The Kansas City Royals: An Agile Team?

The Kansas City Royals: An Agile Team?

I’m a fan of Ned Yost. He’s assembled a team of highly-motivated, collaborative, and accountable players, set them an aggressive vision, given them the confidence of strong support, and set them free to practice their craft. They iterate through, inning by inning, learning and adapting as they go. The Royals are the perfect example of an agile team, and Yost looks to me like an agile manager.

Like Yost, agile project managers or scrummasters often have teams composed of supremely skilled and confident contributors. Like Yost, many agile project managers can struggle to get team members to subsume their personal ambitions and instead focus on team results. And, like Yostagile project managers must develop a leadership style that inspires and enables team members to achieve.

The coaching metaphor is an appropriate analogy to illustrate the type of project leadership that agile methods require. Great agile project leaders are coaches, with the critical understanding that, whether it’s fielding a pop fly or developing software, only the player can make the right decision under the pressure of the moment. Creating the environment that enables the experts to do what they do, and setting the strategy while allowing the players to create, are attributes of a winning coach and an agile project leader.

Notice that I use the phrase project leader rather than project manager; this is a key distinction. “Most projects are over-managed and under-led,” Jim Highsmith notes in his book Agile Project Management. While the tools of project management, such as plans, budgets, and schedules, are sometimes necessary to control the complexity of IT initiatives, no team member was ever inspired by a Gantt chart. When projects travel beyond the realm of the known and require innovative ideas and deliverables, legacy project techniques become an obstacle. Teams need the agility to adapt to the situation on the field, with a supportive leadership and culture so they can create.

Remember the first statement of the Agile Manifesto: “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Creating a collaborative environment that enables teams to achieve creative results together, and encouraging contributors to focus on group goals and agendas rather than the individual, are the agile leader’s most important challenges.

Many project managers have difficulty stepping away from the regimented techniques described above, such as scope, budget, and schedule planning.  It’s hard migrating into a world of changing requirements, evolving expectations, and self-directed teams. The evolution from traditional project management to agile techniques requires an evolution for the PM as well, from top-down, task-focused management to collaborative, influence-based leadership. The maturity to evolve from a world of tightly-bounded scope and schedules to a world of change,  iteration, and collaboration is the key distinguishing factor for successful agile project leaders. 

One of the foundation ideas of agile, taken straight from lean philosophies, is “light process, heavy skill”. The  highly-skilled, cross-disciplinary team,  unencumbered by excess process and motivated by a common vision, is the agile delivery unit, whatever the product.

Highsmith describes six elements to the creation of a self-directed agile team:

•Get the right people

•Articulate the project vision, boundaries, and roles

•Encourage interaction

•Facilitate participatory decisions

•Insist on accountability

•Steer, don’t control

One error I repeatedly see project managers make is recruiting team contributors solely based on technical capabilities. In agile teams, technical genius is not enough; behavioral aspects and maturity are, in my view, even more important. Every experienced project manager has dealt with the technical expert who is self-focused, needy, argumentative, immature, and disruptive. Agile teams don’t have time for this behavior. In the highly-charged environment of agile IT, one monkey can stop the show, when that monkey constantly requires special handling and disrupts the collaborative effort.

Agile project leaders understand that there’s a big difference between a spec sheet and a vision. Inspiring a team to create something unique and valuable requires more than a requirements definition; it requires leadership that paints a picture of what could be, if the team is creative and innovative. Agile teams internalize the idea that team intelligence is always smarter than even the smartest member and that participatory, interactive decision making results in direction that everyone buys into and drives toward.

Without accountability, all of these elements are meaningless. Accountability requires tough mindedness, since it implies that, when a team contributor turns out to be a poor fit for the project, the team will take action rather than sheltering and protecting an unproductive member.

In the debate about agile methods, the question often asked is “for what sort of projects is agile management appropriate?”  While the right project fit is an important question, we need to remember that an equally important question is “what sort of team is appropriate for agile methods?”  You can’t point at nine guys in the street and say “You’re the Kansas City Royals!”.

Building a team of mature, skilled, self-directed, and collaborative contributors is the central goal of any agile coach or leader. Project management process has its place in bringing order from the chaos of complex IT initiatives, but creating the right atmosphere and staffing it with the right contributors is the foundation of a high-achieving agile team. Just like the Royals.


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