RioJUG: The myth of agile teams

Yesterday I attended the monthly meeting of the Rio Java User Group, here in Rio de Janeiro – Brazil. The speaker was Victor Hugo Oliveira, the IT Director of Concrete Solutions.  In his lecture “The myth of agile teams”, he talked about the enormous difficulties in working in agile teams and how to deal with the common misconceptions in order to achieve better results. What he talked about applies to any agile method and he mostly used Scrum as an example. In this post, I´m going to sum up what I learned from his talk.

He started off by quoting Ken Schwaber:

Scrum’s productivity stems from doing the right things first and doing those things very effectively

He talked about the myth of hyper-productivity that usually surrounds agile methods. Agile is being successful not because of hyper-productivity, but mainly because of the continuous and early delivery of ROI. It´s true that people usually get more motivated to work with more lightweight and effective methodogies than more heavy and rigid processes. This boost of motivation often implies an accompanying increase in productivity. But that´s not the main goal in the first place, so avoid unrealistic promises of productivity when it comes to agile methods.

He then goes on to speak about some of the myths and issues regarding teamwork:

  • harmony vs. creation: harmony = success ? Not necessarily, creative teams need some conflicts.
  • more people = more productivity: the project needs to have a manageable number of connections (points of communication between people), this is a quadratic function (he also mentioned the Ringelmann Effect)  Usually, it´s good trying to follow the 1-digit rule, that is, teams with up to 9 people (if the project demands larger teams, it´s necessary to break down the project into smaller cohesive subprojects). Worse comes to worst, as states Brook´s law, “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.
  • stagnate vs. stabilize: people don´t stop evolving because they are in the same team for a long time. Actually, working in teams for a long time can significantly contribute to increase productivity because of the high team integration. Stagnation has to do with other things, like lack of challenges, for example.
  • unpredictability of emergent behavior: a group of people is not the same as a team. Teams need to be looked after. Having a bunch of people with no coordination, expectations and limits is a recipe for disaster. More importantly, a true team needs to have a common goal, a glue that sticks people together. Examples of common goals may include things like project, ROI, risk, the product backlog (Scrum), and so forth. A team can only be defined as self-managed as long as it works with a common goal.
  • project needs: what is necessary for a project to be successful? team capacitation! this is quite obvious, but always important to be recalled: the team members need to have the necessary skills to work in the project (ex.: architecture, development, business knowledge, tests, GUIs, etc.). That´s a reason why one of the pillars of Scrum is multi-disciplinary teams.
  • size of the challenge:  no challenge leads to complacency, too big challenges lead to discouragement. Choose the right-sized challenge for your team!
  • work structure and institutional support: that means a good environment, transparency in the rules, well-defined teams and tasks. Companies should give support so that people can work well together (not necessarily without any conflicts). Teams are a unit both in success and in failure.

The speaker concluded his talk by saying that a project shoud have:

  • clients with well-ajusted expectations;
  • managers with team support;
  • prepared and available coaches;
  • a conscious team;
  • an aligned institution.

He again mentioned Ken Schwaber by saying that Scrum works primarily at the level of the team and Scrum can also be considered a kind of social engineering, which fosters cooperation.

3 thoughts on “RioJUG: The myth of agile teams

  1. The more people = more productivity is a myth that was debunked in traditional Project Management in the early days, so it really doesn’t quality as an Agile myth.

    The thing is once you have more people, there will be more communication channels, in case you have 2 people, you have 2 channels, 3 you have 3 channels, 4 you have 6 channels (notice how the number is growing). And that is only taking 1-1 communication channel.

    The problem is when you have a large projects, then how are you going to split the teams (especially in an a Agile environment). Agile does not scale well.

    I published an article specifically about scaling Agile, have a look and maybe let me know what you think.

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