What are high performing Agile teams? 6 traits to recognize.

team performance

You sure hear a lot about bringing your agile teams to high performance, no matter if you are an agile coach, scrum master, agile manager, team lead, you name it. It feels like it’s THE thing to do for agile teams. But then comes the question:

What are high performing Agile teams? How do you recognize them?

If you don’t know what they look like it’s hard to imagine how to take them there. In this blog post I will focus on clarifying what does it look like when a team is performing at high levels of effectiveness. Let me take you through a journey of 6 traits you can recognize in great agile teams.

Work gets done, no matter the conditions

What makes a great Agile team?

I’ll start here because I honestly feel many depictions of high performing teams leave this aside. But honestly, would you care if your team works great together but is not really that resourceful or capable of delivering results?

Ultimately, teams get formed to deliver on a mission. It’s best when the mission is very clear from the starting point, but high performing agile teams get the job done even under less-than-ideal conditions. Often asks and requirements are not very clear. This team will challenge assumptions and ask as many questions as needed to get an accurate picture of what needs to be delivered. And when things unexpectedly go wrong during development or delivery, this is the team that knows what is the next best thing to be done.

They understand how to safely play with scope, they feel comfortable in their technical and business knowledge, and they know how to talk to their stakeholders. It is not a team that delivers only when the conditions are favorable. It’s a team that delivers valuable work despite unfavorable conditions.

Team processes are effective and efficient

Effectiveness means doing the right work, that work that is needed. Efficiency here has a lot to do with ease of work. This in the Agile world means minimum processes. What are the absolute necessary steps for something to be done with the best quality possible? No redundancy and no waste. To get there it takes time.

Once teams get formed everything is new and they discover / invent their ways of working. As time goes by, they refine it. There are repeatable pieces they can minimize, clarify, and improve. That’s one of the biggest benefits of stable teams. They are allowed time and energy to get better at doing their work. And now everybody knows how to do it and where to find whatever else is needed that may or may not be documented.

But that effective process is unique to the team. It was invented by and catered by them. You can’t just install it anywhere else. They’ve erased the unnecessary steps for that configuration of the team. They’ve been through the process of elimination of steps; a different team would have made different optimizations.

All that matters is that in great agile teams, work is done with only the necessary effort, great quality (very few defects) and no one is struggling to keep things afloat.

Collaboration is a daily thing

Collaboration is more than two people sitting together in front of the computer working on one thing. That’s more like pairing , which is one great way of working and even an entire company Menlo can work this way.

But collaboration is beyond that. It’s communicating enough so that things are understood by the team. It’s helping whoever needs help. It’s taking pleasure in rubber-ducking with other colleagues and taking pride in the two-heads-think-better-than-one approach. It’s agreeing to work in a way that makes sense for the whole group and in fact, solutions can come from anyone in the team, no mater their role or position. You can even say team members mix and match their ideas, build on top and extend each other’s insights.

And what’s more: a high performing agile team collaborates also outside of the team. Collaboration exists with other peers and stakeholders: in talking and in co-creating. Instead of thinking “dependencies”, they think “collaboration”. Instead of handing over work, they understand and own big picture thinking and structure how work should progress on the value chain in their organization. Think individuals and interactions.

Operate at a sustainable pace

The high performing agile team definitely knows how to say “NO”. They do so because they understand the power of prioritization, of finishing one thing instead of starting ten.

And they value their time. They have the courage to push back and work only on what matters because time is the only resource you cannot make more of. They probe and ask why, so that they are constantly delivering value. Value being what matters, they are almost never rushing through things. Whenever something proves more complicated than originally though, they know how to continuously play with scope so that the goals are achieved.

High performing agile teams have focus. And focus is a center, a directed attention. That means they don’t get distracted with too many activities piling up. After all, you can’t multitask: you can only switch among tasks. And that makes every task take longer to complete. And in the spirit of Agile, you want to deliver frequently. So, adding tons of work to your plate is in direct contradiction.

And in the end, because they work in close collaboration, the pace is sustainable to all team members, through agreed commitments, shared responsibility, and mutual help.

High morale and diversity

Nobody thinks the same. And that is not only clear but celebrated in great agile teams. Those are teams that value differences. In fact, team members feel valued because of their uniqueness. The whole team knows how to listen and how to ask questions that help solve the next problem ahead.

And that gives them confidence, no matter their seniority. Newer and older team members alike are constantly listening, morale is high, and it is a known fact that everybody does the best work they can do. A less experienced team member gets as much airtime as someone with 10 or 20 years of experience in any discussion.

You will notice a mix of calm and enthusiasm in those teams. They have a can-do attitude and usually are eager to tackle any challenge that comes their way. They don’t ask if it’s possible to do something, but rather how they can do something.

Ultimately all that is only possible because all team members trust each other and form a solid unified entity.

A note about horizontal leadership

OK, I said 6 traits for high effective agile teams. But I cannot let this one out. And in a way, this one is kind of hidden; it’s something that you can only notice when you spend time with these great agile teams.

It’s about the presence of horizontal leadership. Everybody in the team feels highly accountable for their tasks and for the team unified commitments. Anyone can and do step in whenever they feel more equipped to take the lead. Sometimes it’s about the technical knowledge a team member has more than others. Sometimes it’s about leveraging the great reputation a particular team member enjoys with the rest of the organization, aka, their influence.

Acts of leadership and accountability at all levels are happening within this team every single day. Someone notices a broken build, alerts the others, and jumps into fixing it. Another team member notices a discrepancy on a requirement versus the original commitment and immediately starts the conversation on what needs to correct or adapt.

Horizontal leadership is a hallmark in any high performing agile team.

Why high performing Agile team?

It is still possible to have teams that perform extremely well, including with high efficiency, but they are specialized and not collaborative. In fact, the efficiency IS only possible due to their specialization.

It is possible to have great teams with synergies and accountability yet working on a long project that is accomplished layer by layer, where the whole product is only done in 2 years (instead of in small, frequent deliveries).

It is possible for teams to work extremely well, deliver high quality products, but do not work close enough to the client and therefore cannot exactly adapt to the client as fast.

It is possible for teams to be highly effective with very narrow and strict processes. The process is clear, followed to the letter, but no last minute or easy modifications are possible. Think factory and automated places where machines only run in a certain direction. Certainly, highly effective and efficient, but not Agile.

So high performing teams can exist anywhere. That’s the human part. High performing agile teams include the Agile mindset and behaviors: a lot of adaptability, close proximity to the client, the best level of technical excellence, ability for the team to truly self-organize and for scope to emerge.

How to coach for high performing Agile teams?

Now that you know how to recognize them, it gets easier to imagine how you can show up to coach them towards that path! What’s the one trait you think is a low hanging fruit with your team right now? How could you invite them to get to the next step?

If you need help thinking, a few years back I gave a conference on 7 strategies to coach your teams to high performance. If you want to check out the highlights read them here .

If bringing teams to high performance is something you see needed for your team, or simply something you are passionate about, I can support you in that. I run a program for coaching agile teams that is not only powerful, it’s fun, interactive and accredited with ICAgile, so that you can become an ICP-ACC.