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Autonomous Teams – The Unicorns of Modern Management?

Blasen ohne InfosMany articles and Agile experts suggest that autonomous teams are the next and maybe final level of team development in an Agile organization structure. Fair enough, but have you ever seen a truly autonomous team in the wild? Most probably not. Why is that?

I did a lot of reading on this subject and got the feeling that there is kind of a common understanding that the more autonomous a team is, the better. So I tried to map the principles, ideas and definitions I read about to reality and found that it might not be that easy. For me autonomy of a team is not per se a guarantee for success, or boost in creativity and employee satisfaction. There have to be some surrounding factors that need to be met in order to make autonomous teams even possible and advantageous. So with this post I try to map my observations in daily working life to theory and roughly outline what this topic is about for me.

Well, let’s have a look at the autonomy aspect first. Wikipedia defines autonomy as  ‘…the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, un-coerced decision. In moral and political philosophy, autonomy is often used as the basis for determining moral responsibility and accountability for one’s actions. … Autonomy is also used to refer to the self-government of the people.’ Transferring these statements to a team structure, would mean that an autonomous team is not only responsible for its decisions and actions, but also free and empowered enough to make these decisions. For me that translates into three characteristics, every autonomous team should show. They are:

  • Self-organizing
  • Self-managing
  • Self-structuring

An autonomous team can not only decide how to implement their tasks (self-organizing) and what to work on with which priority, using a process chosen by the team (self-managing). It is also in charge of the team set-up and parts of the organizational context it is affected by (self-structuring). In practice, an autonomous team will be self-designed to fulfill a purpose which contributes to the organizational strategy. It will consist of team members that bring along every skill needed to deliver the features or products needed. Each team member is fully aware of the organizational strategy in order to be able to make well-informed decisions on e.g. prioritizing features. This team will create its own policies, procedures and processes. It has full responsibility for success or failure of a project.

To grant teams autonomy, there are some conditions that need to be met. I like to think of it as the three interconnected basic components of team autonomy in an organizational context.

  • Access to all information and resources necessary
  • Distributed leadership
  • Alignment

If you want your company to use autonomous teams, you or team members can call for it but it won’t work from bottom to top. It can only be achieved if the management of an organization makes the commitment to go with truly autonomous teams. This commitment might involve very serious decisions.

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What does an Agile Coach do? Especially when working with very mature teams?

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There is no universal definition of the role ‘Agile Coach’. I believe the reason is that the role can and should be approached individually and differs from case to case, from team to team, from organization to organization, you get the idea. Whatever the challenges in your organization are, an Agile Coach will have to adapt her role and work area to meet these challenges. There is no blueprint, even less so than there is a detailed role definition for a Scrum Master. I will share my view on the Agile Coach role with you today. Bear in mind that this my very personal approach to the role, you may have made very different experiences.

So what’s the difference between a Scrum Master and an Agile Coach anyway? Well, it’s in the name already basically. A Scrum Master is supposed to be an expert on Scrum. She not only works within a team she belongs to but owns this team’s processes as well. An Agile Coach on the other hand is looking at one or multiple teams from another angle.

The Agile Coach should be able to offer a diversity of Agile practices and tools and is not necessarily part of a team. The angle and how close the role is attached to one or multiple teams, applying Scrum or a variety of methods really makes the difference for me. Is an Agile Coach more of an expert or more important than a Scrum Master? Of course not. These are just different roles, with different areas of expertise and focus. And as already mentioned, it very much depends on the surrounding factors how these roles can be fulfilled.

Having said that, let’s have a closer look at the role of an Agile Coach in the case of very mature and advanced teams.

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Agile Coach Camp Norway 2016 – becoming a better (Agile) Coach

Last weekend I attended the 6th Agile Coach Camp Norway. For the past three years, I have kicked off my (professional) year with a lovely and talented bunch of people, surrounded by snow, and diving into all sorts of (Agile) topics.

This year we spoke a lot about learning (amongst many other things). Many of the discussions were focused on individual learning. So I figured I write a bit on learning about Agile coaching, especially in the context coach camps. Hence this post will tell you something about the camp as well as one of the topics we covered.

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My 2-day fully-fledged Waterfall Experience

pieces of oak staked like a waterfall

a pile of wood that has striking similarities with a waterfall

I have a confession to make. Last weekend I found myself doing a 2-day waterfall project. It was exhausting, frustrating, tiring, and ended with a product that is far from being done. (It was also a great experience because it allowed me to do work that I usually don’t do.)

It all started a couple of months ago when I signed up for a weekend woodworking class. I used to do a lot of Do It Yourself (DIY) at home, but never got to build something from scratch, let alone in a somewhat professional way.

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My Experience with Confidence Smileys

A few months ago a colleague forwarded me Jimmy Janlén’s article on a burndown substitute. After reading it I was eager to try it, since I had similar experiences with meaningless burndown charts.

It is basically a color / emoticon based status on how confident a team is to finish a story within the current Sprint. The team can easily update it each day during their Daily Standup. For more information you’ll find the article on Crisp’s Blog.

I was curious how it would help Continue reading


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The rocky road to Agile QA

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In Agile Quality Assurance (QA) all team members are equally responsible for software quality, but some are more equal than others.

The widespread use of Agile methodologies and frameworks has left a lasting impact on QA work especially.  Old fashioned QA used to be at the end of the project management cycle.

Even though the International Software Qualifications Board (ISTQB), as the main authority regarding  QA processes, explicitly states that this was not a great idea, it just  is the way it was always done. Continue reading