Agile Teamwork - A Stumbling Block or a Stepping Stone to High Performance?


Back in the 90’s self-managed teams were all the rage but they had a high rate of failure mainly because team members lacked people skills. These ideas of self-managed teams were borrowed by the Agile movement when in 2001 they formulated a ‘new’ way of working, based on Agile principles. However, self-managed teams only work well when team members understand a lot about human behavior and why people do the things they do!


Agile team members are usually composed of highly skilled knowledge workers with strong values of Independence. Some are worth more to an organization than the people who manage them! Many software developers are quite introverted, preferring to interact with their computers rather than people. My own IT degree course hardly spent any time on people skills and nothing on the even more difficult concept of what people need to do to ‘self-manage’ into a high-performing team. I’ve had to learn this in the world of experience. I wonder how many readers find themselves in a similar position?

Rather than let Agile Teams try to reach high-performance by trial and error it seems to me that the first thing to do is for everyone to understand the behavioral characteristics of their team members. A good starting point is to learn about the nature of teamwork and the preferences people have to engage with some tasks and not others.

The Nature of Work


A starting point for Agile Teams is to understand the nature of the work that all teams need to focus on. The Team Management Systems Types of Work Wheel identifies eight distinct ‘Types of Work’ that need to be undertaken by all teams, regardless of their industry. We have found this concept invaluable when working in the area of Agile Project Management.


The eight work functions are listed below, with the approval of Team Management Systems.

If you want to get valuable feedback about your current or future Agile Team we’ve put up a free agile teamwork questionnaire on our website. You’ll get a free 8-page assessment of what you think about your team’s performance, based on these eight Types of Work, or work functions.



Team Management Systems Types of Work Wheel


Work Preferences

For teams to be high-performing it’s essential that these eight Types of Work are done well. But Team Management Systems has discovered that rarely does anyone actually enjoy doing all of these functions. People show distinct ‘work preferences’ for maybe just two or three of these activities.

Work Preferences are dimensions of individual differences in tendencies to show consistent patterns of relationships, thoughts, feelings and actions in the work environment. When we are working to our preferences we set up conditions where our psychic energy can flow freely. If we are more extroverted we like work where there are lots of interactions with others, both inside and outside the organization. If we are more introverted, then we like conditions where we can work on our own with few interruptions and a minimal requirement for meetings. Under these conditions our energy can flow freely with minimal resistance. Just as electrical energy generates heat when it meets resistance so our psychic energy generates tension and stress when it has to flow through areas that are not our preference.

I have a preference to work in the Advising and Innovating areas on the Types of Work Wheel and I don’t really enjoy Promoting or Organizing activities, so wherever possible I’ll spend time thinking about new ideas or finding out as much as I can about the project.

What happens in an Agile Team is that there’s likely to be an imbalance when you look at the work preferences of all the team members. If everyone is like me then there’ll be a tendency to give priority to making changes and incorporating the latest ideas. Teams like this may have the weakness of never tracking their burn-down charts!


Other weaknesses occur if everyone enjoys just Organizing and Producing. Your team may be well organized and on-target but is it really delivering what the stakeholders want or indeed need?


So, if your Agile Team is to be truly effective you must understand the work preferences of all team members and look at the preferences balance. It will give you an immediate picture of strengths and weaknesses, as far as teamwork is concerned. Information like this helps ensure that everyone’s work preferences are matched to the critical demands of the job they have to do. Where the match is high, our energy flows freely, we are more likely to enjoy our job, stress is lower and we feel happier at work. But all eight work functions must receive the priority they need and never be relegated to lower importance

Is it possible to identify a person's work preferences? Fortunately the answer is 'yes'. Many years of research by Team Management Systems has led them to a reliable and valid way of doing this.


The Types of Work Wheel is a model about essential team tasks but there is a strong relationship with work preferences. For example people with preferences for extroverted relationships and creative information gathering map most often into the Promoting area of the Types of Work Wheel whereas those with introverted relationship preferences and practical information gathering most often prefer Inspecting work. Those who like analytical decision-making and prefer to work in a structured way show a bias for Organizing work whereas those with beliefs decision-making and a more flexible approach to the way they organize themselves and others enjoy Advising work.

