Delivering software can be hard, but not for the reasons you might think. Technology is the easy part. It’s the people that can be a challenge. Software development is a creative endeavor, and let’s face it – feelings can get in the way.
In December 2018, when the University of Arizona initiated a campus-wide digital experience and CRM (Constituent Relationship Management) initiative, I quickly spun up a team to deliver early results. On January 7 we kicked off with a team of 20 university staff and contractors. My mantra is “Regardless of who signs your paycheck, we are one Wildcat team,” but I began to realize forming as one team would not be that easy. It involves human behavior.
While we eventually crossed the finish line to launch a new CRM and digital experience for the university, I learned a lot about developing high- performing teams in the process. Here are my top insights about understanding and managing human behavior that I believe cut across so many teams and industries today.
Watch for CYA behavior and misalignment
Signs of dysfunction can emerge quickly and can take many forms, like debating methodologies and over- engineering processes to create stage gates and sign offs (read CYA). Disagreement, churn, discomfort, and frustration are all human emotions that do not yield high productivity.
We needed to work through this messy startup period quickly. Starting from a blank slate, Agile was the obvious choice given long- standing evidence that Agile projects fail less often than waterfall projects. The number one reason Agile projects fail is the team’s lack of experience with Agile methods, so I knew we needed help. I thought bringing in an Agile coach was the ticket. I didn’t know it would lead to tears.
Invest in rapid norming
I recall the day I talked to the team about Agile coaching, telling them:. “You can experience acute pain for the next six weeks or chronic pain for the next year. I know which will lead to higher productivity and a better team culture.” I looked out at a sea of doubtful faces and offered optimism and support.
Our first Agile coach joined us a week later. She fully embraced the core principles of Agile as a set of behaviors and values – not processes, although processes like Scrum were also adopted. She challenged people when she met resistance to change. She coached the team to begin making team-based decisions. She forced them to work through the discomfort of not using their agency’s proprietary methodologies. Her coaching helped to break down mental and emotional barriers so they could move from thinking as individual contributors to thinking and behaving like a team.
Let go of management and embrace alignment
In 2020, the Scrum Guide shifted its language to describe scrum teams as self-managing instead of self-organizing, clarifying that they “internally decide who does what, when, and how.” With a self-managing team, what can managers do if they disagree with what the team is doing? Old- school management would simply direct priorities, but that would break the core Agile principle of empowerment.
According to 38% of respondents to the Annual State of Agile Survey, lack of management support is a major source of project failure. Don’t be that manager. Stop managing and start aligning.
One way my managers and I tackle this is to hold quarterly program strategy discussions where everyone talks about priorities through the lens of their role. In late 2021, I was desperate for the team to start work to support corporate relations, but the team was prioritizing usability improvements to an existing product. At the end of our session, everyone had a better understanding of the pressures we collectively experience. The team agreed to take on the corporate relations work within the next six months. Alignment can only come from shared understanding, which requires conversation and curiosity. Managers can help the team understand things through the management/leadership lens and can walk away with a better appreciation of the challenges and opportunities the team is experiencing.
Educate business owners who want to tell the team what to do
One of our earliest deliverables was a product that would allow instructors to provide more systematic feedback to students. The business sponsor already had a product specification in mind for the team to follow. The sponsor didn’t understand the team’s need to engage in user-centered design practices to refine the product vision. During the kick-off, the sponsor voiced her deep frustration in front of them – shifting the tone from motivational to confrontational. Not the way to get a team excited about the work to come. My follow-up conversation with our business sponsor was rapid and direct. I explained the importance of empowering the team to discover the right path (as a repeatable pattern), and shared statistics about unused and underused features. I expressed my need to be a good steward of the university’s investment in technology.
Does the business sponsor sound like anyone you’ve worked with before, or someone you’re collaborating with now? If so, invest in a short educational deck that emphasizes the whys of Agile and the human dynamic of software teams. Be prepared for candid conversations, be patient, and if needed, – insulate the team as much as possible.
Create culture that stands up over time
The team eventually outgrew the need for our Agile coach consultant. Reading the signs of when they were ready wasn’t easy because truth be told – they never liked the discomfort that was required to norm rapidly. We hired a scrum master, and when he took another job a few years later, the team agreed to continue the behaviors and practices they found most valuable. This included team accountability for delivering results, openness and curiosity, commitment to continued learning, and collaboration that emphasizes the team, not individuals.
Four years later, I hear frequently from team members about the positive team culture and how different this team is from others they’ve worked on. The team has delivered 10 separate enterprise products and is scaling adoption across a large, research 1 public university with 50,000 students.
I reflect on the experience as one of the highlights in my career. You don’t often get to watch a team build its culture from the ground up. On occasion I still need to negotiate strategic or political priorities over those of our daily end-users. I still get told “not now” when they know more than I do which is often. Agile is a set of values and principles enacted by agreed- upon practices and frameworks. Those values and principles help create the psychological safety for individuals and teams to continue learning together. My final insight is that without the foundation of psychological safety, all that remains are processes that can feel hollow, repetitive, and non-value add.
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