Being Agile When The Business Isn’t – Team

In the last post, I talked about how to be more Agile in your customer interaction and requirements gathering when the business is strictly Waterfall. I’d like to continue along the theme where business isn’t as Agile in its execution of projects as agilely proper and how that business deals with the ‘team’ concept.

When I worked in the defense industry, teams were defined around specific functionality. I was a project manager around torpedoes, someone else was missiles, another navigation, and so on. We worked in a loose ‘feature team’ configuration. When you looked a little deeper into our team structure you’d quickly find we were actually grouped specialists, working independently from one another. One or two people would specialize in torpedo interfaces, another person would be pre-launch display, another post-launch display. Specialization was the core of our development efforts and it worked well because we also had many layers of both project and line management to oversee everything going on. If anyone even vaguely looked like they were off track, there were several people monitoring who could set them straight. The team was not allowed to deviate from the implementation plan, deviate from the customer approved designs, or innovate on their own. Control was absolute and the projects tended to be successful, you really can’t lose on a cost-plus contract. Our company, like many companies, talked fluently about teams and teamwork.


Teamwork is a value that almost every company claims. In Agile, there are several principles promoting the idea that the team is central. The principles include people other than the development team as part of the ‘Agile team’. These principles are:

  • Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development Team is face-to-face conversation.
  • Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  • The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing Teams.

The best way forward to building the idea of team in product development is through early and constant engagement of the developers, product manager, business stakeholders, and customers. We humans have a tendency to claim credit as individuals for successes and attribute blame to others for failures. In the traditional project management model, the project manager is the person most likely to be hung out to dry if the project misses the project’s cost, schedule, and scope requirements. In the Agile model, we try to allocated responsibility to the larger team. Agile encourages participation of the larger team to accomplish great things. It’s important that the larger team understand and feel responsible toward achieving these great outcomes. This feeling of responsibility can occur with or without a project manager. The best Waterfall projects I was on made expectations clear to everyone from the developers all the way up through to the program office. Managers and workers alike knew what was expected of them.

In either a Waterfall or Agile environment, building a strong team is equally possible. The key to get people feeling responsible for project outcomes is providing them with clear definitions of expected individual actions and outcomes. Creating a great team starts with getting those outside the development team, stakeholders, managers, program office, sales, marketing, and others, aligned with the team.

Stakeholders as team members

In Agile, we might start with a ‘Who Do’ table like the one shown below. In traditional project planning there is often a Stakeholder Management Plan or Stakeholder Involvement Matrix. Building the plan or ‘Who Do’ table will be much more meaningful if done with all the stakeholders and development teams together. Getting a verbal acknowledgement from stakeholders and development team members alike will greatly increase the likelihood of people following through and honoring their individual and team commitments.

Getting all your stakeholders and team members together in one room might be difficult if your project is huge. However, the rewards will be better understanding and commitments to the project by those who can influence the successful outcomes. If there are too many people then the Scrum Master or Agile Project Manager can get the larger group to break out into smaller working groups, each with a defined purpose. For example one group might represent the architectural steering committee and define what the company requires, what stakeholders need as far as information goes, and what the development team (or project team) needs from the architectural steering committee. The facilitator gets more than just a list of items but gets everyone to commit to delivering what they said they’d deliver.

The outcomes and ‘Who Do’ lists are drawn up for the entire project and placed on a wall in a very prominent location. This must be visible to all and not buried in a document in some obscure location.

For the Scrum Master or Agile Project Manager, the main obstacle will be the reluctance of the business to commit the time necessary for this meeting, whether part of an Inception Workshop or stand alone. The key argument for such a meeting is to remove project risk and increase chances of project success by clearly identifying actions and individual responsibilities throughout the organization.

Development team

In Agile, the Agile development team is usually defined as a team that not only cares about the work they collectively do but they care about the growth and well-being of each other. In a Command & Control environment, survival often rests with the individual watching out for themselves. My experiences in Command & Control environments was your individual performance was what mattered and the ‘team’ was secondary. Stopping to help someone was not uncommon but the usual action was to inform management that a person wasn’t up to the task. It became a management problem, not a team problem. The difference between being in a ‘group’ and being a member of a ‘team’ is the ability to sacrifice your time to help or guide others.

