During a coaching session a few weeks ago I was asked by a client about the advantages of keeping teams together in an Agile setting. After all, they used to build teams to order for each project and it was working fine. Building teams for specific small projects and disbanding them afterward seemed like the most efficient way to go, as it meant that all specialists were exactly where they needed to be at exactly the right time.
This question is tricky to answer. Of course, the client is right: in a very narrow view, he uses his resources far more efficiently that way. But he’s also completely wrong, as the short-term gain of efficiency comes at the expense of long-term gains and of the overall strength of his entire system.
The answer is also not necessarily to keep teams completely stable over time but to understand the “why” and “how” to change team members.
In this post, we will explore how to use Modern Agile principles to help teams leave fragility for resilience and antifragility. For further information on those concepts, look up Joshua Kerievsky’s Modern Agile and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder.
THE ISSUE WITH EFFICIENT, PREDICTABLE TEAMS
Business and production in the 20th century were marked by a continual quest for two elements: efficiency and predictability. From Taylor’s “Scientific management” to Lean Manufacturing, most of the proposed approaches have likened companies to machines that can be precise and predictable.
Predictability is desired in order to plan from months to years in advance with little variance. Estimation experts either skim or use complex algorithms to calculate risk in their estimations, with results that are now increasingly off target. Predictability requires a very stable market, a very stable environment, and only “expected” unexpected events. As we try to predict over many years, we leave the realm of predictability for sheer divination.
Efficiency is desired to increase the output while reducing the waste. To be efficient, one needs to create a well-oiled machine, with all steps carefully planned and tweaked. It is much more achievable than a reliable form of long-term predictability, but throw a wrench in that well-oiled machine and the the whole system will be blocked, if not damaged. Efficiency also requires a great deal of stability in the workflow, the market, the technologies involved and the corporate environment. Volatility and uncertainty are the worst enemies of an efficient system, as efficient systems are not meant to deal with significant variance. In effect, as a system moves towards efficiency, it also becomes increasingly fragile.
Entropy is the direct result of adding complexity to a system, such as new features or quickly patching defects. Increased entropy mean increased fragility. The more complexity you add to a system, the closer you bring it to the breaking point.
Non-Agile teams are created to deliver something specific in an efficient manner, often to be disbanded afterward. Team members’ time is precisely managed using Gantt charts. Even estimated variation is accounted for and planned. Matrix planning allows for each person to be part of multiple teams with specific time allocation for each. It looks good on reports, but emerging problems causes variations, and there’s rarely a shortage of problems. Teams, and the systems they are working on, rarely seems to improve with time but rather accumulate entropy in the form of a backlog of work, defects, etc..
FROM FRAGILE TEAMS TO RESILIENT TEAMS
New teams are always fragile, whether they are Agile of not. Agile teams, however, benefit from several advantages that make them a bit more robust from the get-go.
Agile teams have a stable core of dedicated cross-functional individuals. They are not only systems but networked systems. Their strength comes from the crisscrossing of diverse types of relationships within the teams — personal relationships, skill redundancy, information sharing and team self-organization. The balance between these relationships is what’s make them complex organic systems.
However, even Agile teams start fragile. Growing them toward resilience require following the four Modern Agile principles:
Safety as a Prerequisite is achieved by creating a blameless team environment through shared accountability of work, group problem-solving, frequent syncing and the all important right to fail. As Seth Godin argues, people are not afraid of failure, they are afraid of blame.
Learning Rapidly is achieved by spreading knowledge in the team through paired work and mentoring as well as small, controlled experiments. An Agile team uses a short learning loop to absorb new information and update their knowledge constantly.
Delivering value continuously, or in small batches, reduces the team’s overall risk by ensuring that no matter what happens (budget cuts, human error or disaster), completed work is already out there bringing value to the company, client or customer.
Make people awesome is achieved in large part by the results of Safety as a Prerequisite and Learning Rapidly. Safety, experience-based knowledge and confidence empower people to go out of the beaten path without fear of reprisal. They will be able to absorb stress into their system and be more willing to adopt new ideas. They will grow faster, improve faster and just be plain more awesome at their job.
Funny thing is, these teams will reach some form of predictability and efficiency but from a completely different route than teams that are assembled to be an efficient system. It’s the combination of several traits that are not seen as efficient that brings them there: redundancy of skills, the collaborative approach, absence of fear, experimentation. By using non-efficient practices, they end up more efficient.
When that point is reached, the team is already resilient. It will be able to withstand a lot of challenges, adapt to change and face both uncertainty and volatility. The team is not invincible though: very high levels of stress (such as changing several team members simultaneously) will make it crack.
FROM RESILIENT TEAMS TO ANTIFRAGILE TEAMS
Resilient teams are able to accept stress without being bothered by it too much. It’s good, but it can be better. Agile teams have all the building blocks necessary to progress from resilience to antifragility, so let’s put them to work.
Antifragility is the ability to take up a lot of stress, and become stronger as a result, like building muscles. Taleb uses the hydra as an analogy: a multi-headed monster that grows two more heads every time one is cut off.
The short learning loop of Agile teams is the key. The use of practices such as retrospective meetings allow teams to capitalize on that short learning loop: problems and challenges can be seen as new opportunities to grow. These challenges and stress are beginning to make the team stronger — or Antifragile. In order to convert stress into growth, a team needs to become comfortable with these short learning loops.
An antifragile team needs stress to continue to perform. Anyone who trains at a gym or does physical work for a while and then suddenly stops for an extended period of time will notice that the body will quickly lose its newfound strength if it is not used regularly. When not exercised through stress, the antifragile team stops growing.
This is where the Experiment & Learn Rapidly principle of Modern Agile truly comes into play. By conducting small, controlled experiments that are not too risky, teams can try and explore new ideas, keep themselves stimulated and create more challenges.
Introducing a rotation of team members is another way of adding some healthy stress. Changing one team member at a time, and then letting the team recuperate by spreading team expertise to the new member and absorbing the new perspective brought by the newcomer will make the team stronger. The departing team member will help another team by spreading his expertise and getting pollinated by his new environment.
The trick to this evolution through stress is pacing. If you do it too rarely, the teams will stagnate or regress. If you do it too often, however, the trauma might become too much and prevent them from reacting to unexpected large amount of stress.
JUST THE BEGINNING
Agile Teams are relatively easy systems to bring toward antifragility, because of their very makeup. It takes time and conscious efforts to grow them that way, but it is well worth the effort.
Other kinds of systems can benefit from antifragility. After all, what is the benefit of having antifragile teams in a company that cannot survive in a volatile and uncertain environment? Of course making a whole company antifragile brings a whole new set of challenges. In further posts, we will explore how to bring those larger and more complex systems along the same path.