How to Establish High-Performing Agile Teams

How to Establish High-Performing Agile Teams

Establishing High Performing Agile Teams

There are some specific actions that you can take now to establish high performing agile teams. In my previous post on High Performing Teams, I shared a framework for team maturity from the Jon Katzenbach book, The Wisdom of Teams.  That post outlined 5 levels of team maturity and performance, with High-Performance Team at the top of the list.

The teams in the high-performance category shared a number of traits including a focus on performance, diversity, accountability, and team members’ investment in each other.

Can Agile Leaders grow high performing teams?  I say YES!  More precisely I would say that leaders can create the conditions that are favorable to high performing teams.  Here are some specific steps that coaches, Scrum Masters, and Agile leaders can take:

1. Get Dedicated Team Members

Dedicated team members are fully dedicated to one team and one initiative.  Team members that are dedicated to just one team are much more likely to be committed to the team goals which will lead to higher performance.

People can’t serve two masters – we don’t multi-task well and context switching slows us down and lowers our productivity.  Jimmy may be an excellent individual contributor, but if he is only giving 25% or 50% of his time to the team, it’s not going to lead to high-performance.

There is a point of diminishing returns where it takes more effort to carry a team member than what the individual actually contributes to the team.  Plus, Jimmy will invariably be busy with his other projects when you really need him.

What I often hear when I request dedicated team members is that we don’t have enough people to dedicate to teams. When I suggest fewer teams, I am told that the organization has to keep all the projects or initiatives going at the same time.

If I suggest that they work on one project at a time to reduce context switching and multitasking, they assure me that they have to keep all the projects going at the same time.

It is a form of insanity to keep starting projects, assigning and re-assigning the same people to the new projects, and expecting to get more projects completed.  One Agile expert compares this to shoving more paper into a printer to get it to print faster.

Fight for dedicated team members.  Keep them together through the forming-storming-norming-performance stages so that the stage is set for high-performance.

2. Ensure Transparency of Tasks and Progress

As a leader, I can encourage high-performance by making everything highly visible. This includes the overall goals of the team progress toward them.

We create big visible information radiators that show who is working on what, where team members are blocked or need help, team velocity, hours remaining or whatever else makes sense and helps the team.

I personally have a strong preference for physical items over electronic tools like Jira or TFS; the physical artifacts are always on and accessible and they provide far richer communications. (If you are using an online tool because your team is not in the same room, go back and read item 1.)

This month I had the privilege of launching a new Scrum Team at a large financial services firm.  We insisted on a co-located team who were 100% dedicated.

We set up a large physical taskboard, created burn-down charts, and hung the team values and quality statements on the walls.  The team is thriving and loving it.

3. Focus on Team Process and Dynamics

The first 3 items above are related to the configuration of the team.  I think it is also essential to attend to the interpersonal dynamics of team members as well. We can take steps to accelerate team forming, storming and norming.

We can support the team to create a team values or norms statement.  We can help them see the processes and interpersonal dynamics that are playing out and encourage healthy engagement among team members.

Paying attention to these factors accelerates the development of the team and helps to avoid or overcome the most common team dysfunctions mentioned in my last post:

1.    Absence of Trust
2.    Fear of Conflict
3.    Lack of Commitment
4.    Avoidance of Accountability
5.    Inattention to results

4. Co-Locate Your Team in One Room

The guidance for high-performance teams is to put them together in one room. That was prior to the pandemic of early 2020.

The reason for this is that we’ve seen enough teams that are co-located and others that are distributed to know firsthand that it makes a big difference in team culture and performance.

Plus a University of Michigan study showed that team performance increased 100% when team members working in the same building were moved into the same room.

That is why when the shit hits the fan, most organizations would set up a war room to get everyone together, improve communications and focus and tackle the task at hand. So if your intention is to create the conditions for high-performance, create a space where they can all work together.  That works great unless you are having a pandemic.


So those are my thoughts about creating the conditions for high performance.  What do you think?  How do you create the conditions for high-performance?

I welcome your thoughts!

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By Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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