If the business is rooted in a Command & Control hierarchy, being told what to do is the norm. To achieve aspects of an Agile team mentality requires the group to not only adopt the project goals but for the group to lay down objectives and goals for themselves. One way to form a team from the group is by defining boundaries with the team and management. Within these boundaries, the team is self-reliant and self-managing. The team can define their own behavior using a Team Charter declaration. A Team Charter is a common artifact in Waterfall and Command & Control environments and can be used to identify many of the Agile behaviors in a familiar form. I’ve found that the act of developing the charter with the team is more important than the resulting document. The charter is placed prominently on the team’s Sprint Board.

Management concerns will rest along the lines of giving up some control. These managers are being held responsible by those above so it is a leap of faith to grant the team any autonomy. For the Scrum Master or Agile Project Manager, it will be important to ensure that there exists some checks and balances so the managers can feel comfortable. These concerns will most likely initially focus on ‘output’ (not outcomes) of the individual sprints. The Scrum Master can help the team report their sprint progress in terms managers need to hear. In the past, I had focused on reporting user stories estimates which began very high as a reflection of the team’s uncertainty. Over time, the size of stories fell which was directly related to the team’s efforts in backlog grooming. This demonstrated real progress, the team better understanding the work before them, something that was both visible and valuable to the business.

Example Agile Team Charter

The act of creating the team charter is more valuable than the resulting document in my opinion. The team debates each item and may spend a little time on the exact wording but in the end they agreed to the concepts and behavioral traits. Give it a try.

  1. The Team will decompose tasks so they can be done in less than one day – based on knowledge at hand.
  2. The Team will display a Sprint Backlog burndown chart prominently to track progress.
  3. The team will constantly review the content of the Sprint Backlog to ensure it is complete (no missing tasks) and that all tasks planned and being undertaken are necessary for the successful completion of the Goals.
  4. The team will alert the Product Owner immediately should it become apparent a committed User Story or Goal cannot be achieved.
  5. Every Team member has a responsibility to speak up if they feel a Team member is working on a task that is of a lower priority to other tasks not yet started. Every Team member is responsible for the progress of the team, not just of their own progress
  6. The Team will fix any bug they’ve introduced during the Sprint unless the Product Owner approves not fixing the bug.
  7. The Team will create automated tests (unit, integration, functional, acceptance) even if the result is reduced functionality during the Sprint.
  8. To move a task from “to do” to “in progress”, the task is broken down to no more than can be done in the remaining time before the next Daily Scrum meeting – based on knowledge at hand.
  9. When a task moves from “to do” to “in progress”, the Team member commits to working that task to completion.
  10. The Team will integrate working code often, no less frequently than every 24 hours.
  11. The Team will not tolerate broken builds. If the daily build is broken the team will refocus to fix the build immediately.
  12. The Team will not check-in new code if the daily build is broken
  13. Before a coding task moves to “to verify”, the following items must have occurred (part of the Team’s definition of “Done” for a functional task):
    1. Code and Unit/Integration Tests are peer reviewed using pair code walk-through technique
    2. Code unit/integration testing have been automated and added to the daily build
    3. Developer build made and integration testing completed successfully
    4. The assessment of impact (for the change or new feature) is documented on the Jira form with any recommended regression tests identified.
  14. To Move Task From “to verify” to “completed” requires (part of the Team’s definition of “Done” for a functional task)::
    1. Daily build with changes has no errors (if errors, source backed out and task returns to “in progress”)
    2. Product Owner has been informed that a new daily build is available and what new/modified functionality is completed
    3. Automatic unit/integration tests run during the daily build have 0 errors and warnings
    4. If applicable, acceptance tests run successfully for completed User Story (or portions run successfully for partially completed User Story)
    5. Jira used for code delivery has passed verification and identified regression tests have been run.
    6. All new defects are entered as Jiras. Principle development is complete with issues treated as rework via Jira.
    7. Team member who developed code and plus one or more team members have run the Jira verification and recommended regression tests on the daily build
  15. The Team will work at a sustainable pace; a pace which can be maintained for 12 months.
  16. Every Team Member will actively seek out and eliminate waste in Software Development

Being Agile When The Business Isn’t – Requirements

If you’re moving toward being Agile and the business still thinks Command & Control and Waterfall, what can you do? What often happens is the customer and the value of the project’s outcome are lost to the plan and the plan’s execution. I’ve tried to capture below a way to begin the movement toward customers and delivered customer value while still maintaining a Waterfall model.

