What are best practices of agile development teams?

20 years goes by fast. Since the original manifesto was published in 2001, interest in agile software development has only continued to grow. What started out as a radical new approach is now the de facto work style for most technology companies. If your organization is not currently following an agile framework then you are likely in the process of undergoing a major transformation to “go agile” in some fashion.

So why use agile teams — what makes this such a popular structure? Well the rumbling dissatisfaction with old ways of working that initially inspired the writers of the Agile Manifesto persists today. Rapid advancement of technology continues at pace. And pressure to get to market first and continuously deliver real value to customers has not abated. If anything, the dynamic markets that many companies operate within call for something even faster than agile. (But that is a topic for another day.)

The premise of agile thinking is that you can become more productive, deliver more value, and better satisfy customers (and internal teams) by empowering self-organizing teams to work incrementally. Customers are included in the product development life cycle — continuous delivery means that user feedback and ideas are more quickly integrated. A suggested improvement might make it into the next sprint and be shipped within days or weeks. Compare that to a traditional waterfall workflow, where it can take months or even years to get through a major release.

Whether your organization is just embarking on an agile transformation, you are forming a new team, or you are striving to improve an existing workflow, it can be helpful to seek out agile best practices. Proven guidance that has worked for a variety of companies and industries can help orient your own team. But it is important to remember that managing complex work with a group of individuals who have varying skill levels and experience is inherently fraught. You will want to take the following agile best practices as a general outline, then evaluate them through the lens of your own situation and enhance as needed.

This guide will cover the basics of how agile development teams approach work, including:

What are agile principles?

“Agile” is an umbrella term. Today the term can be used to refer to an overall philosophy for building software, a variety of established frameworks, and a general approach to managing and completing development work.

Because it is used so broadly concepts can easily become blurred. But there are some fundamental concepts that guide any agile (or agile-ish) team. The authors of the Agile Manifesto defined 12 principles which serve as the foundation for many of the agile workflows you see today.

What are the benefits of following an agile approach?

The main value proposition of an agile approach is greater competitive advantage. Having a structure for delivering what customers want quickly is obviously a good thing. You want to get your product out to the people who need it as fast as possible. But workflow alone will not guarantee a product’s success in market. After all, customers do not really care how the team works. And that is an important distinction when evaluating the benefits of an agile approach.

Agile is how a team gets work done. Agile is not why the work is being done in the first place.

Product success hinges on well-implemented strategy. When there is strategic alignment between product plans and business goals, an agile workflow can enable teams to achieve their best and delight customers in the process. Of course, problems will still occur. You are dealing with a variety of unpredictable elements — working with other human beings, developing new technology, and anticipating customer expectations. Agile merely gives you the flexibility to react, respond, and evolve. It is up to you to make sound strategic decisions.

In addition to faster product delivery and strategic alignment, there are other broad benefits that come with following an agile approach. These include:

Increased visibility

Work is made visual. Literally. Whether your team practices kanban or follows scrum, most agile frameworks involve visualizing the progress of work at all stages of development. From the individual engineer all the way up to the CEO, this kind of transparency increases accountability across the organization. Increased visibility also makes it possible to spot roadblocks and pivot as needed.

Adaptability to change

Change is a constant. And as the principles laid out in the Agile Manifesto highlight, change is welcomed. Because agile teams complete work in small chunks they are better able to adapt to evolving requirements or shifting business landscapes. The adaptability of agile development teams is a major attractant for large organizations that need to compete with emergent competitors.

Reduced financial risk

Waste is always a risk. Traditional project management plans that span months (or even years) often lead to squandered resources and higher associated costs due to interrelated dependencies that delay delivery. Agile encourages delivering what is most needed as quickly as possible and then improving iteratively based upon feedback. The priority is to build what will be minimally lovable to customers — not to invest in solving for every use case.

More motivated employees

Motivation is critical to productivity. And while this might seem obvious, there is a reason that we saved this benefit for the last on our list. At its core a business is a group of people working together to achieve a goal. Agile prioritizes self-organizing teams — people collaborate, learn, and build together. To be successful you need that group to be highly motivated — excited to do their best work each day. An agile approach can lead to more engaged teammates and may even reduce attrition over time.

What are some agile best practices for development teams?

Every organization is unique. What works for one might be a disaster for another. But if you go beyond the tactical (such as managing dependencies, assigning tasks, choosing an agile workflow software, etc.) there are some basic best practices that agile development teams can follow to get the most out of an agile approach. The following practices can be tailored to your situation, whether you are currently going through an agile transformation or setting the foundation for sustainable growth at a new company.

1. Organize teams with intention

There is a direct correlation between how you organize development teams and their effectiveness. Do not immediately break up existing teams. First, evaluate how each performs and see if you can spot groups that are working at full potential. Then organize projects around those motivated individuals with a proven history of achievement. Remember that newly-formed teams will take time to gel and team stability is critical to high performance. You may find that some patterns of behavior need to be unlearned. If you choose to provide training, be sure to give everyone the same training regardless of their tenure at the company or overall career experience. You want everyone operating from the same playbook.

2. Set communication guidelines

Productivity is directly impacted by how the team communicates. If you are following an established agile framework such as scrum, then there will be defined touchpoints for how priorities are conveyed and when decisions are made. Do not assume everyone understands those processes — document and share with the team for transparency. If you are choosing a more generalized agile approach, then you will need to define communication guidelines on your own. Most groups will put an emphasis on face-to-face meetings (even with remote teams) and create a charter that captures roles and responsibilities.

3. Focus on the customer

Building software is about solving problems for people. Yet it can be tempting to go insular — this is especially true if developers have been able to squirrel away and focus on one area of the product in relative isolation. But truly lovable products are the result of a holistic view of the customer experience. These folks use your entire product, not just one feature. So even if your product is complex enough to have many sub-teams focused on specific aspects, you want to encourage collaboration with the customer as much as possible. This can be as simple as pulling the customer into the process of a bug fix by putting engineers in direct contact with them through support rotations or reaching out to clarify expectations for desired new functionality.

4. Invest in team building

Teamwork is the secret ingredient to effective agile development. Communicating freely and sharing creative ideas requires trust. And collaboration is not a given — you have to earn it. Working together daily is not enough. Team building may seem like a distraction when you have lots to do, but the reward will bear out the longer that the group works together. Carve out time for connection unrelated to the job. When people feel connected they will be more accountable to each other, better able to give meaningful feedback on how to improve, and invested in the success of whatever they are working on together.

5. Reflect on effectiveness

Reflecting on effectiveness at regular intervals is the last principle of the Agile Manifesto. Scrum teams suggest changes that will benefit the next sprint during each retrospective. Very large organizations may follow a defined agile framework such as the Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe) where reflection is done at key milestones. But the reality is that many development teams do this less than regularly. Some groups save reflection for end-of-year events — at which point much of the feedback is stale or forgotten and the enormity of what needs fixing can seem overwhelming. There should be a consistent forum for reviewing the team’s effectiveness, formulating hypotheses, and evaluating outcomes. Changes should be made based upon data related to the problem, not individual opinion. This makes it possible to be more objective when measuring improvements and avoid blaming or shaming people. Even better, you can fix issues in real time.

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