Onboarding a Team to Agile — The People Part

You’ve learned about the core practices most agile teams use in the real world. Naturally, there’s also a human dimension and a multi-human institutional dimension to making agile work (or even getting it started). Below are a few jobs you’re likely to have as you onboard a team or teams, and a few ideas about how to handle them.

Getting the Right Charter from Management (and/or Stakeholders)

This is pretty important. From management, you want focus—a clear idea of what constitutes success. You also want your responsibility as a team to be framed in terms of problems you should be solving for the user (be they external customers or internal colleagues) instead of arbitrary deliverables. The Business Model Canvas is a great tool to help drive strategic focus and the Venture Design framework along with design sprints are a great way to keep your work focused on user problems while still being focused, disciplined, and accountable.

You seem nice so I feel like I can be straight with you—it could get messy. Traditional managers are used to thinking of themselves as conducting a vast machinery of human cogs. Even if they kind of get that things need to change, part of them will struggle to part with the emotional connection they have to that idea. The great thing about agile and the body of work that supports it is that it provides a structured alternative that, objectively, is almost certainly the best alternative to traditional management when you’re dealing with some kind of digital product or infrastructure.

The change is not magic, but it does take some work. Management needs a new vehicle that allows it to do its actual job, which is to decide on a testable focus and communicate that to working-level teams with charters that define what success means for them. For general purposes I like the Business Model Canvas. However, if you’re specifically working on innovations within a larger corporation, you may get better mileage with the Corporate Innovation Canvas. Basically, these are tools for management to create focus and communicate it clearly (the one-page feature of both helps a lot).

The output of their canvas-related strategy definition should be agile team charters. This is where management communicates what problem/job from the canvas-defined strategy they want you to work and what outcomes (in the form of metrics) constitute success. It actually works pretty well. They may have the misperception that agile is accountability-free, but nothing could be further from the truth. Run properly, agile teams are the very best vehicle for getting actionable results quickly.

Yes, this is a bunch of new stuff. That said, if digital is an important part of your industry, it’s safe to say that without this your company runs the risk of becoming the Blockbuster Video to someone else’s Netflix.

Getting Buy-In from the Team

Don’t be surprised if you encounter some cynicism. If your team has been in the software business long at more than one firm, there’s a good chance they’ve seen some type of agile before and they may not have liked it. Like a lot of things that get translated into a big company environment, it’s not always done well. Much of the Fortune 500 are still operating on momentum and incrementally optimizing a decades-old franchise. Change is not a priority.

“What would Genghis Khan do in your situation? Just do that, but in an agile way.”

None of that should stop you from creating a fantastic practice of agile with your team. What would Genghis Khan do in your situation? Just do that, but in an agile way. My #1 tip is to frame the whole practice of agile that’s an experiment for their benefit. All you’re asking for is a sincere commitment to try out whatever methods the team agrees on for the next iteration. Then you’ll have a retrospective and figure out how it went and what you all want to change. Gitlab’s latest developer survey showed a preference for more natural, combined methodologies. Within the contours of agile, you have a lot of possibilities.


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