6 traits of highly effective agile software and product teams

Recent study finds common traits among successful agile teams.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Many executives, managers and professionals want to join the agile movement, considered the favored approach to software development as well as overall product development. At the same time, agile can't just be thrust on the organization with the expectation of overnight, collaborative results. The people participating in agile teams need to be ready and motivated to achieve a successful workflow. 

Photo: HubSpot

That's the key takeaway from a research study published by McKinsey and Company, in conjunction with Scrum.org, which identified the common characteristics of successful agile teams. The report, authored by Wouter Aghina, Christopher Handscomb, Jesper Ludolph, and Abby Yip all with McKinsey, and Dave West of Scrum.org, finds there are ideal personality traits and work values that separate the winners from the stragglers: 

They think as disruptors, fighting the status quo. For starters, agile proponents need to be ready to upend existing process and ways of thinking. "That means they must have or develop an entrepreneurial streak or be willing to try different things," Aghina and his co-authors write. "Agile teams thrive on confronting the status quo and discarding tradition in pursuit of a vision. They flourish by stretching or redefining existing constraints and by bending rules and traditions when necessary."

They are agreeable and straightforward. Agile proponents have high levels of agreeableness, Aghina and his team find. This is not just blindly agreeing without thinking, be but being open to testing new ideas. "Most cultures teach and reinforce a culture of competition, but we are increasingly seeing other ways to build a high-performing, agile organization." Another positive characteristic is straightforwardness, or "being open and frank with one's viewpoints while still being courageous enough to politely voice opinions that conflict with the team's." 

They are able to handle ambiguity. Agile proponents have a keen ability to handle ambiguity, which helps them "focus on their goals and prioritize few items to get started instead of investing a significant amount of time to completely understand every single detail and risk and attempting to embed these into the plan."

They are close -- very close -- to the customer. :This enables agile teams to find the most economic solutions, bring collective solutions to bear on problems and products, and add the human touch to interactions. 

They are self-directed. Self-direction values within openness to change were highly rated qualities for agile proponents. This takes time to nurture, the researchers caution. "Simply telling someone that they should be self-organizing and empowered does not mean that they will be. Self-organization takes guide experience and maturity that is only gained over time." In the long run, having self-directed teams helps achieve scalability, enables faster decision-making, and promotes higher quality work.

They take pride in the final product. For agile teams, "pride in the product (the outcome) sits higher than pride in the work (the process). Being proud means more than being happy with the work; it also means wanting to be associated with the product and taking ownership of its values and contributions." This also boosts innovation. 

Successful agile teams bring together a range of skills. Aghina and his team state. This includes not only technical proficiency, but also "people that have the right personality, behaviors, and set of values for agility, either innately or through appropriate coaching and development." 

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