How to Select and Develop Individuals for Successful Agile Development Teams
By now, most enterprise leaders are well aware of the successfulness of agile team dynamics. These small, self-managing teams are built to stay close to customers and pivot quickly in the face of changing conditions. When put into practice correctly, agile development teams almost always result in heightened team productivity and morale, faster time to market with better quality products, and lower risk.
Agile methodologies have transformed mobile app development processes, with a persistent focus on the end-user and emphasis on tolerance for change. However, what started as a bottom-up movement among software professionals has expanded into many other disciplines and business contexts. Agile development teams are predominantly cropping up in business settings where learning, speed, and innovation are necessary for transforming enterprise operations and adapting services to meet the demands of a mobile society.
Finding success in agile practice largely depends on talent, whether developed or recruited. Thriving agile team dynamics explicitly rely on a management culture of mentorship and growth mentality, as well as team members who embody distinct personal characteristics and values. While much of the effectiveness of agile team dynamics hinge on the actions of individual team members, top-level leadership is primarily responsible for creating a culture where teams and their managers can operate autonomously. For organizations looking to build successful agile development teams, senior executives must step away from the outdated command-and-control team dynamics that are quickly becoming unsuitable for the rapid changes of modern business frameworks.
This article explores how to build top-performing agile development teams, as well as the structures and conditions necessary for these teams to move fast and actualize the full potential of agile team dynamics.
The Structure of an Agile Development Team
For agile teams to function efficiently, a standard operating procedure must be in place. Each team member needs to understand every aspect of the agile process, as well as their duties and responsibilities. Typically, the roles within an agile development team observe the following structure:
- Product Owner
- Scrum Master
- Development Team
- Solution Architect(s)
- Quality Assurance (QA) Analyst(s)
The Product Owner
The product owner role primarily functions on the business side of a project. A product owner is responsible for the product’s outputs, outcomes, and value from conceptualization to release. Although product owners occupy a business mindset, they must be able to collaborate with the development team in technical matters to ensure the final product achieves both the goals of the business and the user. One of the easiest ways to understand the role of a product owner is to think of them as a representative or frontman for the project’s central stakeholders.
In many projects, the product owner has command over several overarching criteria. The typical job responsibilities of a product owner include:
- Collecting information and input from the stakeholders, customer, and end-users to understand and communicate functional goals
- Prioritizing product features based on feasibility and desirability
- Leading Sprint Planning Meetings
- Receiving and offering feedback during Sprint planning meetings
- Accepting user stories
- Resolving issues within the team’s backlog as they arise during development
- Evaluating the product through development and providing feedback about direction and adjustments
Most product owners, however, aren’t involved in the day-to-day tasking of individuals or assigning work in a Sprint. product owners’ jurisdiction tends to involve high-level business strategy and planning.
The Scrum Master
Understanding the role of a scrum master first requires an understanding of Agile Scrum.
Scrum is a framework within which people can address complex and adaptive problems while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value. Scrum is the structure that allows agile development teams to identify, evaluate, and take action on a project’s many moving parts. It is essentially a set of tools and techniques to draft a project roadmap and work through it efficiently.
A project’s scrum master owns this process. It’s a scrum master’s responsibility to guide the team and ensure that the Scrum process is in place and intact throughout the entire project. The role of a scrum master is much like the job of a sports team’s coach; they implement strategic process decisions and ensure the team follows processes correctly. A scrum master’s responsibilities include:
- Coaching and training team members about how Scrum applies to the project at hand
- Oversees the project timelines and deadlines for each team member’s tasks
- Setting meetings and guiding the project through changes
- Managing lines of communication between all members of the team and external stakeholders
- Works with the team’s product owner to prioritize features, set up and manage the project’s backlog
While the scrum master manages the overall process of the project, this role usually doesn’t have the authority to implement resource changes or tactical alterations throughout the project.
The Development Team
Agile development teams consist of solution architects, developers, designers, and QA analysts. The level of authority given to the development team is what distinguishes Agile from other, more traditional methodologies. Agile development teams are self-managing and flexible. An agile team is in charge of strategizing workloads and making independent decisions; they are truly autonomous. With product owners and scrum masters organizing and guiding the process, agile development teams function on the knowledge and ingenuity of individual team members.
Creating a mobile app architecture involves selecting multiple structural elements within an app and its interfaces. A solution architect is responsible for creating a technical solution from end-to-end. They translate the customer’s vision into a functional and practical framework for a mobile product. Specifically, solution architects focus on feasibility, maintainability, and expandability to limit risk. Typically, solution architects focus on:
- Selecting the right technology to solve a given business problem
- Determining which framework, platform, or tech-stack to use for the required solution
- Providing technical leadership and consulting to the team on all aspects of architecture
- Supporting the development of cross-functional business processes
- Assessing technical feasibility
- Influencing the product’s direction emphasizing scalability
The central focus of a solution architect is on technical decisions and how they impact business outcomes. This role tends to involve a lot of mentorship responsibility, particularly in communicating technical information and providing the direction the team needs to implement the desired solution.
