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Leadership skills in Agile teams

Amy Noe

February 9th, 2016

The importance of empowerment and autonomy in Agile development



Successful Agile development teams self-organize to achieve their goals. The key is teamwork and it is only accomplished when everyone involved in the process understands their own role. Soft skills, such as emotional intelligence, communication, and leadership, play a key role.

I have learned from my experience with Scrum that a successful team relies more on the leadership coming from every role, than specific management or technical skills.

Agile teams work based on trust because it allows transparency and collaboration. Agile practices value people more than the process; everyone is appreciated because they make everything possible. That’s the reason for this post: people, people involved in Scrum teams, and the need to learn and share leadership skills within Agile teams. I want to share my personal experience and hope it will help you succeed in your projects.

I worked for two years as part of an eight member Scrum team. When the project started several team members did not have experience with Scrum, while the leader and technical lead had significant experience. However, everyone was eager and excited to learn which is what it made it such a fun ride. The key to our successful experience was the leadership styles from senior individuals on the team. It didn’t take long until we felt empowered enough to understand autonomy and ownership, and it led us to self-organize to better achieve the commitment we had given the customer. We trusted each other and in time everyone was leading their own role.

The fundamental tool was empowerment. We all knew and understood what was needed, how to do it, and the time we needed to accomplish it. We were able to tackle a story based on the product owner’s (PO) priority knowing we were free to choose any story (autonomy) but understanding it was ours and nobody else’s responsibility (ownership).

With traditional project management, the manager controls, measures, tracks and traces activities for everyone, in order to fulfill dates and budget goals. Team members do what they’ve been told and cannot participate in decision making. In this scenario a team could easily fall into stress and demotivation. Or even worse, they end up with practices such as not recognizing achievements, not acknowledging mistakes, or always trying to find someone to blame.

When every team member recognizes themself as a leader, they become better at activities such as brainstorming, collaboration, fixing issues, or solving technical challenges. The job can be easily done because everyone knows their opinion is important to overcome challenges, and the team is more productive because everyone is prepared to contribute and improve their teamwork.

In general, a leader:

  • Guides and gets involved with the team.
  • Takes over responsibility.
  • Conciliates and listens.
  • Shares knowledge and communicates correctly.
  • Serves.

Regarding that last quality, servant leadership style is recommended for Agile development projects because it allows empowerment, helps motivate the team to do their best, and challenges them to grow. With the servant leaders’ help, team members fulfill the commitment, better understand the definition of done, and given that everyone is eager to help, tasks can be done faster and better. Agile collaboration within teams and businesses provide the ability to embrace change and become innovative, not only for daily tasks but also for major design efforts.

A servant leader is straightforward, humble, acts consistently, and is capable in resolving personal and professional conflicts. They reward and acknowledge each team member when a goal is reached and also inspire confidence and trust. They get the best out of teamwork and allow healthy team relationships. In troublesome times, they support the team and help them overcome difficulties.

From my experience, I know work can be done without any social or servant leadership skills, but it is not agile at all, and the management practices and social skills directly impact team performance. Teamwork risks falling apart because everyone is scared to collaborate. No one can grow as leader. There is hesitation, and doubts and fear that lead to dissatisfaction or, even worse, those before mentioned bad practices end up being adopted by the team because there is no mutual trust.

I think we all learned that excellent work can be done regardless of technical skills or years of experience, because an empowered team can handle challenges and changes – and views them as opportunities to grow and improve, instead of troublesome tasks. Let’s all be leaders in our own Scrum roles and give our co-workers the chance to learn and improve their own leadership skills and see how far they get!

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