I recently did some coaching on how agile teams work, what roles there are and what are their respective responsibilities. It’s probably no surprise that one of the main topics was self-organization and what this implies for how agile teams work, also how to get there and how to solve the various puzzles (like distributed teams) occurring when working with bigger team setups. You’ll find the slides below. I was asked to talk about these issues because the team was having trouble understanding what was expected of them and how to organize themselves. In my experience, that’s a quite common situation to run into when the team members (or at least some of them) have no or only little experience working in an agile setup. But even when you already have some experience, it might happen that the team or at least important members of it lose the understanding of how to work together. And of course, that’s much more likely to occur when you interrupt the team working together, e.g. by putting some people onto different jobs, even if only for a short time. I guess this is what people outside of a team (i.e. managers) often forget: teams are usally only able to perform great over a longer time if they can focus on “it”, i.e. working on their tasks and working on their understanding of how to work together as a team.
Anyway, I started by thinking about why people are always so eager to talk about roles and responsibilities. I came to the conclusion that it’s mainly a matter of safety or lack of it. That’s why you have these discussions mainly at the beginning of a collaboration. The important point that became apparent to me is that roles and responsibilities don’t matter in a performing team (performing in the sense of Tuckman’s model). And the corollary to that is: When you don’t know what is expected of you (as a team member), your team is really just a group of people and you don’t know how to work together as a team (yet). Let me elaborate this: I believe for a group of people to work together successfully it’s most vital to have a common understanding of what needs to be done and to just do it (as the old sport company’s saying goes). Of course, you will need somebody who will just do it, but does this imply that you have to have a formal org-chart upfront that tells you who has which role? What if you happen upon things that need to be done that you did not think about when compiling your org-chart? You will need somebody to step up anyway, so why not just leave it at just do what needs to be done? Even better if all of your team have a common understanding on how to do things (cf. for example a commonly agreed upon definition of done).
My main (and very obvious) advice on solving the issue of “I don’t know what is expected of me” is to compile a list of things that need to be worked on and to get started. Whether this “list of things” is a backlog or just a todo list, whether it’s on a physical board, in an Excel file or in some other system, is not as important as actually working with this list: re-visit this compiled list every so often to update it, prioritize items, move things around, augment and transform it as needed. And of course, remove things to do from the list that are actually done. But do this in a way that it is clearly visible all the time to all team members. If you modify this list openly so that everyone can participate, everybody will learn about what is going on, you can have discussions that will help team members understand why something needs to be done first and which things are problematic. And, last but not least, people will communicate over helping each other out, give input on difficult questions and work together.
The other important ingredient for me is giving and receiving feedback. If you’re working in a Scrum-like fashion, review and retrospective meetings at the end of an iteration are the ideal places for this. I believe that the awkwardness that in particular the retrospectives have for people new to agile is an indicator of a company culture, team setup or personal attitude that does not honour open discussions and feedback. Retrospectives make people feel uncomfortable especially if they are feeling insecure. However, without feedback it’s difficult to learn, so organizations should in my opinion strive to provide safe environments for their people. A simple example of this is to have the retrospective facilitator use the “setting the stage phase” to ensure that the people feel safe (cf. this article on creating safe environments for retrospectives), maybe by having the team come up with rules for safe communication on their own or by simply reminding them of already existing rules. However, the important point for me is that team members should learn to give and take feedback in any situation. No, I don’t mean that it’s appropriate to interrupt your colleague every five minutes to complain about some weird code or that you should accept getting interrupted every so often. But, e.g., if Maria believes there are many issues with the code that Peter checks in everyday, it should be okay for both of them when she arranges a discussion between her and Peter on how to solve the problem. If Maria can provide her feedback in a way that is both personal and helpful, this will help building trust which leads to a feeling of safety wrt. working with each other. Typically, such discussions in between (as well as during retrospectives) will address many of the fears, uncertainty and doubt that trouble people about what is expected of them.
I believe that discussions about how a team should organize itself and surrounding tools for this (e.g. the RACI model) are mainly waste. Remember, during the time you’re discussing your organization, you don’t add anything of value for your clients. I would rather spend the time on making progress on the tasks that are waiting for attention and figure out how we work together while actually accomplishing something.