Gil’s #1 Advice for New Agile Teams

Let’s say you’re joining a newly formed Agile team. Whether as a member or a leader, how can you help your team succeed?

The list of good answers is pretty long and varied:

  • Make sure roles and responsibilities are clear
  • Get a good Agile rhythm going (for instance with iterations, daily standups, reviews, retrospectives)
  • Facilitate working agreements
  • Funnel all the work through a single coherent list, such as a backlog with stories
  • Create a build-deploy pipeline
  • Write automated tests for every new piece of code
  • Remove real or perceived barriers to collaboration
  • Ensure that the team has a proper charter
  • Keep the stakeholders happy
  • … and lots more!

 

These are big ticket items. Many of them take a while to accomplish and have no obvious endpoint. How do you stay on top of everything?

When I coach managers, leaders, and teams, I like to offer a single mantra: Finish Small Valuable Work Together. A team with this focus will naturally address all the above items, and they will quickly become a strong team.

Clearly, this mantra reinforces key Agile ideas: finishing, value, and collaboration. What I like about it even more is that it suppresses behavioural patterns that hinder Agility.

One such antipattern is overemphasizing standardized (“best practice”) process mechanics. I’ve met many teams that spent a lot of energy on their user story format, daily standup procedure, and precise determination of story points; only in a few cases did any of that contribute to delighting their customer. Instead, “Finish Small Valuable Work Together” (FSVWT) implies that there’s no need to sweat the process.

Another pattern is a hold-over of traditional management: every member focuses on his or her tasks. You hear this in daily standups when people report what’s on their plate and what they are planning to work on today. You see it when developers write the front-end portion of a feature, while its back-end portion progresses on a separate track. “Finish Small Valuable Work Together” reminds the team that only deliverable results matter.

A third problematic pattern is the assumption that a solution has to do a bunch of things to be valuable. I see this all the time, even with teams that love Agile: they’ll take on a feature, whatever its size, and spend weeks on it until they’re “done.” They don’t approach it in a truly Agile way, evolving it piecemeal from its Earliest Testable form through its Earliest Usable form and then to its Earliest Lovable form. FSVWT reminds them to break everything down into small, meaningful, and finishable pieces.

My mantra is not designed to pack the entire Agile mind-set into a single phrase. In fact, it makes no explicit mention of the three fundamental Agile principles: continuous learning, feedback, and improvement. I haven’t found this to be necessary, because to regularly finish valuable work together, a team will have to learn, validate their output, and adapt their approach.

Much more than a reminder of the importance of strong teamwork, FSVWT helps a team quickly become a strong team. That’s because frequent wins are a powerful, simple driver of a team’s growth. Finishing something valuable provides visible evidence of success, and when that something is small, success is quick to arrive. Repeat the cycle and soon enough, all the members will decide they truly want to be part of their team. Notice that FSVWT is method-agnostic; you’ll get this effect whether you use Agile iterations or Kanban work-in-progress limits.

Not all teams are success stories. However, new teams seem to have a grace period of 2-3 months during which people will give each other a chance. Emphasize FSVWT heavily during that time, and your team will have a much higher likelihood of success.