How to form and empower your Agile teams

Discover essential guidelines, growth stages, and proven strategies for building and strengthening agile teams.

Graphic illustrating resource article

Back in 2001, agile revolutionized the software engineering world with its innovative mindset, emphasizing flexibility and adaptability.

Over time, this groundbreaking approach has expanded its influence, reaching beyond software development and into various other professional spheres. Today, teams across multiple industries, including marketing, HR, and finance, embrace agile to enhance their workflow and efficiency.

But how do you go about creating a successful agile team?

This article will delve deeper into the agile universe, examining its core principles, various maturity stages, and best practices. We'll also share practical guidance on managing and empowering your agile teams, ensuring a harmonious and productive environment that fosters growth and innovation.

So, buckle up as we embark on this journey to help you unlock the full potential of an agile environment in your organization.

What are agile teams?

Agile teams, like traditional teams, are made up of individuals working together towards a shared goal. However, the key distinction lies in their collaboration, accountability, and project delivery approach.

While traditional teams often focus on individual accountability and adherence to specific skill sets, agile teams foster a highly collaborative, cross-functional environment, with the team as a whole held accountable for outcomes. Another notable difference lies in their approach to planning and execution. Agile teams eschew the traditional linear, sequential waterfall method in favor of an iterative and incremental process.

In software development, agile teams typically consist of roles such as product manager, delivery manager or scrum master, designers, developers, and sometimes testers. However, as agile principles expand beyond software, these teams can encompass diverse roles.

Ultimately, the roles within an agile team are less critical than the team's mindset and ability to work cohesively. The team must deliver results end-to-end as a single unit, minimizing or eliminating reliance on external resources.

Nine characteristics of successful agile teams

  1. Agile mindset: An agile mindset is crucial for an agile team's success. It means thinking customer-first, working collaboratively, embracing change, and being adaptable. An agile mindset is infused with all the characteristics an agile team should have.
  2. Team focus: While individual contribution and accountability are significant, an agile team should prioritize being a team in every way. The team is accountable for the final deliverables and wins and losses.
  3. Cross-functional: Agile teams are ideally composed of cross-functional individuals. This culture of learning cross-functionally creates stronger teams that can deliver better quality and faster because they can share work and responsibilities.
  4. Self-organizing: In agile teams, the team decides how they want to organize and work. This gives the team total ownership of how they deliver work and allows them to experiment with new ways of working to make improvements.
  5. Ability to deliver end-to-end: An agile team is most effective when they can provide solutions end-to-end without dependence on anyone else. If they're reliant on other people or teams, it creates barriers, slows teams down, and removes accountability for delivery.
  6. Collaboration: Extremely high levels of collaboration are critical in any agile team. Agile teams should work together as much as possible and collaborate with other teams where necessary.
  7. Outcomes vs. output: Agile teams thrive on outcomes rather than production, process, and routine. An agile team will only care about the results of their work rather than the amount of work someone or a team has delivered.
  8. Feedback: An agile team will ideally base their work on research and feedback. They will build mechanisms for their solutions and processes that encourage receiving feedback on how customers feel. This will inform what is built next, as opposed to what a CEO wants to make next.
  9. Embrace change: Successful agile teams embrace change rather than struggle with it. Change is absorbed via the mindset and processes in place so that solutions can bend and pivot to customer and market needs. Having teams that are set up to deal with change quickly and people that embrace change rather than resist it promotes true business agility, which is considered a must to maintain a competitive advantage today.

Five stages of forming an agile team

Forming agile teams can be a challenge, particularly in traditional organizations. The process of establishing the first new agile team involves overcoming various hurdles. Once the team is set up, it's essential to recognize that it takes time to become a high-performing agile team.

To manage leadership and stakeholder expectations and the team's expectations, it's crucial to understand the five stages of team development proposed by Bruce Tuckman: Forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

a diagram showing the four stages of tuckman's team development model
Tuckman's team development model. Image source:

Stage 1: Forming 🀝

During the forming stage, individuals may not know each other, and there might be uncertainty about how well they will work together.

Politeness and playing it safe are common behaviors during this stage. In addition, team members may not be sure of the team's vision or purpose, which can lead to anxiety and uncertainty.

To manage an agile team at this stage, it's essential to facilitate introductions, set the initial team tone, provide clarity of purpose, and establish clear expectations.

Although delivering value is important, it's also important not to rush or force the team's bonding. Instead, let it happen naturally through thoughtful facilitation and leverage high emotional intelligence and feedback levels.

Stage 2: Storming 🌩️

The storming phase can be a challenging time for a team.

During this phase, team members have gotten to know each other better and become more confident in expressing their views. This can lead to the first signs of conflict. Competition, high emotions, and opposing camps can form during this phase. However, this is normal, and the team, stakeholders, and leadership needs to recognize this. Productivity might temporarily drop, but the team must be encouraged to work through all the challenges professionally.

The focus at this stage should be on building trust, collaboration, honesty, and transparency. This can be achieved by getting team members to spend time together, talking openly about their feelings and opinions while being facilitated to create and deliver shared goals.

Through high levels of openness, collaboration, and shared goals, trust develops; with this, the storming phase will begin to settle as the team moves toward the norming stage.

Stage 3: Norming 😌

The norming stage is when team norms arise, conflicts are resolved, and everyone works together to establish comfortable boundaries conducive to an effective team.

At this stage, everyone has gotten to know each other well and learned to appreciate what they bring to the team. As a result, the team will deliver value regularly, hitting their targets, and the world will seem comparatively serene compared to the storming phase.

