Agile must-haves

three requirements for a great agile team


By Gerald O'Connor, PMP

ALTHOUGH AGILE APPROACHES do not prioritize processes, tools and documentation, agile isn't anarchy. In fact, three factors are required for a great experience with agile.

The agile project manager's role is to facilitate and direct a team to achieve a common vision. To do this well, the project manager must ensure team members have everything they need to best fulfill their role and complete the project's tasks. The project manager should remove anything that may get in the team's way of realizing the project's vision.

A great agile project manager can get the best out of every team member and point the team in the right direction—as well as redirect people when they get off track.

While agile projects do need strong leadership to succeed, the project manager is not necessarily the leader of the team. In fact, the best term to describe an agile project manager is a coach. For example, in soccer, the coach selects his team, analyzes the opposition, prepares tactics for his team and trains them before a game. He guarantees they have everything they need to be at peak performance and that nothing interferes with them. However, the coach does not try to guess every move of the opposing team or plan the team's response. Such a plan would be out of date as soon as it was conceived.


Once the soccer team steps onto the pitch, the coach can only do so much. As the game unfolds, team members take leadership roles at different times.

Similarly, leaders may emerge at different stages of a project. In an iteration focused heavily on design, a team member with strong design capabilities may step up and help the team make the best decisions. For a user story that has a strong database component, a different team member with strength in this area may take the lead.

I once worked as a technical project manager on a project to improve the workflow of producing images for a digital collections website. One user story in the project involved automating the process of aggregating terabytes of images to other websites. We had a tool that could do part of the processing. The problem was the tool would require an end user to spend a huge amount of time creating images. We were trying to modify the tool when a team member pointed out that although completely re-engineering the tool would take more time than modifying it, the amount of time it would save the end user in the long run was exponential. We decided to re-engineer the tool.

This examples illustrates both the role of the agile project manager and the team members. The team member had to step forward to a leadership role and use her expertise to guide the team toward the best solution. The project manager had to step back from the details of a problem, hear a completely different approach and judge it on its merits. It is the role of the agile project manager to create an environment that encourages this type of creative thinking—and get out of the way when it happens.


A collection of great individuals doesn't automatically make a great team. Great agile teams are built on trust, empowerment and ability. Trust is the most important factor. Team members must trust each other, the project manager and the organization. After trust is built, empowerment is allowing the team to complete its commitments. The least important factor in great agile teams is ability, because a good environment can be an incubator of ability.

When a team is in the formation stages, the strengths and weaknesses of team members will be exposed, creating vulnerabilities. As members learn each other's talents and gaps, they begin to understand and trust each other. That allows each individual's strengths to shine through, and team members will learn to compensate for weaknesses in a teammate.

The least important factor in great agile teams is ability, because a good environment can be an incubator of ability.

Teams I have worked on that trust each other didn't have to experience the frustration or negativity that comes from one's ideas not being listened to and encouraged. If a team member points out a way to do things better and the team agrees it is worth pursuing, that team member will be empowered to run with it. Trusting and empowering people to implement changes that will help the group should be encouraged. Having this approach also means members of the team will only suggest ideas if they are willing to follow them through, thus ensuring the suggestions made are practical and well thought-out.

All of this trust is necessary because when agile teams commit to certain iteration goals, the team as a whole will be judged as having met its targets or missed them—in the same way that the entire soccer team is judged on its wins and losses. pm

img Gerald O'Connor, PMP, is a project manager and analyst for digital collections, Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland.




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