How to select and develop individuals for successful agile teams: A practical guide

How to select and develop individuals for successful agile teams: A practical guide

How to select and develop individuals for successful agile teams: A practical guide

What personality traits and values help agile teams bloom? Discover ways to identify these when recruiting and coaching your people.

To survive and thrive, many organizations are making the effort to become more agile. Whereas traditional organizations seem mechanical, hierarchical, and linear, agile organizations feel more organic: they balance stability with dynamism and can adapt for an ever-changing, unpredictable future. In the article “The five trademarks of agile organizations,” we detailed the major differences between traditional and agile organizations. Given the distinctions, the personal characteristics that lead to success in an agile organization also differ from those in a traditional organization.

Much depends on the talent, whether developed or recruited. Broadly, people who flourish in an agile organization need to have the following three capabilities: First, they handle ambiguity without losing focus; second, they concentrate on outcomes over processes; and third, they work and contribute by being a team member.

So, what does success look like in selecting or training the right people or talent (or both)? How might you approach selecting and training people for your agile organization? Here we outline two sets of factors: the personality traits (innate and acquired, and their constituent behaviors) that make an agile team culture bloom, and the kind of values (and their constituent behaviors) that people bring to their work. We detail how you can not only identify and cultivate similar traits and values when recruiting or coaching your people but also assess and develop your own skills. We developed this perspective in collaboration with Scrum.org, an organization that provides training and agile assessment certifications.

1. What we know about the traits and behaviors of agile teams

When asked to describe the intrinsic characteristics of an agile person, the subject group identified the attributes below (Exhibit 1).1

Studies conducted with relatively small sample sizes and without numerical data can yield unreliable qualitative findings that make generalizing difficult. Therefore, we followed a quantitative approach, using the five-factor model2 (augmented by the trait ability to handle ambiguity to complement the model for the agile context), to systematically3 identify and analyze those traits associated with success in two crucial roles for agile teams: the product owner and the team member (Exhibit 2).4

Results demonstrating relative importance of various personality traits as indicated by deviations.

Below are our principal findings followed by our suggestions for how to assess and observe them. Subsequently, we cover effective methods of further developing your team’s agility.5 Many of our findings are not unique to agile and can therefore be useful in general when hiring or developing your people.

The ability to handle ambiguity and a high level of agreeableness contribute most to success

The research makes clear that the two most important factors for a person working in an agile environment are the ability to handle ambiguity and a high level of agreeableness.

The ability to handle ambiguity is no surprise as the nature of agility requires a high degree of flexibility (Exhibit 3). Teams that handle ambiguity well mainly 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.

Ability to handle ambiguity

The prominence of agreeableness, more highly ranked than openness or conscientiousness, was the most surprising result (Exhibit 4). Agreeableness is the secret sauce of great agile teams. Most cultures teach and reinforce a culture of competition, but we are increasingly seeing other ways to build a high-performing, agile organization. Google reinforced this view in its study of high-performance teams. Similarly, Project Aristotle found the most important characteristic for successful teams was trust, a facet of our definition of agreeableness. Another main characteristic is straightforwardness, which means being open and frank with one’s viewpoints while still being courageous enough to politely voice opinions that conflict with the team’s. Being agreeable is not about blindly agreeing without any thinking; in fact, research has found that increased diversity at work is associated with healthy conflict that allows room for group members to test ideas and listen to various alternative perspectives, which improves task performance. Agreeableness means saying “yes, and…” instead of “yes, but.” Rather than avoiding conflict, agreeableness is about empathetic listening to the team and their ideas and being attuned to feedback from customers.

Agreeableness

High agreeableness among product owners means that they are able to work with the team, reconcile differences, and set small attainable goals; ultimately, they better understand and design products that cater to customers’ needs. High agreeableness among team members means they respect others and their ideas, are able to work in cross-functional networks, and enable information transparency, understanding, and cohesion among group members. Often, these qualities are most realized in their absence. What would happen if team members were not agreeable? For example, at a check-in a new team member might describe something that remains challenging, only to be targeted with questions and hostile feedback. To avoid uncomfortable inquisitions, team members might refrain from sharing genuine views when future challenges arise. This not only results in an unfriendly and opaque work environment but also suppresses input and valuable suggestions.

Product owners showing extroverted behaviors may have an easier time

Building a compelling vision, communicating with stakeholders, understanding customers, and leading the agile team are some of the daily activities of a product owner. These tasks require the product owner to work and interact with a wide variety of people. Since a significant amount of the product owner’s effort is spent outside of the team, those who are extroverted may have an easier time (Exhibit 5). However, research also shows that when given a creative and proactive team, introverts can lead as well as, if not better, than extroverts. Introverts, excellent listeners by nature, put the spotlight on others and so are often better at modeling empathetic listening skills, channeling talent, and absorbing ideas than extroverts.

Extroversion

Both extroverts and introverts can develop into good product owners, albeit by different means. Product owners who are extroverts may find adapting to their jobs easier and function as a better leader for teams that need stimulation; introverted product owners, when assigned to a group that is self-motivated, creative, and proactive, are more capable of helping team members shine.

The warning of high neuroticism

What, then, might we need less of? The data shows that high levels of neuroticism are less useful in the agile team environment, both for team members and for product owners (Exhibit 6). Emotional stability is crucial, as agile organizations focus on rapid learning and decision cycles, frequent testing, and experimentation. Product owners should not be overwhelmed by anxiety when the product does not turn out as expected or when customers’ feedback is negative; team members need to be able to stay calm when unexpected errors and issues arise.