The Team Management Wheel



The integration of the Types of Work Wheel with the work preference concepts led to the development of the Team Management Wheel.




The TMS Team Management Wheel

A person’s work preferences can be mapped onto this Wheel as a major role preference and two related role preferences. Thus someone might show a preference as a Creator-Innovator with related roles of Thruster-Organizer and Concluder-Producer, or as a Controller-Inspector with related roles of Concluder-Producer and Upholder-Maintainer.

Here are some general characteristics of each sector:


Prefers gathering information and likes to fully understand situations before acting


Enjoys thinking up new ideas and new ways of doing things rather than focusing on delivering outputs on a regular basis.


Like to take ideas and promote them to others, not worrying too much about any details involved.


Enjoy analyzing and developing different possibilities before decisions are made


Like to make things happen and get results rather than ‘waste’ too much time debating issues


Practical people who like to carry through things to the end by working to a plan


Quieter, reflective people who enjoy the detailed side of work and like dealing with facts and figures.


Enjoy working in support of others ensuring that tasks are delivered to high standards

Using the Team Management Wheel to Improve Teamwork

There are many ways to use the Team Management Wheel to improve Agile Team performance. Some of these are highlighted below.



Receiving detailed feedback on which team roles a person is likely to prefer helps them realize why they emphasize some team activities but ignore others.

Team balance


If all members of a team map unevenly around the Wheel it helps explain why some team activities are ignored. After all, we tend to give priority to those tasks we like doing. If there is a team imbalance then everyone knows that an extra effort needs to be made to make sure that less-liked team activities are done well.

Work allocation

Knowing what team roles someone prefers can help with the allocation of tasks. For example, giving an Explorer-Promoter tasks with a high need for detail is probably an unwise move. Asking Reporter-Advisers to work in a job that requires a ‘thrusting’ approach to organize projects and deliver results on time may cause them unnecessary stress.

Colored meetings


Many teams use the concept of the Team Management Wheel in planning meetings. Green meetings focus on information and ideas. Yellow meetings explore options and discuss relevant ‘promotions’. Red meetings are all about planning for action and results. Blue meetings are review meetings to go over the detail. In this way adequate time can be assigned for four distinct but important features of teamwork.

Understanding others

Different roles on the Team Management Wheel see the world in different ways. As a result, team members tend to make negative attributions about those on the other side of the Wheel. Explorer-Promoters may see Controller-Inspectors as dull, boring, pedantic and detail- oriented. Controller-Inspectors in return may see Explorer-Promoters as loud-mouthed, waffling and with little substance. It’s a natural human tendency to look negatively on those who are ‘different’. However all roles are necessary to get the best from a team because, often, it is out of diversity that the best solutions arise. Learning how to appreciate individual strengths can be achieved by use of the Team Management Wheel.


Some of key features of Agile Teams are worth summarizing as they have great application to the delivery of high-performance in geographically dispersed and/or international teams. In particular, Agile Teams need to:

  • Recognize individuals as autonomous, intelligent agents that interact and collaborate by understanding and valuing behavioral differences
    • Operate with simple ground rules that help them function at the edge of chaos
    • Willingly undergo continuous learning and adaptation
    • Implement Linking Skills, where guidance rather than control allows emergent order to appear, thereby harnessing creative talent
    • Operate with open information to all team members and stakeholders, making use of social media tools to capture and share rapidly changing situations

So what are some of the important Linking Skills? They aren’t preferences but a set of important skills that applies individually to team members and collectively to the whole team. Ideal Agile Teams have a low level of leadership control and a high level of autonomy. In these situations team effectiveness largely depends on six key skills of People Linking. These are the skills of Active Listening, Communication, Problem-solving and Counseling, Team Relationships, Participative Decision-Making and Interface Management.

