Building a Kick-Ass Team – Agile Team Basics

A single person cannot whistle a symphony – it takes a whole orchestra to do that. Teams at all levels are now more portable, fluid in their ranks, and many are operating in a dispersed way. Collaboration has become more complex. The fundamental makeup and stability of teams in organisations is in a state of flux, but there’s one thing we do know: success still depends on tribe fundamentals. No matter what timeline we are living in, we are first and foremost human. Nothing is more rewarding than sharing the adventure of building something that truly matters with our inspired and engaged teammates.

The business world has brought about sensational progress for humanity in less than two centuries – a blip on the evolutionary scale for our species. None of the recent advances in human history would have been possible without organisations as vehicles for human collaboration. And yet, we are realising that the current way we run our organisations has been stretched to its limits. We are increasingly disillusioned by our work life. For those who toil away at the bottom of the pyramid, surveys consistently report that work is more often than not, dread and drudgery, not passion or purpose. The mere fact that Dilbert cartoons could become a cultural icon says a lot about the extent to which organisations can make work miserable and pointless.

Life at the top of the hierarchy isn’t much more fulfilling either. Behind the façade and bravado, the lives of powerful corporate leaders are ones of quiet suffering – only in better shoes. Their frantic activity is often a poor cover up for a deep inner sense of emptiness. The power plays, the politics, and the infighting end up taking their toll on everybody. At both the top and bottom, organisations are, more often than not, the playing fields for unfulfilling, superficial pursuits of our egos, inhospitable to the heart’s true desire to fulfill our life’s purpose.

“Historically, organisations have always been places where people showed up wearing a mask… people often feel they have to shut out part of who they are when they dress for work in the morning…They require us to show a masculine resolve, to display determination and strength, and to hide doubts and vulnerability.”

— Frederic Laloux

Facing a Future with Agility

As the pandemic accelerated the pace of change across the globe, organisations had to adapt quickly by embracing more agile ways of working. Here’s the thing: when you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings, they start. They start to reflect, rethink assumptions, and reimagine a better path. Rather than stopping in the face of the pandemic, many aspects of our lives have accelerated at an unprecedented pace, driven by a shift in mindset and the rapid adoption of technology. In fact, the speed of technological change and the associated availability of key skills are two of the top concerns for global CEOs, according to PwC’s 21st CEO Survey.

A hard truth is emerging: although there is no ‘I’ in ‘TEAM,’ organisations who do not have the right synthesis of skilled individuals they need to populate functional teams, will fall behind. Not only that, today’s teams are different from the teams of the past: they are far more diverse, dispersed, digital, and dynamic. To adapt, survive and thrive in this vortex of change, you need to build future-fit teams that work together as an ever-evolving organism rather than a rigid machine.

The Obsolete Static Team

Unfortunately, static team structures are still the reality for many organisations. Teams only change by hiring new people, often from other internal teams, leading to internal competition for resources. As a result, a lot of time is wasted on internal politics. Information and products end up siloed and solutions are less innovative. When static teams are faced with ambiguous projects, they lack the skills, information, and influence to be effective.

The Thriving Dynamic Team

When an organisation’s planning process regularly identifies strategic opportunities to pursue, it can communicate the outcomes it wants to achieve without prescribing solutions to get there. Based on the skills required for these projects and individual availability, they assemble a team to come up with solutions on a predefined timeline. As the path to the outcome becomes clearer, new team members with different skills get assigned to the project. Others might get pulled off to work on something else. In a dynamic environment, team members expect this ambiguity and welcome the opportunity for new and diverse work experiences.

After mutual respect and understanding are achieved, it is possible to establish real, sincere relationships, which is the foundation of a solid long-term collaboration.”

– Ron Garan

Solid Foundations

A common misconception about agile teams is that they lack rules and structure. Command and control freaks still talk as if this is weird and fringe. However, self-organised teams are time-tested, proven, and here to stay. A tidal wave of organisations are moving in this direction because you cannot argue with the data. On the surface, gathering multiple work personalities into a fast-paced environment with the aim of achieving a single goal may sound like total anarchy. The reality is that successful agile teams are highly process-oriented. When an agile team is implemented, each team member has a purpose and brings something unique to the table. Once the team is in place, it’s important to remember that teams take time to grow. Like any team, they will go through Bruce Tuckman’s “stages of group development.”


FORMING – High degree of guidance is needed. Individual roles are unclear and process is not well established.

STORMING – Understanding how team decisions are made. The purpose is clear but relationships are blurry.

NORMING – Relationships are well-understood. Commitment to team goals, beginning to optimise process

PERFORMING – The team is performing well. Focus is on strategy.

After a team reaches the performing stage, development truly becomes an art form – a thing of beauty. Members trust each other, understand each another’s strengths, and use that understanding to optimise how they achieve their goals. Keeping agile team’s dynamic intact takes organisational discipline, but it pays to protect the team (within reason, of course). When change is introduced in the form of a new hire or employee departure, the team reverts back to the forming stage because it absorbs the change.

