Culture

5 Steps To Build An Agile Team

October 25, 2018
Tor Åge Ballo
Senior Software Engineer

Just a few months ago, I found myself in a new work environment with new platforms, systems, and colleagues. I was about to step into a lead role for one of the existing teams at Unacast. As the startup days move fast and plans shift in a blink of an eye, the situation suddenly changed, from me leading one team, to me taking over team lead responsibilities for two teams and merging them into one. As my knowledge of the tasks these teams took on were next to nothing it was easy to say...uh Yes! So, how has this process been and how have we managed to create these new teams in just the blink of an eye? These are the steps we took.

Understand Your Role

I had almost ten years of practice leading agile teams and clusters of agile teams. What was quite different this time was that I was new in this environment. I didn’t know the people yet, and I had not been a part of their hiring process. I had neither read their CVs nor worked with them. I didn’t know the systems, the infrastructure or the internals. And on top of all that, the teams are distributed cross Oslo and New York.

In all teams, the most valuable assets are the team members. Processes, tools, and methods have no value without motivated people working together towards creating business value. As I didn’t know my new team members, I had to realize that even though I had some experience leading agile teams, my role now was first and foremost to listen.

Define Your Team

The first thing I had to figure out was who possessed what knowledge and was best fitted to be on the new team. I also had to understand who each of the stakeholders were and become familiar with what stakes they had in the team. Then I sat down with the former team leads, the team members and the stakeholders to inform them of the changes.

We now knew who would make up the members of the team. Now we moved on to address the questions of how we should work, what responsibilities we have and how will we transition. We decided to make these decisions at an off-site. The advantage of doing this off-site was to get everyone's full focus as we gathered in a room far away from our daily tasks. We also wanted to follow up our workshop with a social event.

Get Everyone Speaking

The off-site workshop consisted of three parts. The first part was an introduction to the team's systems and responsibilities. These presentations were held by the members of the former teams in order to introduce everyone to the scope of the new team.

The second part, and the part we spent most of our time on, was a workshop where everyone would answer these questions and then present their answers to the team:

What is good in my current team?

We ask this question to bring all the best practices and to retain the best factors from their previous teams into our new team.

What should we do stop doing?

There is always something you believe the team should stop doing, or at least do less of. Establishing a new team is a good opportunity to do so. Let’s get rid of bad habits!

How do we become the most awesome team at Unacast?

This one addresses good ideas that team members have, but that are not yet a part of their daily routines or a part of their workflow. The workshop had now gotten going, for two hours we discussed all the good things that we already have, the bad habits that we want to leave behind, and the awesome ideas to make us conquer the world. There were so many notes that the last hour was spent grouping notes that belonged in the same category. Then we did a voting session. Everyone got three votes and upvoted the categories they wanted the team to keep in focus.

This exercise got everyone speaking their mind and the presentations often spawned into healthy discussions about how we want to work together. I also got to know the members of the team better and got an idea of what things would be important when merging these two teams into one.

Do Something Social

As our heads were boiling and the energy was draining, we went out to grab something to eat and drink. And most importantly, to settle the last part of this matter, to decide the new team name. We went for a classic naming contest and after some nerve-wracking final rounds, we got our name.

Establish the Feedback Loop

Three days later the old Trello boards were replaced, new Slack channels were created, new seating was in place and other responsibilities were in the hands of «Team I/O».

What exactly here makes our team agile, you might ask? The most important thing is to keep adjusting the way your team works to make it as optimal as possible. The team should evaluate its current practice and look for the adjustments that can make it better. This should be done repeatedly in appropriate intervals. All teams should have an arena where they can provide valuable feedback to the team, find waste that could be eliminated and discuss processes that could be improved.    

In our team, we are doing retrospectives similar in the same form to what we did at the off-site. We ask ourselves “What are we doing that works?”, “What should we stop doing?” and “How could we be even more awesome?”