How to create an agile project team that delivers

By: Matt Stocker
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The never-ending project

In our experience, many senior managers have a sense of frustration about the lack of progress being made on key projects going on within their organisation—whether innovation projects, strategy projects, or any other type of important business project. Leaders know these projects and their desired outcomes are often critical to the future of their business. And yet despite their strong encouragement and exhortation on the teams to deliver, somehow these projects still drag on and results aren’t achieved. Blame is thrown across departments. Excuses are made. Frustrations are expressed. But still nothing of real value is realised.

If that’s you, we feel your pain. But rest assured, there is another way. A way that ensures rapid, transparent progress. One that gives you back a sense of control and enables you to achieve results. One that delivers real value. It involves creating an agile project team.

An agile project team isn’t a magic solution but it does help organisations deliver desired project outcomes. That’s not to say that with an agile project team there won’t be challenges, frustrations and issues along the way—there will. But where in the past it could easily be 6 months, or even maybe a year before you realise that very little genuine progress is being made, this new way of working will ensure things very quickly come to a head, allowing you to take decisive action to get things back on track.

What is an agile project team?

An agile project team is a cross-functional group of people who together have all the skills and expertise necessary to manage and deliver the outcomes and objectives of the project. It is a team that doesn’t just talk, it is a team that does. The team typically works on an iterative basis, more focused on action than mass documentation. It is a team that is transparent with and accountable to each other. The group takes shared responsibility for delivering success, working on a fast, agile cadence within short agreed timescales to complete the next phase of agreed actions.

Adapted from its software development roots, agile working is not a complex concept, but one that can often run counter to the prevalent culture in organisations.

Through our experience in using adapted agile methodologies to support all kinds of project teams working towards all kinds of objectives, we know this approach can work brilliantly in delivering results, especially when it comes to projects with strategic, innovative or creative outcomes. Projects that have taken 4 years and still remain unfinished suddenly deliver results within 4 months. Things that have been talked about for months get delivered in weeks. Issues that have been rumbling on forever come to a head ready to be solved.

So, the key question is how do you run an agile project team successfully so it delivers results?

If you’re familiar with agile software methodologies, you might be wondering if we’re going to be talking about SCRUM and the like. The answer is no, not directly, though you’ll recognise many of the (adapted) concepts. 

1. Create clear objectives and deliverables

A team without a clear set of objectives and deliverables is like a ship without a destination: either it’s never going to arrive anywhere—or it is, but someplace you neither expected or desired. We always suggest that managers/project sponsors invest time right at the start to clarify the team’s objectives, their measures of success and the value you are looking for them to deliver to the organisation. Where there are multiple stakeholders involved who have a say in the outcome, it is worth spending time together to create one unified set of objectives that everyone can sign off on. That way, you set the team up for success and avoid all kinds of conflict further along the journey.

2. Ensure all the relevant skills are in the room

Having created a clear set of objectives, you now need to ensure you have the right team in place. One of the key elements of an agile team is that you have all the relevant skills in the room (at the right level of seniority), enabling the team to be self-sufficient, accountable and efficient in delivering on their objectives. Missing or substandard capability can be one of the key roadblocks to a team delivering a successful outcome. Getting this as right as you can from the start can help you and the team avoid the inevitable disruption, stress and frustration that a lack of capability or skill creates. However, we’ve found this won’t always be evident at the beginning of the project so continue to be vigilant throughout the process. Where you do spot this as an issue, we would encourage you to take decisive action to rectify the situation.

3. Prioritise co-creation and action

Agile project teams are not talking shops, or information sharing sessions. Rather, they are teams designed around co-creation, action and delivery. Now you’ve got a team that has all the skills necessary to make things happen effectively, there will be a natural shift from talking about things to be done to actually doing the things that need to be done. By taking a JFDI approach, it is possible to create rapidly, in a room together, by working collaboratively to either achieve outputs there and then, or to prototype rough ideas ready for delivery of a more polished solution in coming weeks. Yes, the team will have more work to do outside those core meetings but encouraging them to create together can have a powerful impact on results. Add in short timescales for time boxed delivery of pre-agreed actions and you create a rapid cadence of creation, delivery and results.

