Team work makes the dream work

6th May 2021

In my previous article ‘How agile is your business – a personal journey’  I explained what business agility is and why it is so important. I also shared insights into my own personal experience of being entrusted by the company I work for  – CMC – to transform us into an agile organisation. This next blog continues the series and focuses on teams, emphasising the importance of engaging a transformation team who actively practice Agile, mindset and values.

It probably seems obvious to many of you that a transformation team is key to any transformation. As a consultant myself, working in a consultancy company, this is pretty much our bread and butter and step one in any engagement, but so many times I see teams stood up to lead an agile transformation with very little understanding themselves of what an agile team is, or how utilising agile practices can help them achieve the business transformation.

So, when establishing the Business Agility Working Group (BAWG) to lead the transformation within CMC, I decided to apply all the principles and mindsets that my clients seem to dismiss or don’t have the appetite or time for. This was particularly important for me as I needed to truly test whether the advice I give to my clients is the right advice and provides value. Secondly, I needed to make sure the  business agility transformation had, at its heart, a truly agile team to help build agile awareness and practice as part of the learning and culture change. I felt that, although agile is understood within our consultancy practice, it is not necessarily applied within our operational and back office teams.

In doing this, I have applied some concepts and principles to building an agile transformation team and it’s this that I’d like to share with you on this blog, along with my thoughts and experience of why they are necessary and valuable. I hope you will find them valuable too.

Align the team around a common purpose

It’s very common for teams to set off full of enthusiasm thinking they all know what they are each doing, only to find that they don’t have an agreed or clear purpose, are not sure what they’re trying to achieve and don’t know what their team mates can bring to the party either! Additionally, new teams don’t generally want to spend time getting to know one another, especially if they are acquainted with each other already. It feels unnecessary and ‘wastes time’; after all they have been selected to be part of this team because of their skills and knowledge so they just need to ‘get on with it’.

What they are exhibiting here is group, rather than team, behaviour.  A group is a set of individuals who have different skills and attitudes but not often a common goal. While the former may also be true of a team, the one main difference is that a team must all work to one common goal.

The CMC Business Agility Working Group (BAWG) is a group of volunteers who all know one another but who had never actually worked together in a team.  To lead our own business agility transformation we needed to be a team that not only recognises and embraces the skills and diversity we had, but  also reacquaint us as team members rather than friendly work colleagues.

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To establish a work context for our new relationships I used the Team Canvas. This simple canvas enabled us to have the conversation of ‘why are we here?’ and ‘what do we want to achieve?’ It’s odd how something so simple as ‘purpose’ can lead to a 30 minute discussion. Individually, we thought our purpose was clear but it turns out we all had a different perspective: this could have taken us in different directions had we not had spent time reaching a consensus.

In particular, I found huge value in the ‘Personal Goals’ and ‘Needs & Expectations’ sections as these really helped us understand why our team mates had volunteered and what they wanted to achieve from the experience. By working through the Team Canvas we were, collectively, able to understand each other’s personal commitment:  I think this was an important step in helping us utilise our collective strengths and look at areas where individuals could exploit, and grow, their skills too.

Clear goals and priorities

When we started out on this journey we started with a large team of volunteers. We soon realised that the team was too big and so created a core agile transformation team (BAWG) with defined roles. The core team was decided by the business in so much as we identified the roles and allowed people to vote for those who they felt would fit the role, even if that was themselves. For some they were put forward due to a clear desire to grow their skills and others because they had prior experience, some even had to stand aside. This democratic and collaborative way of selecting the team resulted in a core team that was committed from the start. Prior to this we had a few false starts in that everyone had an idea about what we should do and how we should do it: even after we created the core team we couldn’t seem to agree with what we should do first. It became clear to me that wearing the dual hat of Agile Coach and Product Owner  I wasn’t fulfilling my role as a Product Owner. I had been so concerned about not ‘telling’ the team what to do, as I wanted to demonstrate agile leadership, that I forgot to set a clear direction.

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I decided to articulate my thinking and vision for the work by creating a story map.  The story map contained all the ideas I had about how I thought we might achieve business agility. I overlaid this with a now, next, future roadmap to help me identify the priority of the work and define outcomes I thought were key.

The irony of me doing this exercise on my own did not escape me by the way! I knew I needed to collaborate with the team, yet this exercise proved to be an important step in to me articulating my vision. Whether what I had suggested was right or wrong didn’t matter, it set out my thinking and a clear vision for what I wanted to achieve as product owner.  In doing, this I was able to scope out three clear ‘Now’ goals which we then used to identify and agree tasks.  Sharing my story map with the team meant that I was able to express my thinking in a clear and visual way.  It encouraged conversation, and enabled others to contribute new and different ideas too. Without this I think we would have been going around in circles for quite some time.

So why didn’t I do this sooner? Well, I was reticent about ‘telling’ the team what to do. I wanted to demonstrate and provide agile leadership through collaboration and empowerment, and felt that if I gave them my vision I would be ‘leading the witness’. I didn’t want them to follow my vision and not have the opportunity to work their way through the process themselves.    Yet, not sharing my vision was, in fact, a much worse scenario,  as the team felt they had no direction. This is a great lesson for me:  directive leadership is good and needed when you are a product owner. However, you must  also be open for your vision to be challenged and changed. After all, it is really just a starting point for a conversation and, at the end of the day, it was still my responsibility as the product owner to prioritise the work.No alt text provided for this image

Get your team cadence right

Having a clear set of goals that everyone could agree on provided much needed focus. We could now set about planning and defining the work we needed to do to achieve these goals. We decided we would stick with a 2 week cadence, and so broke our work into small, achievable goals. As we are all working on this part-time, we don’t have the luxury of daily stand-ups – it’s  just not possible on top of our client and other work commitments. Instead, we decided to do a weekly stand-up followed by a sprint review, retrospective, and planning for the next sprint.

This quickly became unachievable. Each team member probably had between 2-5 hours each week to complete tasks. We had been very ambitious: Four weeks in and we needed a radical rethink.

Eventually, we landed on a new 4 week cadence that we all felt we could sign-up to. This gave us the breathing space to achieve our assigned tasks and also establish ourselves as a team. We also agreed that every 6 –8 weeks we would take a half day to regroup and realign. This was particularly important as we don’t work together day-to-day and, when we met up for our scheduled meetings, we tended to focus on the work and not on each other.

Conclusions

I don’t think you can ever underestimate how much time it takes from to transform a group of individuals into an effective team, nor just how rewarding it feels when it all starts working.

The journey we’ve started within CMC isn’t just about the ‘destination’ – of  achieving business agility. Many within CMC, including myself, have agile skills and have worked alongside, and in, agile teams for their client but have not experienced being part of a CMC agile team. The BAWG team members represent 15% of CMC staff. The growth in our agile awareness, through the business agility initiative, has enabled us to accelerate our learning and champion a business agility culture and agile mindset within CMC.

My next blog will focus on some of the psychological safety we put in place and how this new language and behaviour is starting to spill over into wider areas of the organisational culture, and our client work, through the ongoing collaboration and conversation around business agility.

By Lyn Girvan, Head of Business Analysis at CMC Partnership Consultancy Ltd