One of the best experiences I can have as an Agile Coach is presenting Agile and Scrum to people with little or no experience. It grounds me and after many years of living Agile, keeps me from falling into the Curse of Knowledge cognitive bias. Between these presentations and my daily coaching practice, I am reminded yet again at the importance of forming a good scrum team. This, along with proper backlog compilation and maintenance, can make the difference between success and endless frustration. In my experience, proper scrum team formation is the area where companies who are unsuccessful in Agile transformations fail most often.
Over the years, with the help of my teams and the many knowledgeable colleagues that I have worked with, I have distilled everything I have learned and come up with five attributes of a good scrum team. I use it much like a mantra. Those attributes are: Small, Co-Located, Dedicated, Stable and Cross-Functional. That is not to say that a good scrum team will not have other elements or that you can’t witness improvement without all five, but like the sculptor who is only done when there is nothing left to take away, these five represent an ideal essence of a good team. None of these five things can be removed without real consequences to the success of the team.
I write about size at length (and mention the five attributes) in a previous post, When it Comes to Software Development – Size Matters, so I encourage you to read it for some eye-opening account of a major study that confirms this fact. Suffice it to say that Software Development is about communication and collaboration. It is complex knowledge work. In a physical, manufacturing model, adding a person to the effort would result in the expected proportional increase in productivity. In software development, however, adding an additional person merely exponentially increases the number of communication channels whereby any expected increase in productivity is quickly overtaken by the number of communication channels created. There is a reason Agilists recommend small teams. Basically, you can save money because your cost per unit of productive (and quality) work decreases.
Co-Location seems to be an issue with all of the companies that I consult for. We know that the best software developers can be 10 times or more productive than the least. We know that face-to-face communication is multiple times better than any of the substitutes we employ when that mode is not available. We all laugh at the YouTube video “A Conference Call in Real Life”. We know that the unacknowledged creation of technical debt will cause us financial havoc for years to come. Not convinced, I encourage you to check out my blog on the High Cost of Low Cost Software Development. And yet we still continue to source our software development to low bidders around the globe. Here’s the really interesting thing. For many years I have asked a simple question – does it work? I get two answers. The majority shake their head, laugh, and provide a solid “No”. The optimists of the group say that “We have found a way to make it work.” I also see a great deal of blogs that are titled “How We Found a Way to Make Offshore Work”, but it takes little research skills to uncover the author as someone employed by a company that works offshore. Never is there an enthusiastic “Yes.” Most would bring the work back if they could, but it appears that there is a mysterious formation in many software development organizations that continues to think they are doing the right thing by piece-mealing work to various locations. I can only guess it is accounting, but I have yet to meet anyone whom I respect who actually understands software development who would recommend it.
I often rail against the project-centric focus of many software development organizations. For more information, I encourage you to check out my blog “Why Project Focused Mentality is Killing Software Development”. The problem is that in projects we build teams around projects so that one, especially a key employee, will be spread over multiple concurrent projects. There are a number of very serious negative effects to doing this. First, context shifting means that every time a developer must change their concentrated area of focus they will lose 15 minutes minimum. If I am working on two different projects concurrently, there is not a huge loss, assuming that I might work on one in the morning and one after lunch, but many developers are bounced from thing to thing like so many pinballs with context shifting throughout the day. Hours each day are wasted and no project gets the attention it deserves. A better way is to create a small, co-located scrum team around a product backlog and bring the work of these multiple projects to the team via their backlog. The ability for individuals on the team to not fall prey to context shifting will allow them to focus on their work, even at times leading to a state called Flow in which developers (and athletes, artists, etc) are at their peak performance. For those interested, I refer you to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Project-centric thinking also results in teams that are short-lived. We put the team together for a particular period (sometimes relatively short) of time. When the project is done, the team is disbanded. This causes a number of issues. First, every team goes through a period of “storming, norming, and performing.” This is easy to see visually when you plot the velocities of multiple teams on a timeline. You can visually see the storming period as teams learn to work together as a team instead of a collection of individuals, through very low (if non-existent) velocity. In my experience, I have come to the conclusion that I expect nearly nothing from a brand new team for the first couple of iterations. It is not until they reach iterations 3, 4 or even 5 that they will reach what is their performing velocity. Therefore, every time I break up a team, I have a very high overhead associated with the team’s “storming and norming.” Another benefit of keeping the same people on teams for a longer period of time is by simply learning how to better communicate with each other over time. Since software development is about communication and collaboration, the more time we spend together, the more effective we become in communicating. I remember reading about the notion of “hyper-productive” teams from Scott Downey and Jeff Sutherland. The interesting thing is that their “hyper-performance” did not manifest until after the team had been together for some time.
In some respects, cross functionality of people is a by-product of the fact that team size should be kept small. If there are 15 things I need to do to get my code into production, I obviously will not be able to do so if there needs to be an expert for each piece. The creation of “silos” is great if your goal is to create a MDD (mortgage driven development) environment. It is bad for the flow of the product. Silos create queues. Queues, if you want to deliver something quicker, are bad. I highly recommend the book Principles of Product Development Flow by Don Reinersten for a deeper understanding of queuing theory and the damage that out-of-control queues can have. This book talks about the concept of generalizing specialists. In my experience, developers are more motivated by status and mastery of new technology and ideas than any other group of people I have worked with. Creating an environment where developers are expected to know more than a single specialized domain is not only good for moving the software through the system quicker, but it also leads to greater developer engagement. A team should be responsible for all aspects of the software product and the development cycle. This cannot be accomplished without having team members who are cross functional.
An old African proverb states, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” In order to be successful in software development we need to understand teams and team dynamics. My many years of experience working with what I would estimate around a hundred development teams has led me to conclude that there are five basic attributes for an optimal development team – small, co-located, dedicated, stable and cross functional. I hope that these five attributes help you as you continue your quest for agility.
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