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  • Writer's pictureAllison Bacher

Achieving the elusive High Performance Culture

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

High performance Agile team

Most organisations cite culture change as their biggest challenge with Agile transformation, but what does that mean? Top of the list is usually self-organising followed by cross-skilling and then it’s getting the whole organisation on board. That’s before we even talk about demonstrating ROI.

There’s so much more to Agile than meets the eye - introducing new frameworks and transitioning to a higher degree of business agility isn’t easy. Identifying impediments and challenging our working practices can be painful. We just don’t want to go there. As a result, most organisations will not get the benefits they expect.

Here’s the thing - high performing teams aren’t created within the confines of a training room, nor from applying even the best of textbook theories. When the training ends, the real work begins. We need to create a growth culture to enable and empower high performing teams to use their new skills and practises.

First let's tackle a “biggie”: self-organising teams. Command & control style management is so passé: it works in simple situations where procedural work means people mustn’t deviate from the known process but fails in the context of today’s increasingly complex environments. Modern leaders are actually more concerned about managing their culture than their people.

Knowledge and creative workers need leadership and guidance, not Management to achieve their goals. Research tells us that they need high levels of autonomy; the ability to self-organise, collaborate and develop a greater sense of shared commitment. It's alarming that so many teams tell us they have unclear goals at the outset of their Agile implementation, despite layers of meetings, powerpoint decks and management reporting! Teams need clearly communicated goals and the tools to measure their progress to achievement. The transparency of Agile means that everyone involved effectively has real-time status updates, yet nobody is actually micro-managing and reporting.

Now for cross-skilling. People in these teams need to find the time to work on themselves, just a little, all of the time, to stay at the top of their game and learn a little more about their colleague’s roles too. The Scrum or Kanban board will highlight bottlenecks, items taking longer than estimated or blocked because they need specialist resources - all indicators of lack of skills. Retrospectives provide the perfect opportunity to ask three questions:

Where do we need to improve our skills?

Who wants to take the opportunity to improve their skills to cover this gap?

How are we going to achieve this?

It's best to let the team take responsibility, really own this, but suggestions might include pairing, formal and informal learning interventions and joining communities of practice. Allow the team set aside a block of a couple of hours to work on learning. Group work is most effective, for example, a Coding Dojo, or a presentation by someone with a different background or skill from another team. Keep it on-point and interactive. And remember, some tasks will always require experts, but pairing with the expert as they tackle the bottleneck will at least increase team skills to some degree and certainly increase their confidence.

Remember, the performance of a team is aligned to the personality and leadership style of its leader. As a leader, it is important to work with teams to help them understand what self-organisation really means, agree on their constraints/points where they need decision support & assistance. There are some things they can decide and other things they cannot, for instance checking in with the tech architect or security experts. Here's the challenge - humans are programmed to a) seek the path of least resistance and b) look to their leaders when they are confused or uncertain. The problem is that by telling people what to do, micro-management only dumbs them down. The smart team leader needs to find the balance between getting results by "telling" - there is a time and a place for this - and coaching. Remember a coach isn't necessarily a subject matter expert, they are focused on helping the individual to unlock their own potential and find the solutions themselves. And they may come up with some surprising solutions.


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