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Agile Too Early

Almost everyone is familiar with Dr. Bruce Tuckman's team model of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. This describes a sequence of stages that teams will naturally go through, whether this is consciously managed or not. Some teams never quite make it past Storming, and some seem to get through it relatively unscathed, only to lapse back later. As with many models, teams often exhibit traits of more than one of these stages at the same time, so its linear presentation may be a bit misleading. That stated, though, the model is a succinct and extremely applicable way of describing overall team growth. If we tie this model to a couple of others, though, we get a few more very interesting insights.

Hersey and Blanchard follow these same four stages in their Situational Leadership model, telling the story from the eyes of management. From this perspective, as a team grows through different stages of maturity, management can deal with the team in a succession of different approaches: Telling, Selling, Participating, and Delegating. When considered consciously as a leadership model, this nicely walks the team through different stages of maturity, where there are natural opportunities for a new leader to emerge in the latter stages.

Let's throw one more model into the fray. Tannenbaum and Schmidt describe a Continuum (rather than four distinct stages), and provides a bridge between these first two models. In the early stages, the team is biased more strongly towards the use of authority by the manager to get things done: that Telling stage where the team is Forming, struggling for identity within the group. As the team evolves toward higher maturity, there is a reduction in this application of authority, and the team can safely enjoy greater autonomy.

So let's take all this background and figure out what it means for agile teams.

First off, all of these models above describe team relationship concerns, rather than team practices. It is very easy to perform the practices and still not realize the value inherent in strong, mature relationships (did you ever have a meeting where nothing was accomplished, or fill in a document template that nobody ever used?). This distinction between relationships and practices is critical: if a team is well established and highly mature, they can achieve lofty goals without a great deal of prescribed practices. Indeed, the need to define and enforce standard practices is characteristic of teams that do not have the experience and relationships with one another to deal with a situation in the most effective (dare I say agile?) way possible.

Second, as we gain more experience on teams throughout our careers, we begin to internalize an ability to work with others more easily. We gain familiarity with more tools, we become comfortable with delegating work and trusting others, to the point where it can become second nature. We can do these things without thinking, we have become unconsciously competent in this area. For those that have demonstrated an ability to work in agile environments, certainly all those that were the founders of the movement, the fact that this critical set of relationship skills has been internalized means that its emphasis in agile guidance is diminished. Because of this, focus is primarily on practices.

Tie these two points together, and it becomes clear why there are challenges in scaling agile practices to the masses. Many successful agile teams have already made it to the point where they are highly performing, and can successfully work autonomously. As they adopt a new set of practices, they can rely on their well established relationships to shore up any gaps in the prescribed practices, and still get the job done. This infrastructure, either not covered in the literature or conveniently ignored by the readers (where emphasis is often the practices that resonate well with their skills), is a necessary component to success.

Of all of the teams that I have seen that have attempted agile practices and not fared well, it is safe to say that there have been challenges with relationships: either within the team or with external stakeholders, or both. Some teams have maintained a too-narrow focus on the team boundaries, and should have included others as part of their group as well. Reflecting on these teams using the models above suggests that high maturity is a prerequisite to adopting agile practices. The team needs to have a core basis in sound relationships, they first need to be able to work autonomously.

As agile approaches are being taught in undergrad curricula, we need to proceed with caution. It is quite possible for teams to try to progress to quickly into agility.