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Overview of the Agile squad

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Overview of the Agile squad

In this post, which is also the first in a series of agile articles, we outline the key characteristics, responsibilities, optimal structure and common challenges of agile teams, as well as the ingredients that are essential to their proper functioning.

Preface

In our article, agility as a system of values or a way of thinking basically means the four values and twelve principles formulated by the agile manifesto.
And when we mention agile operations, we are referring primarily to the Scrum framework, which was designed with these values and principles in mind.

Topics of our article series

Overview of the agile squad
The agile user story (planned)
Agile ceremonies with a practical eye (planned)
How to measure the performance of the agile squad? (planned)
Agile Documentation…Is It Really Needed? (planned)
Let’s split it up, or what incremental development really is! (planned)
Backlog or Blacklog? (planned)
Let’s plan a sprint! (planned)
Long-term planning vs. agility (planned)
The agile organization with an HR perspective (planned)
The challenges of agility in an enterprise environment (planned)
Agile operation in the shadow of the home office (planned)
Where should agile operations be used? (planned)

Basic characteristics of agile teams

Agility itself is flexible and diverse, so it can be implemented differently in different organizations and circumstances. And Scrum is a defined set of rules that help us to make agile values part of our everyday organizational operations.

An agile squad or Scrum Team is defined as consisting of the Product Owner, the development team and a Scrum Master.

Such an agile team is self-organizing and cross-functional, which means that:

  • the members decide for themselves how to carry out the task assigned to them,
  • have all the competences necessary to complete the task,
  • and are not dependent on people who are not part of the team.1

The size of an agile squad depends essentially on the type and complexity of the task to be carried out, but should ideally be no less than three and no more than eight or nine.

The Product Owner or Scrum Master himself is not included in this number, unless he is actively involved in the execution of the team’s tasks. It is possible that the developer is also a Product Owner, or the Product Owner is also a Scrum Master, if he or she has sufficient experience and can manage the different responsibilities of the different roles.

1Source: scrumguides.org

But what are these responsibilities?

The Product Owner is the person who defines and prioritizes the tasks to be performed by the team, so he or she decides what the Scrum Team will work on and in what order within a given development cycle.

However, it is very important to point out that by definition we only mean what the team has to achieve, the how is in each case exclusively the responsibility of the Scrum Team.

So, the Product Owner is responsible for ensuring that all team members understand exactly the task to be accomplished, its priority and its role in achieving the company’s goals, but he or she cannot determine how it will be accomplished. The only exception to this is if the Product Owner is part of the team, but in this case and in this respect, his opinion does not carry more weight than the opinions of the other members of the Scrum Team.

The Product Owner is the only person who can give the Scrum Team a task, which also means that he is responsible for protecting the team from external negative influences.

The Product Owner’s tasks and challenges in agile scope control

Although at first this may seem like a simple task, but it can be a daily challenge for a Product Owner in a larger organization with a typically hierarchical structure. When an agile team involves expert resources critical to the organization, external needs may arise from time to time to meet the objectives of other units, but also new objectives may be set by senior management that were not part of the deliverables undertaken by the Scrum Team in a cycle (be it a sprint or a quarter).

In such a case, careful consideration should always be given to the circumstances, as agile principles imply that requirements, including objectives, can change, and that a rapid response to these changes provides a competitive advantage. Accordingly, such modifications should not always be rejected immediately. In order to make the right decision in such a case, two main aspects must be taken into account:

  • One is whether the new activity can be undertaken while meeting the already set goals and objectives. If the answer is yes, everyone seems happy, although it is legitimate to question whether the team’s cycle was well planned. There are, however, cases where the scale of a delivery can be rationally reduced, in order to leave capacity for the new demand.
  • The other aspect is whether the current targets include some that are of less value to the company as a whole than the new target that has been formulated along the way. In this case, the new task can also be accepted, but only if other equivalent tasks are removed from the deliveries of the cycle.

Normally, the scope of an already planned and running agile sprint cannot change even if, based on the above, the team takes on the new task, at most it can be included in a next sprint, or next to those already in the backlog, or replacing those.

This is why it is important to be able to work with sufficiently short development cycles in agile operations, and to divide them appropriately. We will not explain the details of this now, let’s get back to the team rather.

Optimal structure of the agile squad

We already know the powers and responsibilities of a Product Owner, but how is a good agile squad built up?

As the definition suggests, the team should have all the competencies required to deliver the task independently. However, for an intricate undertaking and a complex organization, this can immediately lead to several challenges:

  • If all competences are available within the team, can the optimal team size be maintained?
  • If there are competencies that are limited to a very specific part of the deliverable, such as legal, risk management, or IT security, can the team provide continuous work for the members with these skills?
Overview of the Agile squad

How to effectively address challenges related to competencies in agile teams?