Customer & Value focused

In an Agile environment, the primary focus is delivering value to the customer. The first two Agile principles make this very clear.

  • Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  • Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.

It would be hard to interpret these two principles as anything other than the customer is king.

In the Waterfall model, the project is usually considered a success once the project plan is complete; if the customer’s happy, all the better. In the Agile model, the project is a success when the customer’s problem is actually solved. However, whether the company is Agile or Waterfall, the basic steps for a project don’t differ much at the high level. What the business does in many cases is first name a business problem or goal, such as sell more units of product. The next step is finding out why customers and potential customer are not buying your product. The third step is making changes to the product (new feature or new product lines) to try to solve the customer problem. The fourth step is to put this new feature or product in front of customers and see if actually solves the customer problem, which if solved, also solves the business goal of selling more product.

The difference between an Agile and Waterfall is how we achieve these basic steps and what project success means. In classic Waterfall, customer involvement occurs during requirements gathering phase and again after the project is over, when they give feedback. Let’s take a look at the requirements gathering step and see how we can inject some Agile practices into a Waterfall environment.

Requirements gathering

Gathering requirements is more than just the basic written requirement, its understanding the customer’s pain in doing whatever the business needs them to do. Whether its buying the product or clicking on links to secure advertiser revenue, understanding why a customer does or doesn’t do this is critical information. The written requirement just doesn’t capture this nuance, you need to see and hear it from the customer’s perspective to fully understand. In Waterfall, this level of understanding isn’t always achieved and if achieved, it’s not always shared with the development teams.

In the Waterfall environment the business directs the product manager to do something to meet the business goal. The product manager and possibly a business analyst review customer comments, feedback, outstanding bugs, and may even talk to some customers about their experiences with the product. The product manager also provides their own insights and intuition. From this knowledge, comes all the requirements thought necessary to meet the business goal. And from these requirements, comes the project plan. The project plan defines all the steps necessary to implement all the requirements which, in turn, are necessary to achieve the business goal, so say the product and project managers. The plan driven project is ready to begin.

In Agile, it’s assumed that the business doesn’t have the complete picture at the beginning. The one or two-week iterations of Scrum are a tool to do small amounts of work and then fact-check with the customer at a review. The review helps the team decide if they’re on the right track. Requirements will evolve and be discovered as the project progresses.

So, how can a Waterfall environment embrace Agile principles to improve requirements? If the business isn’t embracing Agile as much as is properly Agile, the Agile Project Manager or Scrummaster, along with the product manager, can arrange customer interviews with the development team and business stakeholders. When I was at a product company, I had done this to great effect by first arranging through the company’s sales people, to find a customer who was willing to spend 30-minutes to discuss their experiences with the product, good and bad. We also asked what improvements the customer would be happiest to see. The interview was held over the phone with about 30 people who quietly listened to the customer answer the questions I asked. At the end we had a very quick Q&A from anyone in room. The result was an insight to the customer’s world that most everyone, other than the product manager and sales people, would normally not see.

If you’re in the digital space, a variation is to use user testing as the vehicle to gain customer insight. I’ve also done this with a large group of passive viewers. The product manager and a development team member conducted user testing in a small room using a shared screen with a potential customer. In another, larger room, the development teams and business stakeholders watched and listened as the customer put the product through its paces. Only one person spoke with the customer, asking questions to keep the customer talking. This had a great impact upon people as they realized what on the web page customers ignored, areas that confused, and areas the customer was intently focused on. Good stuff when you’re looking to build the right product.

