How to Get Agile Teams to Plan for Themselves

As many parents will undoubtedly know, one of the hardest things to achieve for our kids is that elusive balance between freedom and boundaries.

We do not tell our children that they mustn’t play at all, but while they’re out and about, swinging from trees and jumping off climbing frames, we certainly do our best to keep them safe.

Much in the same way, a potently effective Agile team will always hang in a delicate balance of autonomy and alignment.

Challenging the Status Quo

Unfortunately, over time, the industry has become so focused on output and optimisation that it has lost sight of basic human instinct and the incredible things that people can accomplish when left to their own devices.

This is why the concept of a team largely in charge of itself is more likely than not to raise a few eyebrows.

By spoon-feeding professionals, however, we take responsibility away from them, and teach them to believe that they are not the owners of their problems. This, of course, can be a hugely demotivating factor.

On the other hand, as many Agile companies (including our own) have found, an increase in responsibility is usually associated with a noticeable rise in happiness and well-being, and consequently performance.

The Case of Spotify

Take Spotify as an example: under the leadership of Agile coach (read: legend) Henrik Kniberg, the company recently decided to divide their engineers into small independent teams.

With this new arrangement, each group would strive towards a common goal, but also have the freedom to pick the projects they would like to work on.

The end result was a highly creative environment and an undeniably robust product.

As Kniberg colourfully noted, building products is a lot like being a part of a jazz band; while each musician plays his or her own instrument, they must still be able to listen to one another and focus on the song as a whole.

Striking the Balance

Although the autonomy of Agile teams is a definite must, on its own, it remains insufficient. Without any alignment whatsoever, the likely result is anarchy, and this is certainly not what we advocate.

But how then to get the balance just right?

To solve this problem, it is helpful to imagine a couple of different scenarios:

The opposite of anarchy, of course, would be a dictatorship. In these business models, team members have very little freedom, as they are told exactly what to do and how to do it.

That leaves just one other viable option: high autonomy with high alignment (because low autonomy and low alignment would doubtless equate to disaster).

In practice, this means that project managers determine specific problems that must be solved and allow team members to work out how to do so for themselves.

The (Extended) Role of Managers

Because we believe the best products are built by highly motivated and self-driven individuals, our project managers must also fit within these parameters.

Consequently, team leaders should be able to easily explain the overall guiding strategy behind a product and its own unique definition of success.

They must also provide their teams with all the information they need to understand their tasks, release criteria, and any other work down the foreseeable pipeline.

Beyond this, apart from guidance and correction, nothing else must be said or done.

In Conclusion

By hiring people with childlike excitement and empowering them to self-organise, companies are able to make the most of Agile development and make good on all its promises.

David Blackwood

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