“The problem with most strategic planning processes is they are not designed to create strategy. They are designed to create consistency and predictability.”
― Kaihan Krippendorff

3 Erroneous Beliefs About Self-Organising Teams

Self-organising describes a team that has a certain level of decision-making authority. This level may change and evolve over time, but there are clear parameters around where teams can make decisions. Self-organising also means the team takes ownership of how they work and continuously evolves through having a growth mindset. In this way, they work toward meeting their emerging vision. Fostering self-organised teams can be relatively easy or incredibly hard, depending on the organisational culture and how long people have been working together. “Self-organisation” can be a loaded term, and when there is no discussion around what this means, teams will typically create their own convenient meaning for it. In organisations where the culture is command-and-control, the term “self-organised teams” can become weaponised.

1. The team has to decide everything.

This is the BB-Gun of weaponised beliefs around self-organising teams. This belief typically comes from team leaders who are uncomfortable bringing guidance to their teams in certain situations. One obvious place this tends to pop up is with process. Let’s say you are leading your team in a change initiative. What is the structure that you would like the team to use? Should they do a plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle? What does that cycle look like? As the leader of the initiative, do you propose a structure or let the team struggle to create one? Do you even propose having a structure? Do you just assume one will emerge? What is the best approach? The answer depends on the maturity of the team and their capability. If it is a brand-new initiative, the team will appreciate the guidance to help them better work together. In fact, they may even become frustrated and angry when it is not there. Proposing something upfront can set the tone for the team culture.

2. The team made this decision, so I can’t change it.

This is the mine field of weaponised beliefs that when a team is self-organised, the manager needs to completely disappear, do nothing and say nothing. This would mean the team gets to decide everything and even make bad business decisions. Ummm No. Teams operate in the context of a business, and in this context there are some accountabilities that need to remain with managers and executives. There needs to be clarity for everyone involved. Never be romantic about how you make your money. There needs to be parameters within which self-organisation is possible. When the team wants to make decisions that are outside those parameters, it is the role of their manager to point it out to the team and bring them back inside those parameters.

3. We are self-organised, so you can’t tell us what to do!

This would be the tank of weaponised beliefs which happens when someone (or everyone) on the team is pushing back against a perceived authority figure. The challenge here is teaching the teams they can self-manage – within their parameters. There are some things they may decide and other things they cannot. Where you delegate, decisional authority is key. As a leader, it is also important for you to align your actions and decisions to support your teams in their journey toward self-organisation. If the teams start noticing you are asking them for one thing and acting in the opposite way, you will lose all credibility.

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

– Michael Jordan

The Right People with the Right Mindset

Agile teams require flexibility, adaptation, and efficient collaboration. This can’t happen until you get the right people in place. For instance, technical professionals who are traditionally risk-averse may have trouble adapting to the flexibility of an agile team. At the same time, a professional with a “visionary” mindset might be comfortable with the uncertainty inherent in an agile team environment but may spend more time ideating than experimenting. This imbalance can significantly hinder efficiencies. These types of “people problems” pose the biggest threat to adopting an agile methodology. You must have the right people and utilise them in the right way.

It’s Not the Team, It’s the Ownership

The secret sauce isn’t in the concept, but in the principle behind it – ownership stemming from the power to make decisions. When people are encouraged to bring their whole, creative, messy selves to work and make important decisions, they take ownership in ways they would have never dreamed possible. Ownership is the most powerful motivator in business. A business that motivates everyone to take ownership has found the holy grail.

It’s About Responsibility, Not Tasks

The archaic ‘organisation-as-a-machine’ system would have you believe that a single manager is better at making decisions than the ten people who work under them. (Read that again). In the emerging work world, an organisation is a living system and it believes that the ten people most affected by the decision will be better at making it. The result of both mindsets are incredibly revealing. The command-and-control style manager takes the responsibility to make the decision, and then assigns tasks for the team to complete. The organisation-as-a-living-system delegates responsibility to the team so they can make those decisions. When you assign tasks “put this nut on that bolt”, people feel used. When the team takes ownership of the decision-making responsibility “make a great widget”, people are inspired and engaged.

It’s Simple, Not Easy

New horizons are created through new ways of thinking, perceiving, and attending to ourselves and each other. It is up to the individuals within our organisations to co-create a new logic. This shift in logic is the biggest challenge facing organisational leadership today. Without this necessary revolution, we will be unable to transform successfully towards a sustainable future. The logic of yesterday is of top-down, hierarchic, command-and-control, risk-adverse, competition-oriented, short-termed maximisation, control-based thinking best suited to the Industrial Age. Over a century of “bosses” have taught people they are not as smart and motivated as anyone ranked above them. This mechanistic worldview is based on reductionist logic that fragments reality into abstract definitions, silo’s and objects to be quantified, measured, controlled, and then maximised. It largely over-looks the interrelated, fluid, connective, collaborative, participatory nature of Nature and people. You need to demonstrate this shift in mindset before people will trust you really are doing it. Here’s how to demonstrate it with a small project experiment:

  1. Form a team around an objective (4-12 people)
  2. THEY FIRST clearly define the desired result,
  3. THEY identify the process(es) needed to get that result.
  4. THEY set metrics for steps in the process
  5. THEY set the measurement that ensure those steps have been met (quality, quantity, speed, etc.)
  6. THEY decide what happens if the metrics aren’t met and how to move team members along if they are not contributing appropriately.
  7. Leadership approves.
  8. THEY Execute. When it all comes down to it, nothing trumps execution.