For People Linking to be effective it’s important for all Agile Teams to establish a set of ground rules. These are an agreed set of acceptable individual behaviors that define how team members will interact. Usually they comprise 10-20 statements that are posted in the team meeting room or on the Agile Project Management Platform, agreed at the start of the project and reviewed after each iteration. If a team member is unhappy with a particular team process then it’s easy to open up a discussion just by referring to the relevant ground rule which everyone has already agreed to. Conflict is often avoided by this simple process.

Let’s briefly look at Communication, particularly how it relates to work preferences. When we interact with others, we translate our model of the world into words and use these to attain our outcomes. These words and the supporting communication aids (tone, tempo, and body positions) very much reflect our own views of the world. Therefore, when people try to communicate, there is potential for conflict to arise, as different models of the world are interacting. When opposites come together, there is a great potential for things to go wrong and the discussion or conversation may well be doomed before the first word has been uttered.

Communication is a cybernetic process, ever dynamic and constantly changing. When Person A transmits a message it travels in a forward arc to Person B who responds, and a return message is received by Person A. The response arc contains a variety of messages, verbal and nonverbal and should affect what Person A transmits next. The success of communication lies in extracting meaning from the response arc and reformulating a new forward arc that moves the conversation in the right direction. In cybernetic theory this is called ‘adaptive control’. By constantly varying the content and delivery of the transmitted message a rapport loop can be quickly established between conversing parties. This is known as the technique of ‘pacing’.



Cybernetic processes are governed by the Law of Requisite Variety which, stated simply, says that in any process operating systemically, the elements in the system that have the greatest adaptability or variety are those that gain control. In other words, if Person A constantly adapts their forward arc (based on the information from the response arc), they will be able to influence the results of the interaction.

Pacing is a technique for temporarily modifying your model of the world so that it matches the other person’s. This matching shows the other person that you understand ‘where they are coming from’. Unless you take time to establish ‘a pace’ early in the conversation, the chances of a successful interaction occurring are markedly reduced. Equally the person you are communicating with needs to pace you in the same way. When a ‘pacing partnership’ is established communication flows freely and successful outcomes can be generated in a surprisingly short time.

To illustrate this have a look at the Team Management Systems recommendations for pacing Explorer-Promoters and Controller-Inspectors, role preferences directly opposite on the Team Management Wheel. This clearly shows that communicating is not a static process and the best communicators use different approaches for different people. Do you always communicate in the same way? Or do you think about the other person and try to meet them in their model of the world? Try it – you might be surprised at the results.




When interacting with an Explorer-Promoter...

  • Explore ideas with them
  • Give them time to diverge and talk through their ideas
  • Recognize their contributions in public
  • Concentrate on the possibilities
  • Talk enthusiastically
  • Record important agreements in writing
  • Be flexible
  • Don't talk too much about details
  • Don't take issue with their opinions unless they persist
  • Don't dwell on the past

When interacting with a Controller-Inspector....

  • Use e-mail to communicate
  • Send written information before any meetings
  • Slow down your speed of talking
  • Take time to understand them
  • Show you have command of the details
  • Think before you speak
  • Don't 'drop in' unexpectedly; make appointments
  • Don't surprise them
  • Don't rush them
  • Don't concentrate on the future at the expense of the past


Agile Teams need to readily adapt to changing circumstances; a pre-requisite for this is open and free-flowing information. Traditional hierarchical teams impede the flow of information, as power is often correlated with controlling information and releasing it on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. Agile IT teams are often geographically dispersed, international and need to use 2.0 tools such as Agile Project Management applications and ‘team wikis’ to ensure rapid response and updates to changing situations. New social media platforms are creating a transformation in the way such teams operate. These approaches are even being exported to other industries as Agile Teamwork becomes more widespread.

However it’s not easy to be a high-performing Agile Team. You must be prepared to meet many stumbling blocks – but if you understand behavioral differences and the principles of self-managed teams then these stumbling blocks will soon become stepping stones.

Check how ready you are for Agile Teamwork by taking the free Agile Team Performance Questionnaire.

About the Author

Rowan McCann, Bright Green Projects



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