4. Ensure the team have the time and resource to give to the project

All agile project teams will need to have a rhythm of creating together and then going off to do additional work before coming back together to iterate the next steps. However, things will quickly fall apart if the team members don’t have time to attend the project meetings or to do the agreed work outside them. This can be especially true if the project is an addition to the team members’ day jobs or another project added to an already overstretched workload. As the team is cross-functional and reliant on its collective knowledge and commitment, it’s critical that this work is prioritised for each individual. We’ve seen the detrimental impact that even a single member of the team not doing their agreed part can have on the morale and outlook of the team. Sometimes this can be an organisational issue if staff are overloaded with competing priorities, but it’s also important to recognise that not having the time can also just be an excuse that hides poor time management or a lack of capability to deliver what has been agreed.

5. Get the right project sponsor

If any of the issues around competing priorities, staff effectiveness or capability crop up, you’ll be thankful for a strong, productive relationship with the project sponsor. A good project sponsor is worth their weight in gold. Able to bring their weight and authority to many different situations, they can help resolve those internal issues that jeopardise the success of the team. They have the authority to ensure that the team has the resources and capabilities they require to get the job done. They can also help bypass bureaucracy—critical if you’re trying to deliver results at a speed the organisation isn’t set up for. The only proviso to this is that they need to be senior enough to do so; they need to be able to traverse the political landscape of the organisation with relative ease and without fear or uncertainty.

At the same time, it’s important for the project leader and the team to be able to manage upwards. Project sponsors are certainly not infallible: they can get over-excited about possibilities that are beyond the scope of the agreed objectives or inadvertently send a team off track, so it’s important to be able to have robust and honest conversations to iron out any differences and concerns. In a productive and constructive relationship, the process of doing so should strengthen the relationship, not weaken it, and increase the chances of the team successfully meeting its objectives.

6. Create a culture of no excuses

It’s important for the team to not only be accountable to the project sponsor, but also to be accountable to one another. You should look to develop a culture of openness, honesty and frankness. If someone isn’t delivering what they said they would, it needs to be ok to have those difficult conversations. Obviously this should be done constructively, but productive conflict is not something to be shied away from.

We’ve found that many organisations in which agile project teams operate have a prevalent culture that may not even be obvious to those within it. In a healthy culture, this can be a real benefit. In organisations where there are more cultural issues (e.g. an avoidance of conflict, over use of email, making excuses about missed deadlines) it can be a real challenge to create a new sub-culture within a team that still needs to interact with the wider organisation. Sometimes, working on this agile basis can surface issues rather rapidly, so be prepared to act fast to ensure the integrity of the team is protected and that issues are not allowed to fester.

7. Tools for transparency

Transparency and openness is critical for an effective project team. Not only does it foster trust and effective working relationships: it’s also much more efficient. Many project meetings consist of too much low value information sharing and, if you’re lucky a little bit of decision making. This isn’t an effective use of time—especially for an agile project team. Their time should be spent on creating, collaborating and then planning the next phase of their work together, rather than overly focusing on past activity.

However, in order to make this shift you’ll need to ensure a greater level of ongoing transparency between team members. Putting additional tools and approaches in place makes this possible. Certain methodologies have their own techniques such as daily standup meetings and/or kanban boards which can be part of the solution. The right software solutions (such as Trello, Basecamp and idonethis) also have a place in increasing transparency of activity and encouraging accountability. They can also be very effective at moving people out of their emails, building a body of knowledge around a project and ensuring effective resource balancing. The benefits of these tools and techniques means that teams can spend less time sharing ‘information’ and more time creating, innovating and delivering.

