Embrace Ambiguity, Agreeableness to Build an Agile Team
Enterprises that want to form agile teams to explore new opportunities can build them from within. The key is to nurture the right personality traits.
There are plenty of recipes for assembling an agile team but one of the first steps is to recognize the necessary ingredients to get started. The goal is to adapt and respond to the rapid-fire changes driven by new technology and evolving business models. That can be a challenge for enterprises built around legacy practices, infrastructure, and systems. The predictability that was once a strength can become a hinderance for the company.
Scrum.org, a provider of training and certification in software delivery, and management consulting firm McKinsey & Company unveiled guidelines on Tuesday to help enterprises prepare their personnel to operate as agile teams. Simply being flexible and open-minded are not enough. According to the recommendations, agile teams should cultivate agreeableness and learn to maintain focus while handling ambiguity.
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Dave West, CEO of Scrum.org, says his team has worked with McKinsey in training some of their consultants to bring Scrum, an agile software development framework, to their clients’ organizations. McKinsey often assists senior executives who drive change at large enterprises. West says one question frequently arose from clients who were considering introducing agile frameworks: “Is everybody right for agile?
That led to Scrum.org to ask its trainers to pose questions to their clients about work values and personality traits. The results brought about a focus on a set of traits that included how well someone manages ambiguity. Looking for personnel with such characteristics does not mean a wholesale wiping out the current staff, West says. “We’re not saying that this new way of working is a huge change in the industry that requires a completely different set of people.”
There were some surprises, he says, such as the desire for agreeableness as a personality trait on an agile team. “I thought openness would be the next most important trait,” West says. Transparency and being clear about emotions are valuable, he says, when focused on this type of work. The data from the survey highlighted agreeableness above openness.
Kneejerk perceptions might equate agreeableness with being a “pushover,” says Wouter Aghina, partner at McKinsey’s Amsterdam office, but that was not how the survey characterized the trait. “The behavior that people display has to do with their intrinsic qualities and capabilities, but it is very largely driven by the context they operate in,” he says.
The idea is to be positive yet focused when someone brings up a different point of view instead of immediately shutting them down and dismissing their ideas, West says.
Creating a safe environment should be one of the first points considered when trying to encourage a team to be more agreeable, Aghina says. That includes thinking about how to ask others for their opinions and getting away from a culture of individual heroes. “It opens up a whole new opportunity for leaders to think about the context they are creating,” he says, “and to what extent does that context make people comfortable with ambiguity and being agreeable.”
For example, if a leader creates an environment where they demand immediate answers to all questions, it can have a very negative affect on the team, Aghina says. This can have a detrimental influence on the team making them hesitant to accommodate ambiguity.
The principles of agile development, says Kent J. McDonald, content curator with the Agile Alliance, are outlined in the “Manifesto for Agile Software Development” published by early proponents of the framework. The intent is to find more effective methods of developing software in collaboration with others. Learning is part of the process, he says, along with significant emphasis on the team doing the work and how they work together.
“The traits that IT professionals should try to cultivate include a willingness to continuously learn and adapt, seek feedback, and be willing to collaborate and work with others,” McDonald says. They should also make decisions based on what adds value for their customers and be able to accept uncertainty.
Despite the potential that agile development offers, enterprises and teams that are highly motivated by results might not immediately embrace agile frameworks. “People will move to an agile way of working only if they see a value to doing it,” West says. “Though it may be a small change, the idea of doing it is relatively large.”
He asks cynics whether their current approach is working brilliantly with plenty of value delivered to their customers. The competition these days includes bleeding-edge startups with next generation ideas that some organizations might struggle to keep pace with. “You need to think not just about the tools you use or the processes but the teams, their formation, and the way in which those work values blend to deliver this agile way of working,” West says.
Joao-Pierre S. Ruth has spent his career immersed in business and technology journalism first covering local industries in New Jersey, later as the New York editor for Xconomy delving into the city's tech startup community, and then as a freelancer for such outlets as ... View Full Bio
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