Do Agile teams keep getting faster?
Surprising though it may seem, this is generally true. There are 2 cases I have observed where it does not happen:
- The team is so experienced that there is no space left for regular improvement. My own team reached this state after 15 years together. We still improve sometimes, but not on a regular basis
- The team is only superficially Agile. This is very common. A team might be doing sprints, stand-ups, user stories or whatever but in reality they are only going through the motions, rather than actually understanding what they are doing it and benefiting from it. A lack of increase in team velocity is often an indicator of an underlying issue
So why do they get faster?
Initially, the improvement (with a few blips along the way) is just down to being a team. Some surprisingly stable research from 1965 (Tuckman) identified 4 stages in team evolution:
- Forming - new team gets together. People are basically being very nice to each other and 'feeling their way' in this new setup. This means they are not delivering anywhere near capacity. You cannot throw a new team together and expect them to work perfectly from day 1
- Storming - people start pushing boundaries. They move away from 'safe' areas and start challenging other members of the team and the way things work overall. This needs careful management, but it is to be embraced, not avoided. The team learn from this and find ways of working together. They evolve divisions of work and develop ways of working
- Norming - people start working as a team. They identify with team goals and ways of working. They begin to deliver more (and different) things than they could as individuals
- Performing - team members are now comfortable with how things work. They share goals and have established ways of working with each other. They feel empowered to make decisions on behalf of the team. Typically, everyone is surprised at how much they can achieve together
Agile teams go through these stages just because they are teams. But because Agile is so strongly focused on the devolution of Power and Responsibility, these things are often more intense than traditional teams. With good support (from Coaches, trainers and scrum masters) a team can work through these steps in a matter of weeks
But there is more than that...
In Agile we are looking to develop multi-skilled teams that share responsibility for their work and share ownership of what they do. The values emphasise a strongly collaborative approach and avoid hierarchies. Even commonly agreed roles, such as 'Product Owner' are essentially advisers to the team (though it might be quite strong advice).
While a multi-skilled team where everyone can do everything is desirable, the reality is that there will be individuals who are more skilled in certain roles: Developers, testers, Business Analysts, Product Owners, Delivery Managers and more may be involved. There are also considerations around how the team relates to the environment in larger organisations.
Joint ownership of work and a lack of hierarchy encourages everyone on the team to look at the big picture, analyse what needs to be improved and propose ways to change. This will always be more effective than teams who are controlled and have dictated working practices. These are some aspects of Agile that lead to continuous improvement:
- Visibility and transparency
- Generic, reusable approaches
- Continuous self-improvement