Both customer engagement scenarios work whether you’re Agile or Waterfall. Both these firmly embrace the customer and focus on adding customer value. However, you may need to overcome two big obstacles: first is the business doesn’t think the cost of involving the team is worth it and the second, possibly more difficult obstacle, is the product manager (or equivalent) being reluctance to share responsibility of customer contact.

The first issue, the business thinking its wasteful of money to involve the team, is the easier of the two to overcome. Nothing will help success more than being successful. If the project team, even following Waterfall, can get the customer actively engaged with the development team early, it’s more likely that the customer will continue involvement with the project throughout it’s life. If the customer takes the project journey with the team then it’s very likely the outcome of the project will be what the customer wants. If a customer gets what they want once, they’re likely to return again and again. Start with key members of each team that will work the project. Getting several people involve will help bring objectivity and varied opinions. Customer interviews and user testing should not stop with one customer. Customer interviews will involve the product manager every time but a second pair of eyes and ears comes from the development teams. Slowly build to having an Inception Workshop involving the development team, stakeholders, and business managers.

The second obstacle, bruising egos, might be more difficult to spot as no one usually admits this. The clear sign is a reluctance by a product manager to involve development team members at the customer level. The thing that’s needed is trust. The product manager needs to trust the development representative will not “blow the deal” with an inappropriate phrase or comment. What I’ve done with some success is getting the product manager to allow one or more persons into the room while they speak to customers on the phone, possibly arranging a face-to-face. This helps build that trust as the product manager gets used to the idea of someone else at the interview but more importantly, the product manager sees that the development team representative is not speaking or otherwise interfering. A second aspect is the product manager feeling exposed. They may not have all the necessary self-confidence or perhaps they’re still learning techniques. Again this comes back to trust. The product manager and development team member need to have a plan and in developing that plan, have an understanding of what signs to look for if the interview is not going well. By planning together, they both share the outcome equally, good or bad.


It’s very possible to use Agile practices, especially getting prolonged customer involvement, when your business is running a Waterfall model. Getting and keeping your customers engaged throughout a project is a risk reduction strategy against building the wrong product. Getting more people involved with the customer is also a risk reduction strategy against a single point of failure. Having only one person’s interpretation of customer wants and needs is not a good idea.

A Development Team’s Agile Journey

If you’re working in a Scrum software house, ideal development teams are self-organizing, empowered to make decisions, and engaged as a full partner in the business as it relates to the product. But what are the essential first steps that will begin the development team’s Agile journey to get there?

We’ll take a quick look here at some steps I think are necessary for that journey to occur:

  • The business gives the team space to make decisions by defining the boundaries
  • The business empowers the team to make decisions within these boundaries
  • The team actively takes on the responsibility for all work by building skills within the team
  • The Scrum Master, team lead, and managers help the development team by practicing behaviors they wish the development team to adopt

The challenge

When a Scrum team first forms, it’s built from the remnants of the previous methodology, usually Waterfall. This is fine because the team starts off knowing something about the product and code. Still, a freshly hired team might have the advantage of not having preconceived ideas about their roles, responsibilities, and teammates. This sets up a change issue that needs to be overcome during the development team’s transformation to Agile: reset the thinking team members have about roles, limitations, and responsibilities. If possible, the Scrum Master tries to reset the development team so they start their Agile journey knowing their specialties and interests but without any other preconceived ideas of roles or responsibilities. Resetting and changing team member views of roles will be challenging but not impossible. Maybe.

When I was introducing Scrum to a team, I had a problem with getting everyone on the team to contribute to the testing effort during their very first ever sprint. The developers had always done code & unit test but they were never asked to do acceptance and system level testing, that is, until Scrum showed up. The situation arose when the single professional tester on the team became overwhelmed with writing and running tests. The developers were sympathetic but their only advice was for the company to hire more testers. The team lacked imagination and work experiences to even entertain solving the problem themselves.

Instead of listing out options from simple to hard, they fell back on their past experiences and decided that the way to solve the problem, the way they’ve seen it done in the past, was to throw bodies at it. For the developers, the simplest solution was to make it someone else’s problem, In this case, the managers needed to hire more talent. This had been a learned reaction by the developers over the years doing Waterfall and you couldn’t fault them too much.

