Working Together in Agile Teams

Agile talks a lot about self-organized teams, where developers and testers work together to deliver software. In this article, I’ll explore what people say when they don’t want to work in a team and how you can start working together effectively.

Talking with people I notice that there’s much unclearness on what agile team are, why collaboration matters, and how to work together effectively. With this article series on agile teams, I want to increase awareness of agile team working and help you to get better in working together in and with agile teams. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest taking a look at the first article: What are agile teams?

How does an agile team look?

An agile team consists of people working intensively together to deliver value to the users and customers of their products or services and the stakeholders.

Working together matters! Teams can do great stuff, in a good team the sum is more than the individual contributions of the team members.

Why people hate working in agile teams

In my talk Teams, what’s in it for me? that I gave at GrowIT 2018 I presented reasons that people tell me when I ask them why they don’t want to work in a team.

These are the reasons I hear:

  • unfair workload
  • find it hard to work together
  • depend too much on colleagues
  • too much unclearness
  • not getting credits you deserve
  • have to work with people who you dislike
  • unclear roles or expectations
  • unsure how what you do contributes
  • being held up and slowed down by colleagues

Over the years I have heard the same reasons when people complain about having to work in projects, departments, groups, or any other format. I can only conclude that:

It’s not teams or agile, it’s collaboration regardless of the format or structure that is used that people find difficult!

The reasons people mention have to do with working together, not specifically with agile teams.

Agile teamwork uncovers problems

When organizations adopt an agile way of working it tends to happen that people start mentioning a lot of the reasons stated above and will hold that against agile and working in teams. They might complain about the workload, unclearness about what they need to do, and how hard it is to work together with teammates. It may sound counterintuitive, but this is actually good that this happens.

An agile way of working helps to make problems surface and become visible. Agile practices like stand-up meetings, retrospectives, and servant leadership by Scrum masters support people to reflect and discover what is happening in their team. Once problems are visible, it is actually easier to solve them.

If you dig deeper, often you will find out that the problems which are mentioned are not new. People also had them before they started working with agile in teams. They may even have mentioned them, but when nothing happened they stopped complaining. It’s the elephant in the room, everybody knows these problems are there, but we don’t talk about them.

Adopting agile doesn’t create problems, it uncovers them!

We have to work together

People who mention the above reasons often state that they prefer to work alone. But let’s face it, you can’t do it alone. One way or the other you will need to work together with other people. Whether you like it or not. So please, get over it and stop fighting against having to collaborate, resistance is futile. Get used to working together.

For those who are still not convinced that working together is a need to have and not a nice to have, let’s use the metaphor of working on a tropical island. You might think that you can just ignore everything and everyone and only take your laptop with you to do your work on a nice tropical island isolated from the rest of the world. Be like Robinson Crusoe, but still do your work while being stranded.

Although you are hoping to work alone and get rid of all the problems related to having to work with people, in practice, that will not happen. When people find out where you are, they will find a way to get to you when they need things from you. They will take a plane, helicopter, boat, or maybe even a submarine to get to you. You might even invite some of them to come as you need something from them.

Your island of course has great WiFi (otherwise you would not go there). The people who are unable to physically get to your island will reach out to you using Zoom, Skype, Slack, WhatsApp, Twitter, email, or any other way of communication that they know you use.

As you see, even an isolated tropical island won’t do it, it doesn’t solve the problems of working together.

Working alone can’t work. My advice is to better get better at working together.

Start working together effectively

Working together in agile teams isn’t easy, it doesn’t come for free. But it’s well worth investing time and effort to make it work.

My advice is to start working together and address any issues that pop up.

Some of the things that you can do to improve working in teams are:

  • Do agile retrospectives! Reflect on how things are going, discuss what isn’t working, and deal with that.
  • Work on your team working skills, together. Attend a workshop together to practice working as a team (attendees work in teams in almost all of my workshops).
  • Improve your collaboration practices. One way to do this is to do improvement katas or Toyota katas, small exercises where you practice situations and learn new skills and behavior.
  • If you are a team member, make sure to speak up on things that bother you in your team. They won’t go away if you ignore them.
  • Get team coaching and mentoring. With outside help, it’s easier to recognize problems and discuss them.

In a future article, I will explore the benefits that agile teams bring and why people want to work in a team.

Making agile team working work

This article is the second in a series of articles based on my presentation Teams, what’s in it for me? that I gave at the first GrowIT conference.

In this talk, I explored why people hate working in teams, why people would like to work in teams, what managers can do to enable a team structure and culture, and how to (not) manage teams.

If you would like me to give a presentation at your conference or do a full day workshop about agile team working, please contact me.

Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

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