when working on agile projects she encourages teams to pepper their chats with emoticons and emojis to convey intent. “I'm not joking,” she says. “Everyone is using emoticons, because they're a simple way to express the emotion that's so hard to write.”
FOR GOOD MEASURE
Building a project culture that emphasizes emotional intelligence (EI) takes time. How can project and program managers be sure things are moving in the right direction? Here's how to measure an agile team's EI—whether gauging a baseline or tracking progress from project to project.
TRY A TEST
There are plenty of tools to test a team member's EI—from rigorous tests that gauge EI levels to more basic online quizzes, says Dev Ramcharan, PMP, program director, TD, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. But whether project managers opt for a gamified format or more conventional test, they need to make it clear to team members that the goal of these self-assessments is to improve EI—not to judge their capabilities, he says.
Sometimes the best EI insight will come from people who worked closely together on past agile projects. Interviewing people who have worked with a particular team member can help identify EI strengths and weaknesses so project managers can customize their engagement, Mr. Ramcharan says.
He suggests trying these questions: How has this person managed stress in the team and his or her own stress levels on past projects? How has this team member adjusted to fluctuating sponsor expectations? How do people feel when they work with this person during intensive sprints?
WATCH THE RESULTS
Just like launching a minimum viable product, agile project managers can step back a bit to gauge EI improvements, then tweak their EI approach as necessary. Experiment with less oversight—perhaps assigning another team member to manage the daily standups or to prep the presentation for the project sponsor. If there's no friction or confusion by those more flexible methods, it's a great sign that the team's EI is strong, says Syed Nazir Razik, PMI-ACP, PMP, associate vice president, engaged media, Eli India, Chennai, India. “When you find that work is getting done, it's an excellent indication that team members are gelling together and EI is high,” he says.
3 Show the Way
There's no better way to drive home that EI is a high priority on agile teams than having project managers who model strong EI from the start, Ms. Penghis says. That means setting a good example by showing empathy for other team members and acknowledging knowledge gaps.
For example, Ms. Penghis recalls a recent project she worked on in which strong EI at the top helped nurture a healthy environment of growth throughout the team. While the project lead had deep expertise in certain areas, she didn't hesitate to speak up when she didn't know something. That vulnerability and honesty helped other team members open up as well, which propelled the team along faster.
“Setting a good example is very powerful,” Ms. Penghis says. “The team didn't know each other before, but in a very short time—just six days—they were working well together, helping each other out, with no judgments or finger-pointing and a great attitude.”
By showing the way from the start, project managers can foster an environment that values EI, says Mr. Ramcharan. Team members who feel that support and connection are more likely to improve performance, he says.
“The project manager needs to build an openness of communication, where people can share with each other and hear how they feel about what's taking place.” PM
“Setting a good example is very powerful.”
—Anca Penghis, PMP, IN Business Solutions, Bucharest, Romania