There’s a high likelihood that while the developers were under the Waterfall umbrella, their work was specialized. It’s also likely the project manager’s task assignments in the project plan was based on these specialties. For example, a back-end developer would probably not be asked to do front-end display work and no developers would be asked to write the system level tests when there was a perfectly good team of QA testers available. The idea of development team members knowing one thing super well and to continue perfecting that one thing, is pounded into them from the first day.

With the Scrum development team, we still celebrate each team members’ special skills, the skills that made them valuable to the company in the first place. These skills will continue to be valuable when adopting an Agile mindset. So there’s really two things we want to change in the development team:

  1. Get the team to feel that development and delivery problems are theirs to solve even when it requires work outside your strengths and
  2. Develop stronger team thinking skills for problem resolution.

And the way to change how development thinks starts with management.

Management support of Scrum means tough love

Getting the team to acknowledge that our test situation was their problem to solve took a bit of time but they eventually did accept it. That there was a problem was obvious and this was not in dispute. We needed to get the development team to see that the old way of dealing with this kind of problem wasn’t an option. The journey’s first step was begun by senior management.

I was lucky that the General Managers of Development and Product were supportive of Agile and Scrum. Both these managers told the developers that there was no chance to hire and train new testers for the team given the delivery date. This was brilliant in that they didn’t simply say “solve it yourself” but gave the developers a real constraint that required the team to find an alternative.

The Scrum Master and Team Lead needed to lead change by example

The next thing was the development team needed a slight nudge in the right direction. This was done by myself as Scrum Master and by the team lead. Together we both began doing some testing tasks. We provided by example, a way forward for the team. This setup everything for the next step.

Get the team to be involved with a passive approach: get volunteers

At the next daily stand-up, we both gave our accomplishments from the previous day but asked for help from the remaining team members. As with any good group of people, when they’re asked for their help they provided it. Our team sat down after the daily stand-up and took on all the outstanding testing tasks. The reality was that testing didn’t take too much time, a day or so, and the value of finding problems during the sprint meant we could provide a higher quality product at the end of the sprint.

Behavior change starts with how we think

Positive team thinking usually starts with the confidence that the development team can solve their own problems. This means that the team must be empowered to solve a problem and feel confident that they have the necessary tools and skills to solve it. Building these two attributes won’t happen overnight. Making a strong deliberate effort to achieve both makes good business sense, especially if you think about the reduction of waste and a newfound enlightenment of the team.

One goal of Scrum is to harness the power of the team to make quick and better decisions. One foundation for this is the team’s confidence in itself to make decisions without relying on outsiders too much. This means the team working together to make choices on architecture, design, and implementation based on their collective product knowledge and within boundaries set by management. Fear usually exists and swirls around things we don’t know about. We are reluctant to make decisions while in the dark about a subject (most of us anyway). To build this decision-making capacity we start with building team knowledge so we can leverage the cumulative power of the team.

Team empowerment

Before the team can become self-organizing, they must first be and feel empowered.

We’ve all worked in offices where the business declared teams are empowered but this lofty claim does not jive with reality. Should you expect the company to say, “do what you want, when you want to do it”? No, of course not. What the Scrum Master or Agile Project Manager need to do is get the business to establish boundaries from which the development team can operate. Give the development team some space to operate independently in.

I’ve recently worked closely with a manager to help him move from the company’s Command & Control model to following a Servant Leadership model. I used two tools, a camera for filming his interactions with the team and listening to the conversations he had. Using these two tools, I was able to show him how he made most of the decisions, big and small, for the team. He hadn’t realized how often he was making decisions, he believed the team made the majority of the decisions. But the camera doesn’t lie. To change this around and give the team decision-making power, he followed the practice of pushing decisions to those who had the necessary information to make it. In this case, the development team. He followed the “intent based leadership” style of David Marquet, author of “Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders“. When a team member discussed options or choices with him, he recognized that they were actually asking him for direction. He found that he could answer most questions with, “what do you think?” This got the desired effect of team members now talking among themselves to discover the best way forward.

