March 16, 2018 What you need to know about working with “Agile” teams

By Natalie Khoo

Avion team in a workshop

Agile. It’s a term that’s increasingly being used to describe a new way of working. But what’s the definition? And what does it mean for you?

In simple terms, I believe ‘agile’ means reorganising people and processes to deliver quicker, more creative outcomes. This approach is used by many organisations looking to move fast, whether they’re a start-up or large enterprise.

If you are…

  • a professional looking for work within an agile organisation, or
  • someone that works within agile organisations but still doesn’t quite get it, or
  • a freelancer or agency that wants to collaborate with agile teams

…then this blog post is for you.

I spoke with some of my network for their perspective, and compiled these pointers that will help you get the most out of working with agile teams. You’ll also discover where you can add value and make a positive impact, and understand what needs to happen when, and with who.

Prologue: ‘Agile’ glossary of 4 terms

Before we dive in, here’s my definition of the most common terms we come across at Avion:

  • Sprint: One cycle of designing, testing and iterating before repeating the process (to improve on what you’ve got). A sprint could be set for 5 days or even 5 weeks, depending on how complex the product is (or the problem you’re trying to solve).
  • Scrum: The overarching framework for project management – ensuring people, processes and goals are aligned.
  • Tribe: A team focused on a common area, i.e. content development.
  • Guild: A spokesperson within a Tribe responsible for communicating with other Guilds. The aim is to collect and share information to learn from each other. A Guild is like a team leader, but not necessarily senior to everyone else in their Tribe.

Tip 1: Determine whether the organisation is actually ‘agile’

Lots of companies think it’s cool to say they’re agile. But do they actually move fast, or just like to think they move fast?

Sean Smith is the owner of U1 Group, Australia’s longest standing experience consultancy. He has spent decades working with organisations to research and test their digital products.

“Experience tells me that one of the most important things to be mindful of is how the team you’re working with defines ‘agile’,” Sean explains. “It may seem strange, as the agile method is pretty well documented, however the ability to translate theory to practice across an entire large organisation can be a challenge. For example, the design/UX team might be working to an agile method, but the legal team responsible for approving its work probably isn’t!”

He continues, “Understanding the context that the agile team is operating within – as well as the resulting considerations – will improve how effectively you can engage with the team.”

Tip 2: Get involved early

Sprints can happen quickly – and if you’re not involved from the start of a project, it can be difficult to catch up.

“As an experience researcher,” Sean says, “I prefer to be involved right from the start. That way, we understand who is who, and what the objectives and activities planned for the sprint are.”

From his experience, Sean offers, “Staying close to the team is really important. Within the course of a sprint, so much can change quite quickly. If you’re not plugged into that, the value and benefit of your research can be compromised.”

Tip 3: Bring humility and open-mindedness to work

Agile is quick, creative problem solving. Daniel Hall – Content Producer at Suncorp Group – is no stranger to working within agile teams. He suggests: “Never be too in love with one idea. Especially if it’s yours. True agility is putting aside ego and letting go of your expected and hoped-for outcomes. If you have your mind set on one idea or solution, you’ll miss the really great stuff.”

Daniel also recommends to ask questions: “Ask lots and lots of questions. And when you’re done with those, think of some new questions, and ask those. Nobody is bothered by someone new, or hungry to learn, asking questions. It’s a much better look than hanging around quietly, only to reveal you’ve got massive knowledge gaps later.”

Tip 4: Keep calm and communicate

You may be tempted to have your fingers in many pies, but it’s best to accept that every Tribe has its own skills and may conduct sprints faster than you can keep up. There are ways to collaborate effectively, however, without being controlling.

Damian Hinks is a partner at Philotimo, a business advisory firm. He has great experience leading all sorts of teams in different agency settings. He believes communication is key, but there’s no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ model.

“Depending on the pace, team size, personality and environment, a weekly 30-minute stand-up could work for one business, while a daily 5-minute stand-up could work for another. Test what works and don’t be afraid to switch it up for something better,” he offers.

Furthermore, acknowledge the value of time. It’s a precious commodity. “Avoid ‘just-a-minutes’ with team members because interruptions throughout the day have a cumulative effect on concentration,” Damian suggests. “Instead, block out time specifically for these moments. And when it comes to meetings and workshops, an early start is preferable to an afternoon – your synapses are firing a lot more efficiently first thing in the morning.”

Tip 5: Remember everyone is striving towards the same goal

Working agile can be stressful. It gives a strong sense of progress, but also a sense of failure.

Damian Heffernan is a former Agile Coach who now runs his own tech start-up, AUI Labs. To combat the frustrations that come with working at a fast pace, he advises: “At the end of the day, working in a team – regardless of methodology or work practices – is about people. People working together towards a shared goal need to be treated as people with all the motivations, flaws, emotions and needs that they have in ‘real life’.”

Damian reminds us that people aren’t perfect. “They aren’t robots either. So, don’t expect blind adherence to frameworks and methodologies. A good culture, a good working environment and good managerial practices that empower teams to do their best work will beat any structure, any day.”

On a final note Damian says, “Team retrospectives (or ‘retros’) are the tool of choice. Never cancel a retro. The retro is the chance to check in on work practices to make sure the Teams, Squads, Tribes (or whatever!) are working the best way they can. There are tools such as Slack or Hipchat, but nothing beats a good retro workshop in my opinion.”

At Avion, we work with lots of different clients, each with their own individual challenges. Our small size and enterprise-level experience means we can adapt quickly, as well as provide guidance on processes along the way. If you’d like to see how we could tackle your big problems, get in touch. We love a good sprint.