Software developers have a broad understanding of a respective programming language, or in the case of full-stack developers, a range of programming languages. Developers also understand overarching software engineering and operating systems principles. By applying these principles to every stage of the agile development process, developers create customized systems for a vast range of projects. Developers are experts in computing systems, software frameworks, and working within hardware and technology limitations. A developer completes the following tasks:
- Building user requirements
- Writing and testing code, as well as refining code as necessary
- Creating technical specifications
- Maintaining systems by monitoring and correcting defects
In an agile development team, designers are responsible for creating a product’s user experience (UX). A UX designer is tasked with improving user satisfaction by optimizing a product’s usability, accessibility, and interaction design. A UX designer’s primary concern is to address the feel of a product for a set of users. So, the team’s designer will explore multiple options to solve user-specific pain points and provide them with a valuable solution. UX designers practice design thinking to take into account every detail of user interaction. A designer’s job involves:
- Meeting with clients and stakeholders to understand, refine and achieve user goals
- Conducting user research
- Developing interaction models inline with information architecture strategies
- Designing paper and digital prototypes with wireframes or schematics
- Designing high-quality digital art and occasional branding components
Designers in agile development teams must demonstrate an accomplished understanding of interaction design principles and processes. Designers are both visual thinkers and expert communicators with the ability to articulate ideas verbally and visually.
A QA analyst is responsible for keeping tabs on every stage of the app development process and ensures the product design and technical elements adhere to specified standards. They help meet release deadlines by segmenting the project into practical testing goals and communicate any issues back to the team. QA analysts are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers. They’re able to look beyond what is assumed of the software and find areas where users might experience complications. In an agile development team, a QA analyst will:
- Develop test plans, cases, scripts, and reports for the project
- Perform software testing
- Validate user expectations throughout the testing process
- Review user requirements documents and ensure testability
QA analysts occupy a vital role in agile development teams. They are detail-oriented with strong communication skills. Overall, QA analysts ensure that performance factors like load times, product crashes, and other bugs don’t destroy a product’s user experience.
Selecting Talent for Agile Development Teams
Above are all the roles that build the structure of an agile development team, but it’s equally important to cover how to select the right talent for a team. It’s essential to have varied experiences and perspectives working on a project. At the same time, there are several personality distinctions and values that contribute to successful agile team dynamics. The remainder of this article will expand on how to identify and cultivate the right traits and values when recruiting, building, or coaching an agile development team.
Traits and Behaviors of Agile People
A study from McKinsey & Company in collaboration with Scrum.org discovered that generally, individuals who prosper in agile environments possess three distinct capabilities:
- The capacity to cope with ambiguity without losing focus.
- An ability to concentrate on outcomes over processes.
- A willingness to actively contribute to a team environment.
The research proves the first observation to be true; the ability to manage oneself through ambiguity is an important skill for those working in agile environments given the nature of agility requires considerable flexibility. Agile development teams that navigate ambiguity well are able to focus on a few prioritized goals, rather than attempting to understand every single detail of the project before getting started.
To cultivate an environment where individuals handle ambiguity well, it’s important for a company’s leadership to build a fail-fast or fail-safe culture in which strict rules, processes, and complexities are minimal or negotiable. Agile development places great emphasis on iteration and the principle of failing fast so teams can learn, adapt, and innovate quickly and continuously. In software development, teams need to accept imperfection. While being open to failure is frustrating, practicing a fail-fast method allows agile development teams to find and correct defects sooner. That means fewer bugs go into production, which leads to high-quality, production-ready software. Again, the company’s senior leadership needs to normalize and acknowledge the discomfort of failing so teams can acclimatize themselves to ambiguity. People who succeed in agile development teams are able to see complex situations with unknown situations as opportunities to learn and experiment.
Prioritizing outcomes above processes
Successful agile development teams understand that the process can and will change throughout a project. If a project is driven solely by process and documentation, the team is less responsive to change and less likely to meet customer needs. To build an environment where outcomes come before processes, it’s essential to have the entire team agree upon a vision for the final product.
Actively contributing to a team environment
In an agile culture, the team takes ownership of the product as a cohesive unit. In the process of building an agile development team, it’s essential to consider the values that bring these individuals to work every day. A particular distinction among individuals is their pride in the final product outcome. Teammates who take pride in the product they create demonstrate several key characteristics. First, work quality is natural rather than forced, but more importantly, this mindset motivates the team as a whole. Team members who have a connection with the product help inspire other individuals, and as a result, the entire team is more productive and resourceful. Finally, taking pride in the product helps drive innovative thinking, which helps the entire team ideate and respond to experiments.
Great agile development teams don’t necessarily require the most experienced individuals, instead they hinge on right values and mindsets. Here are the four essential questions to consider when building an agile development team:
- What is their intrinsic motivator? Individuals who succeed in agile teams are motivated by outcomes, as well as the customer’s central goal. Those who are motivated by solving complex problems and finding opportunities in ambiguity are more likely to succeed in agile development teams.
- What do they expect from a team? Successful agile team dynamics are built on teamwork. Team members need to be adaptable and flexible in the way they work with each other. It’s essential to determine what individuals expect others to do in support of them and how they approach supporting others.
- Are they customer-centric? Agile teams are always interacting with customers to learn about their needs and goals. Individuals in agile development teams always need to consider the customer.
- Are they proud of their work? Caring about their craft, the work they do, and the outcomes it delivers are essential traits for agile team members and overall team dynamics. Taking pride in their work creates more productive and innovative teams, overall.
Where traditional team structures are rigid, hierarchical, and linear, agile teams are much more organic and adaptable. Overall, successful agile team dynamics create a balance between dynamism and stability and allow team members to react to unpredictable product requirements and project plans.