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Agile Operating Model

Can Agile be used in small teams?

The short answer is a resounding YES.  Yes Agile can (and should) be used in small teams.  Not only that, it’s the small Agile teams (pilot teams) that are used in a typical journey to scaling agile through an organisation.

The benefits of Agile apply regardless of team size.

The Benefits of Agile

Consider these three tangible benefits of Agile

  1. Employee engagement
  2. Better productivity
  3. Faster delivery of value to business

These three benefits manifest exactly in the same way for small Agile teams as large scale Agile implementations.

Employees are more engaged and understand their purpose in the team and know what they are contributing to.

There can be savings in the range of 15-25% because teams are focused on priorities which dictate what is important.

Output increases 2 to 3 times and this can be driven by working in sprints (2 weeks) and showing frequent output to your customer where teams receive feedback to iterate and improve.

Pilot Agile teams

When large organisations are implementing  new ways of working,  they often start with a pilot team. The task of creating an Agile operating model can seem very daunting when looking at scale. Therefore, starting with one or two pilot teams can mean the difference between a smooth escalation of Agile or not.

In our article Blueprints and Proof Points for Agile at Scale,  Dave Stewart from our Toronto office says, “Once you have some successful Agile teams, this can provide a blueprint for how Agile looks.”

These teams will have uncovered areas where coaches should focus on teaching and coaching, as well as providing lessons learned that will inform needed changes to organisational design,” Dave says.

The below diagram illustrates a typical journey to scaling agile through the organisation.  You can see that by starting with a single pilot project, the business can understand from feedback on the best way to then build in future pilot teams.  This will lead to a more seamless full-fledged roll out of the Agile operating model.

Scaling Agile : copyright ADAPTOVATE

So you can see most companies choose to start adopting agile ways of working through pilot teams before rolling out to transform the entire organisation. The key here is that the team needs to work together to achieve a common goal.

Understanding the common goal, whether it’s a small business or a large organisation, will ensure the team collaborates successfully. Common goals and direction are the glue that holds Agile together.  Creating alignment around the fundamentals and high-level objectives will ensure everyone moves in the same direction in spite of differences in opinions and perspectives.

Context is key with Agile teams

How much a small team will ‘be agile’ will be up to context.  Murray Foltyn, a senior consultant in Sydney explains, “ For example, if your team’s work is complex and uncertain, perhaps your team might want to lean in more to some of the agile practices of prioritisation and regular conversations (think refinement and daily stand ups).”  

However, if your team’s work is simpler, maybe there are opportunities to implement best practices (think about running a Design Sprints to solve a pain point).

Small Agile teams have energy

“Small teams have tremendous pluck and Agile is designed to exploit teams with pluck,” says Terry Shea, a consultant in LA.  

Leadership prioritises the work which helps teams align on how they will deliver the work. Agile helps small teams perform big because the focus is always on the highest-value work.

What size is the perfect size for an Agile team?

Agile methodology is leveraged across teams of all sizes to optimise workflow, as well as enhance collaboration and generate superior outcomes for clients or stakeholders.

Patrick Fitzgerald, a senior consultant from our LA office, says, “While 7 +/-2 is considered the ideal size, the behaviours and mindset shift of teams that operate in an Agile way encourage superior outcomes regardless of team size.”

“I’ve seen Agile used successfully on teams of 2 and 3,” says Shannon Gilliam, a consultant in Los Angeles.  “Teams of this size naturally tend to collaborate more frequently and tightly, thereby creating really small feedback loops,” Shannon explains.

Small Agile teams of this size are often more open to inviting in “outside” help when needed, whether in the form of expertise or actual skill contribution. While they may not be able to deliver as much as a larger team in the same timeframe, they still participate and benefit from retrospecting regularly and introducing improvements into their process as well as getting feedback from stakeholders and customers.

Team dynamics are often strong as there are fewer lines of communication between members and it’s almost impossible to hide dysfunctions or conflicts.

Learning to address these types of issues quickly while they are still small generally has an outcome of stronger team dynamics which allows the team to work more seamlessly and in tune with each other.

Diversity of thought and identities

Most Agile teams should be around 5-9 people.  This ensures there will be appropriate room for enough diverse thinkers.   

In our article Why Diverse Thought and Identities are Crucial to Agile Teams Kayla Cartwright, a project lead for ADAPTOVATE USA says, “Given that agile values discussion and shared perspectives, having a variety of identities on a team will generally make for a richer discussion. With varied assumptions unearthed and weighed to make meaningful prioritisation decisions for the team.”

One advantage of diverse thinking on Agile teams is the ability to mirror your customer.  As customers demand more and more personalisation, diverse agile teams can respond with industry and personal knowledge to challenges.

Psychological safety

No matter the size of the Agile team,  or how diverse it is, it will be important that focus is on the right kind of collaboration.  Psychological safety is a non-negotiable in the modern workforce.

Small Agile teams should abide by the basics of respect and openess.

Scrum.org’s values of courage, focus, commitment openness and respect can guide the team with a strong foundation.

Do you work in a smaller division within a company? You can start small, with your own team with some of the basics of Agile. Agile is, after all, a mindset.  

You can start implementing feedback loops, shorter iteration cycles, and trial retrospectives to begin.  You may even experiment with some Design Sprints. 

Contributors:
Patrick Fitzgerald – Senior Consultant, Los Agneles
Murray Foltyn – Senior Consultant, Sydney
Shannon Gilliam – Consultant, Los Angeles
Yi Jin – Associate, Melbourne
Terry Shea – Consultant, Los Angeles
Rachna Verma – Senior Consultant, Sydney
Jeffrey von Drehnen – Senior Consultant, Sydney

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