Stage 4: Performing πŸ“ˆ

After more time and a dedicated and consistent approach to nurturing team dynamics, a norming team will slowly move into the high-performing stage.

The signs that this has happened are:

  • Targets are not just being met but exceeded
  • Team members enjoy working together and are motivated by each other
  • Innovation has become a constant
  • Leadership and stakeholders overtly and regularly recognize the team's performance
  • Other teams are seeking to mirror the high-performing team
  • The team needs little or no guidance from leadership on how to operate

I've seen teams reach this stage a few times in my career, and it is a beautiful thing, but it was only through consistent hard work and stability that it's possible.

Stage 5: Adjourning πŸŒ‡

The adjourning stage marks the end of an agile team's journey, which can be a bittersweet moment. While it's essential to acknowledge any sadness, it's also important to focus on the positive aspects of the team's journey and maintain the value it has created.

Rather than dwelling on the end, team members should be encouraged to celebrate the journey they have been on and reflect on the challenges they have overcome and the great work they have delivered.

In addition, they can become advocates for the agile way of working and help other teams progress through each stage until they become part of another high-performing team.

Becoming champions and missionaries can involve sharing their experiences and lessons learned with new teams, encouraging them to adopt agile practices and principles, and helping them navigate the challenges they may face. This can contribute to a culture of continuous improvement and growth, where teams constantly strive to improve and deliver more value.

Understand the J-curve

The J-curve is a visualization of how the effectiveness of teams changes throughout their lifecycle. When overlaid with the five stages of team development, it can indicate where the team is in its journey toward becoming high-performing.

It's essential to set expectations accordingly and manage stakeholders' and leadership's expectations, especially during the storming phase. It's not uncommon for productivity to decrease and for conflicts to arise during this phase, which can lead to doubts and temptations to abandon agile practices.

However, understanding the J-curve and the stages of team development can help leaders and teams persevere through these challenges!

Educate your team

When forming and managing an agile team, it's crucial to understand the five stages of team development and educate all stakeholders involved. Teaching them the importance of stability in creating high-performing teams is critical to their success.

By explaining how change can disrupt the team's progress and cause them to revert to the forming stage, stakeholders and leaders can be more supportive of creating favorable working conditions for the team.

This can lead to a more positive outcome for everyone involved, with the team being able to focus on delivering value rather than constantly adjusting to new changes.

As a manager, it's your responsibility to ensure that everyone understands the team's journey and how each stage can impact the team's performance. This education can help set realistic expectations and create a more supportive environment for the team.

How to manage agile teams

Agile methodologies emphasize self-organizing teams, which might lead some to believe that managing agile teams is unnecessary. However, the reality is that most agile teams need leadership and guidance to reach maturity and high performance.

So, how can you effectively manage agile teams to keep them productive and motivated?

1. Enable a team identity

When forming a new agile team, it's important to facilitate the creation of a team identity and charter. Start by encouraging the team to develop a fun team name they all agree on, then create a logo that can be used when discussing the team. This creates a team identity that belongs to the group and helps them to bond.

2. Create a team charter with the team

Once the team has an identity, help them create a team charter that outlines what the team believes in and what it should be. These two statements become the team's goals, to which they will always hold themselves accountable. This process creates a sense of ownership and accountability, as well as a real sense of pride in the team.

Below is a real team charter example from a team I was once helping to manage.

example of team charter for team bolt showing what to believe in and what the qualities of the team should be
Example of a team charter. Source: People Are Weird, I’m Weird:

3. Empower

Empowerment is critical for keeping agile teams productive and motivated. Allowing teams to work how they want promotes a sense of ownership and accountability, and leaders who dictate how teams should work can hinder productivity. While organizational constraints may limit a team's freedom, it's essential to work with what you have and protect the team from disruptions by influential leaders or stakeholders.

4. Build trust

Creating an environment of high trust and psychological safety is essential for managing agile teams. Teams should be able to share their ideas without fear of negative judgment, and failure should be viewed as an opportunity to learn and improve rather than a chance to assign blame. A team that trusts each other will be happier and deliver better results.

5. Foster continuous improvement

Regularly improving teams are happier and more motivated. Retrospectives are a great way to ensure teams are constantly learning and improving. Measuring improvement is also essential, allowing teams to track their progress and share evidence of their success with leadership and stakeholders. Measuring work estimated vs. completed, lead time to change, cycle time, and the number of bugs found per release can provide empirical data that can be used to demonstrate progress. Using a radar chart to track progress against the team charter goals is also helpful.

This way, the team can track their scores over time and identify areas for improvement.



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Agile teams have competitive advantages

As the world continues to change, agility has become more crucial than ever for organizations to maintain a competitive edge.

Agile teams are at the forefront of this movement, and their popularity is growing rapidly. It’s no longer just about being able to form agile teams; it’s about creating a culture that fosters agility and attracts top talent who want to work in an environment that prioritizes collaboration, innovation, and flexibility.

By understanding the characteristics that differentiate agile teams from traditional teams, the five stages of team development, and how to manage and motivate agile teams, you can equip yourself with a robust skill set that will help you create high-performing, happy, and successful teams.

Organizations that embrace agility and invest in their teams are better equipped to face the challenges of an ever-changing business landscape, innovate quickly, and create a workplace culture that attracts and retains top talent.

By prioritizing agility, you can position your organization for long-term success and create a more fulfilling workplace for everyone involved.