Successful Agile Needs Teamwork


Agile embraces the concept of self-organizing teams but they are inherently unstable and are only successful when the ‘Leadership – Self-Management’ dilemma is understood and dealt with. Too much central control destroys agility, inhibits creativity and resists change. Too much self-management leads to chaos and anarchy and destroys a team. A successful Agile Team needs to operate as far along the continuum towards self-management as it can, without tipping over into chaos. You can’t just eliminate the PM role and say to a software development team, “OK, you’re now an Agile Team – you need to self-organize”. This is a recipe for failure, and one of the reasons why many organizations resist the Agile approach.


Many of the problems with self-organizing teams can be understood when we examine personal work values. Work values are fundamental concepts or beliefs which people use to guide their behavior in the workplace. They drive our decision-making and cause us to summon up energy to preserve what we believe in. They go beyond specific situations and determine how we view people, behavior and events. Often major sources of conflict and disillusionment are due to mismatched values. Whereas we are often willing to work on tasks that we dislike, we are much less likely to compromise when our values are under threat.

Values are difficult to observe in others, as they are inner concepts often buried in the human psyche and not readily accessible by the conscious mind. When these values are violated then the conscious mind takes over and appropriate behavior occurs to preserve and defend this attack.

Window on Work Values

The model of the Window on Work Values helps explain the difficulties of self-organizing teams.



The Window on Work Values has two independent axes. On the west-east axis of the Window on Work Values are the value types of Self-Focus and Group-Focus. The key ‘self-focus’ value type is that of Individualism. People high on Individualism will invest energy in being seen as capable, intelligent and highly competent. They will value self-sufficiency and also the rewards that go with being successful.

The key ‘group-focus’ value type is that of Collectivism. Collectivism emphasizes the placing of group goals over personal ones. Those who value this highly will want to put others first, support the underdog and work with loyal people who value harmony. Issues such as truth, integrity and fairness feature high on their list. The generation of group opinions and adherence to them are far more important than personal gain. People who value Collectivism highly will use the power of the group to bring individual recalcitrants into line with group thinking.

Running north-south through the model is the axis defining the organizational environment that people value. On the north side are the values associated with Organizational Constraint while on the south side are the values associated with Organizational Freedom.

Compliance is a core value type built around a person’s need to work to an agreed set of rules and procedures – the Organizational Constraints. People high on Compliance feel comfortable in knowing what they can and can’t do and it is this security that enables them to give of their best. They have difficulties working in an environment of ambiguity and chaos.

Organizations that value Compliance will usually have a clearly defined strategy and a system of ensuring that detailed business objectives are cascaded throughout the organization. In most cases performance-evaluation schemes against these targets are designed to ensure the business objectives are delivered. For many of these organizations the basic philosophy may well be that of ‘punishment’ rather than encouragement.

Directly opposite the Compliance value type is Empowerment. A person strongly holding this value type will insist on Organizational Freedom, where they can have the opportunity to contribute to the organization, unfettered by unnecessary rules and regulations. They will accept the need for business objectives and performance targets but because they hold to the principles of self-reliance and self-accountability they will want to establish their own constraints in order to pursue outputs and outcomes in their own way. Organizations that value Empowerment highly can often be identified by their open system of management where there is a readiness to listen to other’s ideas, no matter how radical, and a culture where people are encouraged to learn from their mistakes.

The Window on Work Values helps explain why problems exist within any group of people working together. Value types define core frameworks that people hold and for which they are prepared to expend considerable quantities of energy in either promoting or defending. Most people will hold three or four of the values reasonably strongly and because of the structure of the model these values are more likely to be concentrated in one particular section, giving rise to key value patterns which are useful in understanding and predicting individual and group behavior.

It’s possible to give team members feedback on their individual values, which range in a hierarchy from highest to lowest. While we will often negotiate around those values at the lower levels we will try to preserve and defend those values at the higher level. For example, the values of Independence and Individualism are most important to me and those of Compliance and Conformity are of least importance. Therefore I find it hard to work in an environment where the culture is one of Compliance and Conformity.

