Can You Be Agile Without Teams?

September 29, 2012 Luke Walter

When presented with the idea that agile development requires stable, cross-functional teams, people coming from traditionally-managed or matrixed organizations often ask whether it’s possible to gain the benefits of agile without the team part.

Fair question. Aren’t agile practices just that – practices that, when performed, confer agility? Not quite. Some practices – relative estimation, for instance – are flatly impossible or utterly useless without a team. You can certainly perform others – daily standups, for example, or have a customer sit next to your developers – but I’m not sure how agile any of this will make you.

Without the team-mediated mechanisms behind most of the practices – things like shared commitment, peer accountability, group flow, emergent and fluid leadership – it’s unlikely you’ll realize much benefit from agile practices. This is because it’s not the rote performance of individual agile practices that conveys agility. It’s the understanding, cohesion, discipline, and state of flow that people achieve when they’ve worked together consistently to reach shared goals. These phenomena arise most strongly and reliably on real teams – teams that have shared success and failure over time, and have had the opportunity to learn, adapt, evolve, and excel because of it.

The concept is perhaps more easily understood using a sports metaphor. Few would argue that a newly-formed team of heretofore unfamiliar players would perform nearly as well as a team that’s had many seasons of practice and performance together (all the theoretical players being equally skilled). Yet most companies routinely disband and reorganize their teams on a project basis – usually in only a matter of months.

It isn’t surprising, then, that we hear no glowing reports of agile adoptions from organizations where resource pooling is the norm and no attempt is made to form real teams. There are, however, plenty of lackluster and disappointing reports from these places, usually of the ‘we tried agile practices A, C, and D, but nobody liked it and we gave up’ variety.

Agile practices without the team will at best deliver results of remarkable mediocrity. Is it any wonder? After all, amalgamations of individual, transitory efforts are little different from business-as-usual waterfall.

But I suspect a deeper reason is that these organizations are missing the entire point of what agile is about. They don’t have the proper mindset to begin with. To use another sports analogy, their hearts aren’t in the game. And we all know what happens to performance when our hearts aren’t in it.

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