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Four tips for an agile technology team

FYI, this story is more than a year old

Managing IT teams is challenging. From strategising roadmaps and meeting strict deadlines to the ongoing skills’ shortage in this area, lots of elements get in the way of ensuring the IT team works like a ‘well-oiled machine’. So it’s no wonder more organisations are now moving towards more agile solutions to IT management.

Agile methods are widely used as a software development approach, and drastically help increase project performance.  Studies show agile methods can result in a 7 to 12 per cent increase in productivity. Meanwhile, agile time-to-market methods enable teams to realise tight schedule deadlines 75 to 90% of the time versus 40 to 60% for traditional projects. It is then unsurprising that ANZ group CEO Shayne Elliot has already shifted more than 3000 employees in its Australian and technology divisions into agile teams and aims to boost that figure to 13,000 by the end of the year.

Given the shift toward a culture of agility, I’ve compiled some of my learnings over the years on how to develop an agile team that will succeed in the long-term.

Identify candidates’ values.

Building the right agile team starts at recruitment. Agile methods require a specific, tailored approach to project management that not every worker may align with. This is especially the case in a skills’ shortage context, where many organisations make the mistake of focusing too much on recruiting the most skilled candidates, without considering whether they will be a good fit in the agile mix. If potential candidates don’t align with your values and the way you want your team to function, then there’s no hope of creating a cohesive, pool of IT talent that can champion your agile methodologies. After all, you can easily train someone to develop their technical skillset, but it’s much harder to convince someone to stick to your philosophy.

This means you need to start by having a really good interview process, which can enable your business to achieve the desired agile outcome, and also give the interaction a human touch. The emphasis should be on ensuring that everyone is aligned with the company’s philosophy and has a positive experience throughout the process.

A great way to do this is to have one or two members of the team meet and talk with the candidate to get a sense of their fit within the team. Even better, invite the candidate to a casual team event such a morning tea or after work drinks.

Invert the pyramid.   When you think about a team, we can all agree that people at the bottom of the hierarchy play the most important role – they are the ones getting most the job done while managers provide direction. So why not see things upside down?

A ‘reverse hierarchy’ team structure can play a major role in enabling agile teams. In this structure, the CTO sits at the bottom followed by immediate department heads, middle management and finally the team members. Managers should take a hands-off approach in order to allow team members to remain productive and efficient, only stepping in when the team needs support.

Management is servants to the teams, not so much in the way of being ordered around, but being responsive to their staff’s needs, identifying opportunities and stepping in when problems arise.

An agile team is best aided by this structure as it streamlines processes and has each team member efficiently fulfilling their specific role. An individual should understand what they need to do for the team to succeed, and also know what they don’t have to do, to minimise time-wastage and increase the speed and quality of results. So individually, the team members have all the key skills required, but as a team, they deliver and succeed. The end result is the proverbial whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Focus on trust and autonomy, not micro-management.

Agile working is all about flexibility and autonomy, not micro-management. Do you really need a status update? Think twice. Managers are often tempted to ask for constant ‘status updates’ that they don’t really need. They should trust that their teams will give them an update when the time is right. In the meantime, as long as the team is fine with their progress, then management doesn’t need to know about it. Again, it is only when a team needs help that managers should step in to help.

Obviously, for this method to work, the relationships between managers and team members need a high degree of trust and openness. In fact, you cannot have a working agile team without these key foundations.

By getting rid of toxicity that comes with constantly required updates, a team can achieve self-sufficiency, which is one of the greatest features of agility. Self-sufficiency increases velocity and consistency in an organisation’s input and output, as relationships and processes are fully optimised.

Empower your team.   If your team reaches self-sufficiency, they will only be able to maintain it if you ensure their skills are always up-to-date. Relevant and timely skills provide confidence and autonomy, and high performing people are always hungry for knowledge. Ensure that team members can access extra learning and personal development programs easily. There are hundreds of self-learning platforms available, often for free or a low price. If you give IT teams flexibility in how they want to improve their capabilities, they will stay engaged.

When a team has the most up-to-date and extensive knowledge, they are better equipped to handle our ever-evolving environment. 

This is not an exhaustive list but a useful starting point for anyone who manages an IT team. Get recruitment right, set the team up for success by ensuring they have everything they need to work unencumbered, and provide opportunities for learning and development to keep the team engaged.

By David Higgins, Chief Technology Officer of MedicalDirector

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