Establish boundaries for the team

In management’s role of supporting Scrum, they pass to the Scrum team business rules and establish boundaries for teams to work within. Part of empowering the team includes whatever limits the business feels comfortable with. In general, a Scrum team is given a free hand to build a product that solves the business or customer problem. However, there might be business or technical restraints, (non-functional requirements), placed on the team. For example, the Scrum team can’t arbitrarily decide to stop supporting a certain web browser because they don’t like it. It’s possible the company will go crazy with rules and restrictions but this should be balanced by having the team and managers drawing up the boundaries together. This is how our Servant Leader above created boundaries with his team to great effect.

Team strengths & weaknesses

It is sometimes thought that Agile development team members strive to become generalist but this is a false goal. It is not about everyone on the team learning how to do everyone else’s job but it is about everyone on the team feeling equally responsible for getting all the work required done, even if it isn’t your specialty. A good team acknowledges their individual strengths and plays to their strengths. While playing to the team’s strengths, a weakness might be uncovered. For example, if only one person on the team can code in Ruby, the potential weakness in the team is when Ruby work is required but the one person who knows it is sick or otherwise not available. In the past, the absence of one person could lead management to acquire another Ruby programmer from a lower priority project or, more likely, Ruby work would be postponed until the right person is back.

The Scrum Master can use a portion of the team’s retrospective to bring to light any shortcoming of skills or control noticed during the sprint. The team can together develop the appropriate actions to make this weakness go away or at least mitigate it.

Reduce waste by reducing hand-offs: Building T-Skills to make work-flow more fluid

When the development team worked within the hierarchy of a Waterfall environment, their job was to get tasks done as quick as possible. Once the unit tests passed, they would release the code to the test team. However, if you were to apply Value Stream Mapping techniques, you’d almost certainly discover that there are many zero or non-value adding periods within the Waterfall lifecycle. This would be most evident in the hand-offs between specialized teams. In an Agile team, these hand-offs can still occur: when the teams’ work moves from one specialist to another, when decision points are reached and the team cannot independently make the decision, or when one person has a particular skill and the team waits for that person’s availability. The solution is for the team to improve their ‘T-Skills‘. This will probably ruffle some people because their own sense of self-worth might be centered on a unique skill they alone have.  Here’s where the Scrum Master works their magic.

Building ‘T-Skills‘ means we don’t slight or forget the person’s key skill (the vertical line of the T). The goal is to create the capacity of having a second opinion when necessary and to still move work forward without the specialist. We want the team to have enough skills to step in and do the work if needed, even if it takes 3 times longer (the horizontal line of the T). The point is that work does not stop; it might slow down but it doesn’t stop. To build T-Skills will require a skills matrix.

The team goes through all the skills within the team and answers yes or no the these three questions for each skill:

  1. I am an expert
  2. I want to learn more
  3. I’m not interested

If you use a skills matrix similar to the example above, there is probably a need to address any skill that does have two or more people rated at 3 or above. When I’ve done this in the past as Scrum Master, I would arrange for any external training or setup an internal training session for those who wanted to learn more. The skills matrix is the beginning of an action plan to build ‘T-Skills’.

Here’s one example: With sufficient T-Skills, when code and unit test are done, the same team member begins higher level testing. They do this not as a specialist but as someone who can contribute. Once the test specialist is available, the testing will proceed faster. This practice removed the hand-off and made the transition from code to test fluid and easy.


These ideas don’t guarantee success because once started, these behavioral changes must persist forever or until the next best thing comes along to replace Agile. It is far too easy to fall back on old habits, ask anyone who has quit smoking for the fifth time. The best thing to do is create metrics and monitor these for continued improvement or a relapse.

Empowerment and team boundaries can also erode over time. Once the team and management have defined boundaries, everyone should sit down once a month or once a quarter to re-work these. In the normal course of experience and time, team boundaries should be seen expanding. This indicates a growing trust of the team and the team’s growing understanding of the business. If the boundaries are shrinking then there’s probably a [big?] problem.