Equally a person with strong values in the area of Authority and Individualism will find it hard to work in an environment where Equality and Collectivism are valued. As these latter value types are fundamental to Agile teamwork, it easy to predict the problems that might arise - particularly if the person is an ex-PM now joining an Agile team.

Shared Values

For Agile teams to be effective there needs to be a Team Charter containing a list of shared values that everyone agrees to abide by. This charter can then be posted in the meeting room and if any team member acts in a way that violates an agreed behavior then it’s easy for other team members to draw attention to it in a positive way.

When creating the Values Charter it’s useful to show the Window on Work Values spider diagram (see below) which breaks down the broad value types in component values. The agreed shared values are then easy to convert into ground rules of action and behavior that can then be listed in the charter.



As an example, here is a list of agreed values that I developed for one particular Agile team.

In terms of the Window on Work Values our team holds most strongly the value types of Empowerment and Equality. As such we aim to focus on the needs of our group, working with a high degree of organizational freedom. We also support the value types of Independence and Individualism which encourage team members to meet their own needs while supporting one another to achieve the team goals.


In support of the values comprising these value types we agree on the following ground rules that will guide the behaviors and actions in our team:


  • There will be open and effective communication
  • We will focus on our individual strengths and assign tasks accordingly
  • Full participation is expected by each team member
  • We will come to meetings fully prepared
  • Everyone will update the electronic Wall daily
  • Members are to communicate when under pressure
  • There will be a focus on team goals before personal agendas
  • We acknowledge that everyone brings value, talent, skill and resources to the team
  • Members are to minimize assumptions when writing user stories
  • Wherever possible we should have ‘fun’
  • We encourage and respect different ideas
  • We are open to new ideas and will listen supportively
  • We will help one another
  • Failures are to be learnt from in a positive way
  • Personal learning is to be encouraged
  • We agree to share all our information, for the benefit of the team
  • As a group of individuals we expect each person to have a high degree of self-direction and autonomy working within the agreed team guidelines


Distributed Teams

Good teamwork is difficult enough to establish in co-located team but what about distributed teams? I foresee a big move towards distributed Agile Teams in the future and that means high-performing Agile teams will be even harder to create, develop and maintain. Already larger organizations are using Developers in India, with BAs in the UK and the PMO in the USA

I read that the volcano erupting over Iceland last week resulted in a significant increase in the use of web communication tools. Virtual meeting software tools such as Citrix dramatically increased as people looked for alternative ways of communicating. This is definitely the way of the future and Agile teamwork tools will need to be developed to enable distributed teamwork.

One of the important requirements for a distributed Agile Team will be the electronic Wall which will be the repository of all the information and stages of development. Any team member should be able to see the progress rate at the end of the day in any part of the world. In Bright Green Projects this is our main project for the coming year.

The Scrum Master’s role will be particularly difficult in distributed teams because they will need to exert their influence remotely. The Scrum Master needs to have excellent coaching skills, know how to influence others in a cooperative way and understand a lot about people and the reasons why they behave the way they do. I predict that top-class Scrum Masters will be in great demand in the future. The Scrum Master will then regularly monitor the wall to ensure that all stakeholders post their progress at the end of each day.

Other communication tools such as team wikis, webinars and customized social media platforms will facilitate the team processes that are fundamental to the success of Agile. The Team Charter of shared values will become an important part of the electronic wall – readily visible to every team members anywhere in the world. It’s through processes like this that we, as designers and developers of technology and people, can make a difference in the world of Agile.


About the Author Rowan McCann is the co-founder of Bright Green Projects (, which offers agile software tools, training and consulting. Bright Green recently partnered with international teamwork specialists Team Management Systems, to conduct research into improving the performance of IT teams.

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