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Game on! How to build agile teams

I looked up and saw the opposing team’s forward break away from a pack of defenders. He drove the soccer ball toward me stride-by-stride. As I crept forward in the goalie box, I shook out my hands, ready to pounce. He took a crisp, arching shot. I leapt as high as I could, stretching my hand high into the air. Unfortunately, I came up two feet short, and the ball swished into the net behind me.

When you’re coaching a pee wee soccer team, you shouldn’t put an unathletic, 4-foot-tall kid with a bowl cut in the net.

In my defense, I wasn’t the only overmatched player on the team. Our team lost every game we ever played over the course of two seasons. Thankfully, orange slices after the game helped soothe the sting of defeat.

Teams must be a fit for the task at hand.

Our team turned out to be a terrible fit for the task at hand. In your world of work, the stakes are obviously much higher. But your need to assemble a team that’s built for high performance is every bit as relevant.

A major business trend is the rise of the agile enterprise. Companies of all sizes and in virtually all industries are creating agile teams to get closer to customers and adapt in a rapidly changing business environment. Agile teams are innovative, collaborative, and nimble. They outperform bureaucratic and hierarchical team structures for many types of work in the modern world.

As a talent optimization leader, you’ll likely be asked to build and lead agile teams. To do so, you’ll need to understand the characteristics of high-performing agile teams and the steps required to get your own team ready to take the field.

10 key traits of successful agile teams

Let’s begin by looking at 10 key characteristics of successful agile teams:

  1. Comfort with change: Agile teams are flexible and able to operate in a constantly changing environment.
  2. Comfort with uncertainty: Agile teams are designed to thrive in ambiguous situations full of intriguing questions but having few clear answers.
  3. Collaboration: Being agile is a team sport, and agile teams know how to blend different perspectives, expertise, and skills for maximum effectiveness.
  4. Decisiveness: Agile teams make imperfect decisions every day, but what’s most important is that they make decisions; they don’t endlessly debate and ruminate.
  5. Discipline: It’s a fallacy that agile is anarchy; agile teams take a disciplined approach to executing a well-designed process.
  6. Initiative: Agile teams have a bias for action; inaction is a recipe for missed opportunities if not outright disaster.
  7. Right-sized planning: While agile teams hate planning waste as the future is uncertain, they do exercise something akin to “minimum viable” planning often by using lean methods.
  8. Speed: Agile teams realize the need to capitalize on opportunities and to reduce learning cycles.
  9. Testing: Opinions in agile teams are interesting but irrelevant; instead they rely on well-designed experiments that quickly yield objective results that inform the team’s execution.
  10. User-centricity: Agile teams are obsessed with their users’, customers’, or stakeholders’ current reality and needs.

Like any business challenge, the risks associated with building agile teams are people challenges. Certain types of people are naturally wired to some of these agile characteristics but may struggle at others. Reference Profiles can provide insights and guidance relative to agile work.

Captains easily demonstrate initiative and they’re comfortable with change, but they may need to “stretch” to accommodate the required rigor of testing. By contrast, Specialists are naturally adept at the process and discipline required for agile performance but may struggle to operate in an environment of ambiguity without proper coaching and support.

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5 tips for building agile teams

Let’s look at some specific actions you should and should not take when building agile teams:

  1. Do keep team sizes small. Large teams simply can’t be as nimble as they need to be. Communication, action, and decision-making flow more freely in smaller teams operating in an agile mode.
  2. Do get aligned on purpose and goals. When constructing a team, lead a thoughtful review of the team’s objectives, scope, and required cross-functional skills.
  3. Do raise awareness. Use behavioral data to understand and review each team member’s natural strengths and challenges related to working in an agile mode.
  4. Don’t pigeonhole people. While individuals may not be naturally wired to adopt certain agile practices, always keep a growth mindset. People can flex their behaviors given sufficient motivation, coaching, and feedback.
  5. Don’t set people up to fail. Following on from the previous point, there are limits to how much stretch is possible—and therefore fair to ask of people. Rather than assign agile work to someone most comfortable in roles requiring predictability and freedom from making mistakes, it’s better to find more traditional work assignments for this contributor.

To succeed in an agile business environment, build your teams in a purposeful way. This will inevitably demand a thoughtful and tailored leadership approach from you and a willingness to flex and accommodate some unnatural behaviors from your team members.

Three employees on an agile team

If you’re committed to getting this right, you’ll tap into any and all available people data to maximize awareness and guide your coaching over time as you build your team’s agile capabilities.

If not, you’d better stock up on orange slices.


Matt Poepsel, PhD is the author of Expand the Circle: Enlightened Leadership for Our New World of Work and host of the Lead the People podcast. He serves as Vice President & Godfather of Talent Optimization at The Predictive Index. He holds a PhD in Psychology, an MBA, and a Harvard Business School Certificate of Management Excellence. Matt has more than 25 years of leadership experience as a software executive and consultant. He’s also a US Marine, an Ironman triathlon finisher, and a student of Buddhist philosophy.

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