If the answer to any of these questions is negative, then a solution must be found to ensure the long-term effectiveness of the Scrum Team. Because both significantly degrade the enforceability of agile values. Too large team size drastically reduces the effective communication within the group, and the personal responsibility of each member in achieving the goals. Also, if there are members who are consistently under-utilized within the team, this can have a negative impact on group dynamics.

Of course, in justified cases, these negative effects can be mitigated during a transitional period, but the aim should always be to ensure that the size and composition of the team is determined by agile values. This can be achieved in several ways:

  • On the one hand, the scope of a team can be narrowed down, so that it can deliver the tasks assigned to it independently. However, in large organizations, another problem may arise. This is that several squads work in parallel on a large task, along some real or artificial segmentation, which increases the complexity of coordination and complicates the flow of information between members working in different teams. In addition, if the division of tasks between teams is not well defined, dependencies between squads will develop, which also violates agile principles. But we will write more on this in a later article.
  • On the other hand, the cross-functionality of each team member can be increased. This means that, while keeping the team size under control, we encourage each team member to broaden their knowledge and skills, so they can perform tasks that are not essentially within their original competence. For example, a business expert might gain IT skills, or a developer might obtain risk management knowledge. This is beneficial for the organization and its operations in many ways. As well as reducing the scarcity of resources available in each competency and providing continuous development opportunities for colleagues in the organization, it also increases the value of employees and enables them to think flexibly and approach tasks from multiple perspectives.

From the above, it is easy to see that the second approach is basically the one that benefits both the employer and the employee, but in practice it is the first one that is more often encountered. The reason for this is simply that the second approach involves ongoing sacrifices on both parties. The employee has to be open to learn new skills, often at the expense of his or her own free time, while the employer also has to provide time, energy and, not least, funding.

The secret ingredient of well-functioning agile teams

At this point, we have arrived at what is most important for the proper functioning of an agile team. This is the commitment and sacrifice of both team members and management. It is not enough to follow the rules of the scrum framework in a ritualistic way, they have to strive to learn the agile values and use them consciously during the daily work.

In an agile team, it is not sufficient to deliver the tasks assigned in a suitable quality. Everyone constantly has to strive to understand the squad’s objectives, and this requires interaction, critical thinking, creativity, a broad perspective and a sense of responsibility. In agile operations, the best JAVA developers are in vain if they spend eight hours a day with headphones on their ears simply coding what they have been entrusted with and have no opinion on anything. It’s not acceptable to think that they don’t have to figure out how a business process should work optimally.

A well-functioning agile squad requires a real team, and for that, members who can count on each other, are able to support and guide the others, honestly share their opinions with each other, are able to make compromises, and fight and make decisions together in order to fulfill the Scrum Team goals. This is why the development of the appropriate team dynamics plays a key role in the creation of an agile team. Professional knowledge is of course essential, but it is much more important how the team members relate to each other and how they can identify with the objectives.

If I had to provide a concrete example of the ideal agile squad that many people know, I would say it’s like the Avengers. You have Nick Fury, who is the ideal Product Owner. He informs, motivates, prioritizes, and creates the right conditions for the team. And then there are the superheroes, the team itself. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye.

Individually, they all have great skills, but together they can do anything and are invincible because they complement each other and can bring out the best in each other. They are critical of each other, but they are also capable of submitting to common interests and, not least, of fighting for each other.

Closing thoughts

The agile squad is the organizational cornerstone of agile operation, which we have tried to describe in this article from several aspects, but it is still only a small slice of the agile approach and the Scrum methodology.

If you want to learn more about this topic, follow MINDSPIRE’s social profiles, in the coming months we will publish several articles on the subject of agility, from the presentation of agile ceremonies to agile planning and organizational challenges posed by agility.

If you require support in the set-up and operation of agile project management, feel free to contact us. Our employees have many years of experience in agile operations. In recent years, they have successfully participated in the agile transformation of traditional project organizations, as well as in the delivery of agile projects.

Gergely Gyenes

Author

Gergely Gyenes

Agile project management supervisor

Gergely has more than 20 years of experience in the field of retail loans.
He is equally experienced in planning business and IT processes, as well as in project management, test coordination and data analysis.
He is committed to teamwork, constantly supports and encourages his colleagues to achieve the best possible performance.
In the past four years, he worked as an agile product owner on several residential loan projects, and also participated in the agile transformation of organizations and projects.

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