Agile ME Meetup: Agile Teams

In a series of meetups, we will try to cover highlights of what to focus on if you are in the beginning of an Agile transformation, and this time we focused on Agile Teams. In previous sessions when we touched in on Agile teams we discovered that there were great passion for this topic, so we adjusted our plan a bit in order to include this great topic.

If you missed this or previous sessions do not worry. Talking points and the presentation for this session is available below, and the previous session can be found right here:

  1. Agile ME Meetup: The Agile Mindset
  2. Agile Me Meetup: Agile Frameworks
  3. Agile ME Meetup: Agile Roles

What is an agile team?

At first, we need to agree on what a team is. What is the difference between a group of people working together and a team? – and what is an Agile team?

We all agreed at the Meetup, that it has a lot to do with helping each other while working towards a common goal, but also about alignment, collaboration, respect and trust. In fact, it might not be so simple to define?

I asked attendees to share stories about the best team they have ever worked in and why, and more words appeared. Suddenly we also talked about being on common ground, friendship, learning together and having fun.

The theory of great teams

In order to support our quest of identifying the specifics of a team – and especially what makes a great agile team, we looked into the theory.

The Agile Manifesto and agile teams

This was an Agile Meetup, so obviously we will start with the Agile theory – more precisely the Agile Manifesto.

I assumed everyone is familiar with the Agile Manifesto (if not, look here:, but maybe we are not always fully familiar with the 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto. That is a shame, because they actually say a lot about agile team work:

  • Build projects around motivated individuals.
    Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done
  • Agile processes promote sustainable development.
    The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely
  • The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

So, to the list of words describing a team we now add motivation, constant pace, self-organizing and reflection.


It is almost impossible to say Agile without saying Scrum as well, so that was our next step.

In 2016 Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland added “Team values” to the Scrum Guide. According to them, the keys to a great team is Courage, Focus, Commitment, Respect and Openness.

Modern Agile

And then there is the modern version of Agile.

In Modern Agile the description of a team isn’t that specific, but it is mentioned that it is important that both clients/users and the team feel awesome about what they are doing – and then “Safety as a prerequisite” is mentioned – where did that come from?

Google’s Project Aristotle

Back in 2012 Google was also interested in figuring out how to put the best teams together, so over a period of 2 years they interviewed more than 180 teams! – all just to discover that the data showed no pattern. They couldn’t identify any correlation between successful and non-successful team. There were no clear insights from looking into personal friendships, strong management, team structure, personal interests, gender etc.

Only when they started to look into team norms – the unwritten and often unspoken rules guiding the behavior of the teams – they started to see something interesting.

They discovered that while Dependability, Structure and Clarity, Meaning and Impact all was important factors, none of them mattered if the team didn’t feel psychological safe! – If team members do not feel safe to speak their mind and ask questions, if they don’t feel they safely can experiment with the risk of failing or challenge opinions, then nothing else matters. It will never be a successful team.

How to build successful agile teams

So, with all this knowledge and theory in mind, what can we as leaders or team members to help our teams become successful?

Know your team

The first step will be to understand and get to know your team. Know the individuals and try to understand the current team structure, while at the same time trying to understand in what stage of group development the team currently is in. Only knowing where you are you can identify the forward direction.

A good place to start is to read about Tuckman stages of group development. There is a great blog about it here.

And please remember that every time you either add or remove a team member from the team, the team should be considered as a new team – technically you will start all over at the first stage again. Obviously there is a good chance your team will move through the stages faster the second time, but that isn’t given so watch out!

Servant Leadership

A servant leadership (and a team member can also can be a servant leader to his or her team) will also help your team – it is usually characterized as:

The servant leader strives to understand and share the feelings of each team member.
Giving trusted coworkers the benefit of the doubt by assuming the good in them goes a long way toward instilling loyalty and trust in you from your team.

Servant leaders have a strong awareness of what’s going on around them.
They care deeply about the welfare of the team members and are passionate about their well-being.
Servant leaders are self-aware and have a deep understanding of the effects their decisions and behavior have on others around them.

Building Community
Servant leaders believe passionately in building a community where both employees and customers can thrive.

Rather than simply directing employees to follow orders based on a rigid hierarchy, the servant leader relies on persuasion rather than coercion.

Servant-leading entrepreneurs focus on the big picture and don’t get overly distracted by daily operations and short-term goals. No micro-management.

Servant leaders care passionately about the personal and professional growth of each member of their team.
They believe that if you create the right values and culture, normal people will do extraordinary things.

What you measure is what you get

It is a known fact that there is a strong correlation between what you measure and what you get.

If often see companies strongly measuring individuals performance – but what do you get if you measure individual then? – Yes! You get individuals. If you on the other hand focus on measuring the team, there is a much better chance that you will get strong teams.

If you would like to learn more about this and much more, I can strongly recommend the book “Managing for Happiness” by Jurgen Appelo.

Team Communication

In order to build trust and safety in a team it is always important to have good communication skills. Great communication is a topic in itself, but in the session I did mention one thing that might be relevant “Invoke Socrates”.

Socrates said “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”, and Socratic wisdom is a sort of humility: It simply means being aware of how little one really knows; how uncertain one’s beliefs are; and how likely it is that many of them may turn out to be mistaken.

In simple words, ask questions – don’t assume.

Also stay on your own half. What I mean by that, make sure to express what you observed, what you felt – not what the other part did.

For an example you can say: ‘I observed that you joined the DS after we had started” – Don’t tell the person he was late.

Team Exercises

I feel there are many different opinions about team exercises and I gladly admit that not all “team building” is equally valuable – but that said I think it is important to make sure that team members know each other, and know what to expect from each other.

Mike Cohn wrote a few days back about how to get to know your team members better. It is a very good post I will encourage you to read.

I also think it is important that new teams get a chance to align on their expectations. Especially when working in a multi-cultural environment we might all have different opinions on what is the “norm”, and if we don’t early on address this, we might run into conflicts.

Topics to align on could be:

  • If flexible hours are an option, when do we as a team start the day? – When is DS?
  • What is our definition of done?
  • Is it always okay to disturb each other if we have questions or should we respect when team members are “in the zone”?
  • What is our main communication tool? (Slack, mail, etc.)

Another great team exercise that I have grown very fond of is “Marketplace of Skills”. It is an exercise that highlights what individual team members are good at – what the team think the individual is good at – and what the team will help the individual improve upon. You can read more about this exercise here.

Continuous Improvement

I already mentioned that any changes to the team will result in a new team dynamic so you might watch out for that – but even if you do not change anything the dynamic might. So it is good practice to continuously monitor your agile team – and continuously seek for improvements.

If you are running Scrum and retrospectives continuous improvement should already be part of the way you work and this will come easy to you. If you don’t – it might be time to start 🙂

My slides

Slides from the Meetup are available on SlideShare:

But what do you think?

Join the discussion below – our join our Slack channel – Or even better, join our next session! – You find all relevant links on our Agile in Dubai portal page.

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