In the Quantum Age, people no longer want jobs that simply pay the bills. They want meaningful work that allows them to be fully human, make decisions and be responsible for their own growth. There no longer has to be a difference between who you are and what you do. As more companies leave the crumbling hierarchical structures behind and invite people into the decision-making process, they are more likely to retain the top talent they have. Giving people their sovereignty back is becoming a necessity for keeping them. Self-managed agile teams is a great way to do that.

“The pace and ability at which an organisation is able to effectively innovate will be the determining factor of competitiveness in the future. The future is now.”
― Kaihan Krippendorff

6 Dimensions of Team Agility

So you’re on board. While in your ‘Covid Cave’ you challenged your old deep-rooted assumptions and usual ways of working. Now you’re keen to apply the learning from this intense period of transformation as we emerge into a post-pandemic world to face an ever-changing ‘new normal’. Luckily, the University of Manchester has done the research. They identified six factors that enable teams to rapidly and effectively respond to changing demands. When a team achieves a blend of all six, they can then be defined as truly agile. The study revealed that agile teams with these characteristics improve performance at both an individual and team level, while also boosting employee engagement. By applying this learning in a systematic way across your own organisation, you can face an uncertain future with increased confidence.

1. Multi-Skilled Teams

Team members possess diverse skills and assume multiple roles when working on projects, allowing them to adapt and work amongst themselves when priorities change.

2. Iterative Planning

Agile teams hold regular planning meetings to stay aligned with demands by setting short-term task goals and reviewing progress on critical tasks.

3. Customer involvement

Agile teams focus on customer needs, collaborate and communicate with customers regularly, and incorporate customer feedback throughout the project cycle.

4. Team Autonomy

Agile teams are empowered to decide how to complete and organise their work, which speeds up decision-making and task cycles, and enhances task effectiveness.

5. Team speed

Agile teams accelerate their output over time through continuous learning and improvement.

6. Team Prioritisation

Agile teams focus on delivering the most valuable customer outputs by keeping to deadlines and reprioritising tasks in line with customer priorities. They are flexible in how they complete tasks while maintaining key dates.

“With silo mentality, organisations lose their collaborative advantage as they are being over-managed and under led.”
― Pearl Zhu

Breaking Down Silos

Similar to auto-immune disease in the body, silo mentaility senses other parts of the organisation as foreign invaders, and so they work against each other. “Us vs Them” silos are fearful, closed, hurting and hurtful, paralysing, negative, and ultimately extremely dangerous to the health and survival of any organisation.  Winning teams, by contrast, are psychologically safe, truly open, purpose-driven, customer and learning obsessed, agile or at least flexible, empathic with a positive agenda, and share knowledge. In a fight where “Us” is the “Versus Silos” and “Them” is the “Safe, Happy and Open Agile Team” – which one are you willing to bet the survival of your company on?

This time is abundantly ripe with the opportunity to change the way we go to market, work together and consume. As a leader, the type of talent you need to attract and retain are problem-solvers and go-getters. Organisations and teams that will thrive — and ultimately help change the world as we know it — will be self-motivated, ambitious, reliable, and collaborative. Team members have to innovate and serve better and faster than ever before and maybe even do so in an entirely remote or flexible workspace. 

“The more detailed we made our plans, the longer our cycle times became”
― Donald G. Reinertsen

The Future of Teams

The governance processes in our businesses are not designed for systems-thinking and emergence, they have been designed for the Industrial Era. Left-brain dominance prevails where the rational reductionist mind master’s over the intuitive, relational mind. Organisations of all kinds are cluttered with control mechanisms that paralyse employees and leaders alike. We never actually effectively control people with these systems, but we certainly stop a lot of good work from getting done. Led by a shared vision and purpose, agile organisations are supported by a dynamic project-based structure and fueled by empowered, motivated teams. These teams come together fluidly to work on a project, evolve as the project changes and dismantle to form new teams as the project wraps up. 

The future of work will see organisations operate as empowered networks, coordinated through culture, information systems, and talent mobility. As networks and ecosystems replace organisational hierarchies, the traditional question “Who do you work for?” has been replaced by “Who do you work with?” The next-stage of leadership and organisational development is not just about being more agile, more innovative, more purposeful, more sustainable – its about all these things and more! When the right people get together in the right environment, anything can happen. It’s time to go beyond the surface and symptomatic into transform mindsets at deep and partly unconscious levels. From bottom-up ways of relating, to the over-arching strategic intent of how and why we do business, a root-and-branch transformation is required.

What a challenging, stimulating and deeply rewarding time to be involved in the future of teams cocreating the future of business.

“Team performance is directly proportional to team stability. Focus on building and maintaining a stable team. Stability reduces friction and increases credibility and confidence.”
― Salil Jha


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