Ken Zinda professional photo

Ken Zinda

Director, Consulting Expert

As a turnaround specialist, I am often thrust into an Agile Release Train (ART) with little or no background on the teams themselves. This leaves me with a deficit in understanding the underlying issues and what needs to be prioritized to disentangle behaviors so that we can get them operating again. There are a lot of different agile principles that can be evaluated to understand what is going on. At the same time, you are facing production and quality issues that often demand your full attention. So, the question is, where do you dig in to understand what is happening so that you can get things up and running as fast as possible?

Seven guiding principles for teams

I've learned over the years that if I focus on seven fundamental principles, not only will I be able to get the teams on a growth and performance trajectory quickly, but I will be able to uncover those stubborn underlying antipatterns regardless of what aspect of the agile framework those patterns are a part of. These seven principles for teams include: 

  1. Value stream
  2. Small batch sizes
  3. Fast feedback
  4. Vision
  5. Role and responsibility clarity
  6. Enablement

Additionally, these seven principles and guiding questions can help deal with production issues that can take the pressure off so that I can focus on more pressing matters. These seven focus areas can get you to most areas that need to be addressed.

Organizational principles

1. Value stream

Do we clearly understand our value stream, what value we add during each step, and how we add that value?

This helps people get their focus back on the task so they can begin to make decisions that support business outcomes.

2. Small batch sizes

Are we set up to add value in the smallest batches possible and eliminate delays?

We want to reduce operational delays as fast as possible. If a team is failing, they are often missing delivery dates. This will help to pull those times back in.

3. Fast feedback

Are we obtaining feedback as fast as possible to reduce deviations from the plan or to address any issues that surface?

Underperforming teams often deliver defective software. Often, they shortcut process steps related to coding standards, retrospectives, testing, or any event related to validation or verification of the acceptance criteria. You risk introducing defects whenever you deviate or manually touch a piece of code to take a shortcut. This element forces them to consider the purpose of finding failures sooner rather than later and to correct those defects before the code is released.

4. Alignment

Is our organization aligned with the goal, objectives, value stream, and deliverables from senior leadership to the development or line staff?

For a team to function properly, they must be able to be selfdirected. Alignment is critical for them to understand the backdrop and basis for the decisions they need to make. In underperforming teams, we often find decisions are made unilaterally for the benefit of the individual and not in alignment with the program objectives. Additionally, alignment also involves respecting team boundaries so that external pressures don't force the team into a misaligned position.

Team member principles

5. Vision

Does each member have a clear vision of where we are going and how we will get there?

As a corollary to alignment, members need a vision and a view of the pathway towards the objectives. Without that, they are making decisions in a vacuum. Having the vision gives them the needed information on which to base their decisions and gives them the confidence to make the decision.

6. Role and responsibility clarity

Does each member clearly understand their role and responsibility, where these start and end, and what they are accountable for?

One of the biggest points of team conflicts occurs because of a lack of understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the team members and between members. Turf wars, power struggles, overreaching of authority, missed hand‐offs, lack of accountability, and lack of ownership and autonomy are all issues that develop when members are not 100% clear about their roles/responsibilities and those of their teammates.

7. Enablement

Is each member fully enabled to fulfill their responsibilities with the correct tools, resources, skills and knowledge?

While it seems obvious that without the proper tools and skills, members cannot be productive, what isn't obvious is that, like all things in life are a tradeoff, there are significant tradeoffs when investing in the enablement of teams. Teams must be built with an understanding of how agile operations work and how member skills complement each other. The deficiencies found in every tool must not create significant bottlenecks or open doorways to introduce defects. If tradeoffs on tools need to be made, make the tradeoff in favor of integration so that code or work product can seamlessly be transferred from one stage to the next. We want our teams to struggle with the development problem, not the technology that helps them solve it.

Ensuring long-term change adoption

To establish more permanent change and improve coaching, we need to realize that we are actively training people to behave in ways that are unnatural to them. I liken it to putting braces on crooked teeth: it is painful to put them on, they are annoying once in place, and you must tighten them slowly over a long period to avoid inflicting tremendous pain or damaging the tooth sockets so bad that the teeth fall out.

Adopting a new behavior is also uncomfortable and takes time before you see implementation and results. Recognizing that members need to go through the following mental processes can help set reasonable expectations and lead to long-term adoption:

  • See the new behavior or idea in action
  • Observe the new behavior or idea in multiple situations or settings
  • Accept the behavior or idea as a valid way of responding
  • Adopt the behavior or idea for oneself
  • Implement the idea or behavior

Effective leadership, mentoring, and coaching are crucial elements in ensuring long-term change adoption. As a coach or mentor, you must be deliberate in your training plans, actively shepherd the teams to make the change and recognize that the change will take longer and have more setbacks than expected. 

Ready to implement agile management principles with your teams?

Instilling true business agility requires coaching teams through mindset shifts and behavior changes - a challenge that shouldn't be tackled alone. By evaluating your teams against the seven elements of successful teams, you can identify areas for improvement and put practices in place to drive better collaboration, faster feedback loops, and more successful delivery. However, real and lasting organizational change doesn't happen overnight. It requires patience, consistency, and an understanding that adopting new behaviors takes time. 

But here is one other important point: These principles can be applied to any program—agile, waterfall, “hybrid agile”—it doesn’t matter. These are issues ALL teams struggle with.

To get started assessing your teams, implementing better project management practices, or coaching teams through agile transformations, connect with our agile experts

About this author

Ken Zinda professional photo

Ken Zinda

Director, Consulting Expert

Ken Zinda has over 40 years of experience in consulting development teams in dozens of industries, including software, healthcare, manufacturing, consumer goods, government and financial services. This includes software, cyber-physical products, and AI practices. He ran a successful ...