Neuroticism

2. What we know about the work values of agile teams

Certain work values are associated with success in agile teams. An alignment of values happens when the goals, rewards, and conditions people seek through their work are consistent with the requirements of agile teamwork. Research on values in the work context has evolved four broad categories of values at work (self-enhancement, openness to change, self-transcendence, and conservation);6 we added pride in product and customer-centrism to sharpen the agile context (Exhibit 7).

Results demonstrating relative importance of various personality traits as indicated by deviations.

Everyone takes pride in their product

Agile teams take ownership of the product they deliver. For them, pride in the product (the outcome) sits higher than pride in the work (the process): they know that the process can and will change as they review the relationship between the process and value it achieves. 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 (Exhibit 8).

Pride in product

Teammates and teams who take pride in their product manifest three broad attributes: first, quality is natural rather than forced (pride in any product manifests itself in improved quality and ownership); second, teammates are motivated (feeling a connection to the thing you create helps create motivated teammates who tend to be more productive and resourceful); and third, surprising innovative ideas happen (connecting to the product drives new ideas and improvements).

The customer is the inspiration of agile organizations

Do you have features on your laptop, TV, or cooker that you have never used? The Standish group estimates 50 percent of all software features are unused, or infrequently used: many of the features that creators spent hours worrying about are used differently or never by the customers. Complexity here comes not just as a “creator” problem, but also a “user-and-consumer” one. Customers and agile teams learn together. That means that everyone must care about the customer (Exhibit 9). Customer-centricity allows agile teams to achieve three important ends: first, they find the most economic solutions (when the team is focused on the customers and uses an agile approach, it tends to deliver value to the customer incrementally and frequently); second, they share the responsibility for “getting it right” (many organizations have a single person or group that interacts with the customers, but in agile organizations the teams learn about the customers’ needs and share collectively); and third, they can be motivated because they know who they are helping (what anyone does is clearly understood and relates directly to the end user).

Customer-centrism

Agile teammates like to be in control of their own destiny

Our research found that self-direction values within openness to change were rated as one of the most important for agile team membership (Exhibit 10). Clearly, agile teams have to be open to change and to direct themselves. But simply telling someone that they should be self-organizing and empowered does not mean that they will be. Self-organization takes experience and maturity that is only gained over time.7

Self-direction

Broadly, the value of self-direction enables three fundamental processes to emerge: first, it helps agile practice become scalable (the cost of managing the teams drastically reduces as the teams start to make decisions about their own direction, planning, etc. and therefore allow for additional teams); second, it helps speed (making decisions is faster without supervision); and third, it promotes higher quality work (when those closest to the work take responsibility for it, agile teams increase the quality of that work).

A conservation mindset could limit team performance

Delivering value in a complex world requires product owners and agile team members to work against many constraints in the existing organization. That means they must have or develop an entrepreneurial streak or be willing to try different things: to paraphrase Einstein, you cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them (Exhibit 11).

Conservation

People with backgrounds in traditional organizations or with a traditional sense of leadership may try to assert authority and power over others in the team. Agile teams, however, 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.

To fully embrace enterprise agility, product owners have to lead the team in coming up with novel solutions and designs to cater to customers’ needs; team members have to be willing to take risks, work with ambiguity, and not excessively focus on traditions.

3. Traits, values, and what to do next

Our research—quantitative and qualitative—shows how successful product owners and team members tend to behave and what they tend to value, indicates how you might think about selection, and gives the development opportunities for your people to adapt to agile work. You can also use this as a guide to identifying and developing your own approach. As with any endeavors across any sector, some characteristics and values are innate while others can be acquired; widespread coaching, mentoring, and staff development can help improve performance.

Here are four indicators, framed as questions, to look for when selecting and developing your people.

  1. What motivates them? Traditional motivators associated with productivity, efficiency, and risk need to be replaced with a focus on outcomes and customers as a grand goal. Ask questions about what they are interested in, what gets them excited and where they see themselves in three years. In addition, those who enjoy solving complex problems and view ambiguity as an opportunity to learn are more likely to thrive.
  2. What do they expect from others? Agility is about teamwork that requires people who can work in teams, work together, and do what is required to deliver the outcomes desired. It means that expectations of colleagues will be fluid and dynamic. Ask questions about how they work with others, how they manage work in a team, and what they expect others to do in support of them.
  3. Do they have a customer-centric view of the world? Agile teams are customer-centric: they engage with the customers and learn about their needs. Ask questions about what they might expect as customers and what customer service means to them.
  4. Are they proud of the work they have done? This seems a simple trait that would apply widely, but caring about their craft, the work they do, and the outcomes it delivers are very important traits for a member of an agile organization. Questions should focus on previous experiences of things they are proud of and how they connect those experiences with their goals and values.

Working in a complex world requires great teams directed by an inspirational product owner with a clear vision. The ultimate success of the organizations is the combined effort of these people. But great teams do not mean technically the best people or the most experienced. Instead, it means people that have the right personality, behaviors, and set of values for agility, either innately or through appropriate coaching and development.

About the author(s)

Wouter Aghina is a partner in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office; Christopher Handscomb is a partner in the London office, where Jesper Ludolph is an associate partner; and Abby Yip is an intern in the New York office. Dave West is the CEO and product owner of Scrum.org.

The authors wish to thank Scrum.org, a mission-based organization whose training and agile assessment certifications are widely recognized. This research was developed in collaboration with Scrum.org, by engaging the organization’s Professional Scrum Training Community.

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