Agile methodology, created to fast-track software development, is now being used throughout organizations by teams that want to execute projects quickly. But those efforts often don’t pan out, say Babson’s Rob Cross and Alia Crocker and Harvard Law School’s Heidi K. Gardner. Their research reveals that many large agile initiatives not only miss their goals but also cause organizational disruption including staff burnout, the loss of key talent, and infighting among teams.
What’s going wrong? With the help of organizational network analysis—a methodology for mapping how people collaborate the authors have identified where unforeseen barriers undermine agile initiatives.
In high-profile strategic initiatives, three typical mistakes undermine agile teams almost right from the start.
1. The company staffs teams only with star performers: This approach can undermine other efforts when it’s taken with agile projects. The problem is that stars are deeply embedded in networks of relationships essential to getting existing work done. Even when they’re assigned exclusively to an agile project, star performers are constantly sought out by colleagues.
2. Agile teams are kept apart from the core business: Agile teams seldom have all the capabilities needed to develop and execute a new initiative. A team typically has to pull in expertise from other parts of the company to get a big-picture view of problems, understand nuances in different geographies or clients, and anticipate rapidly shifting competitive landscapes. It’s also critical for the team to engage with organizational stakeholders to get timely buy-in for resource requests and implementation plans.
3. An agile team is 100% dedicated: Agile teams aim for total commitment and laser focus, but it’s unrealistic to expect all team members to commit full-time to their work. Some initiatives would benefit from the involvement of experts who don’t need to be pulled off their day jobs. Their input is extraordinarily important, but they don’t have to be assigned full time to an agile team.
Getting Agile Projects Right
The authors identified two core principles for assigning the right individuals to an agile project and defining their roles.
- Staff teams with “hidden stars.”: Resist the temptation to assign recognized star employees to key roles. Instead, tap hidden stars who have much lower profiles in the organization. These people are often less steeped in a company’s “This is how we do things here” mindset. Choosing these less-obvious individuals also allows companies to build a deeper bench of talent.
- Identify highly connected potential resources. Most agile projects require occasional input from contacts outside the core team who have complementary expertise. But knowing the right people to consult and when—can be challenging.
Agile approaches help speed up product and process improvements. A company’s most important employees may benefit from broadening their contacts and experiences. But agile teams are embedded in larger collaborative networks. Leaders may build them to maximize talent inside and outside teams, reduce overload and burnout, avoid possible disruptions, and accomplish goals better and quicker if they consider this fact.
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