8. Leadership matters

Whilst roles and responsibilities may shift and change as you go through a project, strong and capable project leadership is key. Even if you employ a consultancy to support the project team, the project lead will need to take ownership on the client side. They should be responsible for getting the best of out of the team, liaising with the project sponsor and ensuring progress. Without this ‘buck stops here’ role you can quickly find challenges balloon, team frustrations grow and progress is difficult to achieve even with consultancy support. There are situations were, if the team is good at taking shared responsibility, you might not need to make a big deal about this role but in most teams you’ll need one. That said, it’s important that the leadership style is one of serving the team, rather than ‘command and control’ approach, as this could damage and detract from the ownership of the group.

One of the challenges in selecting an effective project lead is that, if the project is multidisciplinary in nature and the project sits across a number of departments, it’s not always evident who or where the responsibility should lie. If you see project lead as a role rather than a job title, and you set the expectation at the beginning that who holds this role may be fluid, you can confidently select the right person for a particular stage of a project. Later in the project they may pass the baton to another team member who is better placed to take ownership of the next stage. It is worth noting there are other roles in a team such as product owner so one person isn’t expected to ‘own’ every aspect of the project necessarily.

9. Preparation is key

This starts with a clear agenda that helps to ensure the project moves toward the end objectives in the most efficient way possible. The agenda should also help the team deliver maximum value in the time available. Agendas sometimes require sign-off by other team members or stakeholders, so do consider this in advance.

When a team comes together they also need all the information required to make the decisions necessary to move things forwards, whether this be customer interview insights; market, sales or financial data; or relevant information from a colleague. This kind of data can unlock insights that otherwise would have remained outside the teams awareness or understanding, and can avoid unnecessary delays, ill advised assumptions, circular conversations and poor decisions.

Any actions that the team need to have completed beforehand should also be clearly outlined.

10. Skilled facilitation

High quality facilitation is critical to creating a good team atmosphere and sense of progress. This can be tricky as it requires the right skills, subject knowledge, attitude and aptitude. When it comes to cross-functional teams, the facilitator(s) will also need to be able to draw together members from different departments at differing levels of seniority and skill. Not all organisations have access to facilitators who tick all the boxes, so partnering the team with appropriate external facilitators can sometimes be extremely beneficial.

Great facilitation should engage and guide the team through the process of co-creation (remember: you’re not a talking team, you’re a doing team!). Pacing the time together and ensuring that the required outcomes are delivered is key. The facilitator should understand the creative process and how this works, from idea generation through to final delivery. An awareness and understanding of suitable frameworks and tools can also be key in creating an additional layer of structure, insight and learning.

11. Find an environment conducive to collaborative working

Working together in an environment that fosters collaboration is really helpful. Whilst some organisations have dedicated rooms for key projects, many firms and teams don’t have this luxury. As long as the room is big enough, comfortable enough and has suitable wall space for canvases, flip charts and so on, you should be fine.

It can however sometimes be beneficial for the team to meet offsite. Reducing the risk of interruptions can give a sense of focus and occasion that teams might struggle to achieve in the early days of a project. It can also encourage greater openness and transparency as team members are less conscious of being overheard.

U-shaped table arrangements work fine as does a boardroom table layout. Avoid arrangements that remind people of being in a classroom (i.e rows). You’ll need access to flip charts, a projector and ideally a large whiteboard or two, post-it notes and any posters/canvases required. Ensure that the team record agreed actions throughout the session and remember to take photos of any notes/ideas/creations at the end. Meeting notes and a list of agreed actions, including deadlines and who is responsible are also vital.

There you have it—how to create a project team that delivers. Over to you. Let us know how you get on and if you have any questions or would like any advice do just give us a call.

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Article by:

Matt Stocker

Matt is founder and director of Stocker Partnership, a strategy and innovation consultancy. As a strategist, designer, innovator and geek, he's known for his creative thinking. Matt thrives in challenging environments and loves to push the boundaries of possibility. He's a big picture, visual thinker who is always running 5 to 10 years ahead. Find out more

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