In many companies, AI-powered collaboration tools are helping teams work more effectively. Yet three-quarters of all business teams continually fail at primary objectives, according to research by Stanford University consulting professor Behnam Tabrizi.
What many teams need, experts say, isn’t technology as much as methodology—specifically, the agile methodology that has become an industry standard for software development. Agile projects, according to a PwC study, are more likely to succeed than those using old-school approaches based on top-down oversight.
A group of developers defined the core principles of agile in a 2001 manifesto that urged continuous collaboration among teams. In the most popular framework for implementing agile, called scrum, projects are broken down into stages, and teams work in brief, often one- or two-week cycles, called sprints. Scrum teams are “self-organizing,” with each member assuming responsibility for projects at every stage.
While software developers have embraced agile (along with DevOps, a more complex methodology for product development and testing), its use in other business units has been narrow and sporadic. Only 22% of businesses report that all teams throughout their organizations are agile, according to the 2019 State of Agile report.
Whether it’s a dev team building enterprise apps or a marketing team launching a blog, almost any business unit can benefit from agile best practices that have emerged from hundreds of thousands of scrums over the years. Here are a handful of lessons for leaders across the enterprise.
1. Assemble a diverse team
In building an agile team, it’s not enough to bring together people with different skills. Instead, it’s important to gather members with a range of diverse personalities, decision-making styles, and perspectives.
For instance, some members might be open-minded and eager to experiment with a variety of approaches. Others might be more rule- or tradition-minded, able to steer the group away from repeating past failures. The goal is a group that avoids group-think.
“Managers need to think creatively about who belongs on a team,” explains Mike Cohn, an agile trainer and author of the book “Succeeding with Agile.”
2. Rethink the manager’s role
In an agile team, the team leader is essentially a product owner who defines goals and prioritizes tasks based on overall business objectives. Say a customer-service manager sees a problem with a mobile chatbot. She might set a goal of improving the bot’s responsiveness to customers’ emotional states, and ask the team to come up with the best way to meet the goal.
“Managers have to create focus so teams can self-organize and collaborate, versus sending them into uncertainty and different directions,” says scrum trainer and agile coach Stephanie Ockerman.
3. Apply deadline pressure
Compressed work cycles and incremental deadlines are central to the idea of agile teamwork. These sprints require teams to meet a steady series of weekly, biweekly, or other intermediate goals. Unlike traditional approaches that set a single deadline for the whole project, sprints put teams under steady pressure, sparking creative problem solving and innovation.
“If the goal is three months out, you don’t feel whole lot of urgency on day one,” says Cohn.
Sprints also make it easier to quickly regroup if unexpected problems arise. “With two-week sprints, if things go horribly awry, the worst that happens is we’ve lost two weeks,” Ockerman says. “It lessens overall anxiety in the team.”
4. Visualize progress
Tracking progress that everyone can see at all times is one key to success as an agile team. Whether they use whiteboards or project-management apps and other tools, agile teams display a project’s big-picture objective, short-term sprint goals, and each day’s progress for all to see.
“When teams can visualize their progress, that empowers them to own their work, which provides intrinsic motivation,” Ockerman says.
5. Innovate through conflict
More often than not, managers seek to defuse interpersonal conflict among team members, but agile philosophy finds value in a little friction. Team leaders encourage members to voice their disagreements and point out flaws in each other’s ideas.
“If we’re not willing to say, ‘There could be drawbacks to doing it this way,’ we’re not going to make the best decisions,” says Ockerman. “We’re also losing out on creativity. Innovation is driven from conflict.”
That kind of innovation can yield tangible results. One recent study found that companies that use agile throughout their organization report 60% higher revenue than those that don’t.