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What’s my job again? Three steps to promote value within an Agile team

The beauty of Agile isn’t the concept itself or the organizational changes it enables. It’s not about just reorganizing workgroups or renaming meetings. Agility is a mindset — a culture that depends on each and every one of us. It’s the belief that each person can contribute unique value to a project. This is challenging — many of us aren’t used to the level of ownership, collaboration, flexibility and disruptive thinking that Agile demands. Working in an Agile team requires an advanced ability to think for oneself, to be proactive and self-manage. Most 'Agile' literature addresses company’s executives or team managers, not the people doing the daily work.

This article sets out three simple questions that can help you contribute more effectively to your Agile team — regardless of your role or grade.

Do I understand the 'why'?

"People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going."
— Earl Nightingale

Understanding the purpose of your work — the why — helps you to find the power to act, to make decisions on a daily basis.

If you understand the bigger picture, you can avoid short-sighted thinking. Working in an Agile team means you shouldn’t work off work packages in the form of user stories. It’s your job to question and to align your work with an overarching goal so that you can prioritize accordingly.

A project vision can help. A project vision describes the intention and the problems you want to solve for your customers and users. A vision is an optimistic view into the future and is the central point of access to understanding the 'why' of your work. If you know and understand your project’s vision, you can internalize it and use it to guide your decisions.

If the vision is unclear, change it. It might be helpful to discuss the vision with your team. If the vision isn’t yet defined, take the responsibility to raise your hand and ask. You might lead the visioning process, but whether it’s you or not, someone has to ensure that your team gets a vision.

Consider how you and your team are aligned and contribute to the same goals. All other questions, such as “how to achieve the goal?”, “ What to do?” and “Who will do it?” are subordinate to the why; answers to the other questions can change over time. The 'why' remains constant; it’s the starting point for each project.

Do I have enough knowledge to make a decision?

"Dare to be wise."
— Immanuel Kant

Agile precludes dogmatic, dictating team management. Agile gives us our minds and voices back. Trust in yourself.

We’re all encouraged to think autonomously and actively design our way of working. We don’t need — and shouldn’t — blindly follow instructions. We can make our own decisions. But do we have enough knowledge to make good ones?

Often, your answer will be 'yes'. You may work in teams that use ideas, experiences, and skills. So if individuals lack information the team, as a collective, has enough to make the key decisions. In such cases, you have to step out of role-based thinking, stop working in isolation or concentrating on individual tasks. By broaden your horizons, you’ll be able to contribute more fully to your team, do more valuable work for your project.

Answering the following questions can help:
  • What is the problem we want to solve?
  • Who are the users/ customers?
  • How does the end-to-end real-world process look?
  • What are the risks or restrictions?
  • Do we have dependencies? What are the opportunities?
  • Which value brings our solution?
There are several Agile methods and tools you can use: personas, user journeys, prototypes, product board, workflows, and mock-ups, for instance. Use these to get a better understanding and have a starting point for conversations in your team and make sure that everyone has access to the outputs.

You might come across something that’s unclear, outdated, wrong or even missing. If so, don’t accept it. You can help yourself and your team by eliminating unknowns and documenting decisions. Break with old patterns of thinking and don’t jump to hasty conclusions.

A project is always a learning process; it’s essential to accept that we cannot know everything from the beginning. But we can challenge how we think and work. Take responsibility for getting a well-grounded knowledge of your work.

What needs to be done?

 "Be stubborn on the vision, but flexible on the details.
—Jeff Bezos

When planning your — and your team’s — actions, considering the following can help you prioritize: what is the right thing for the project? What needs to be done to get one step closer to your vision?

Taking ownership of action planning and prioritization doesn’t mean that you have the freedom to do what you want. It’s your responsibility to make sure that your action is adding value. By collaborating with your team, you’ll be better able to identify tasks and their dependencies. Think about who could be the best person, or if possible the best pair, to do it. Be authentic to yourself and your team members.
You may need to let go of ego to work well within your team. But always feel free to raise your hand if you think you can learn something new. Developing new skills can be helpful for your project too.

Have regular checkpoints to reconsider: what needs to be done now? Are we on the right track? Is the way we are working beneficial? Instead of holding on to an initial plan and applying some process, you ought to challenge your approach regularly. Embrace things that work and learn from things that don’t work. But be wise with your approach: Don’t run into the trap of changing just for the sake of changing.

Regardless of how we change our work environment — whether it’s called  “Agile”, “the Google way”, “Lean Management”, “creating a start-up culture”, or “self-managed teams” — embracing an engaged team culture gives us new chances but also new challenges. Getting our minds back means more responsibility: being more autonomic, influencing the company’s goals, products and way of working. Remember the Agile Manifesto’s statement “People over processes”. First and foremost, the responsibility is ours. The overall project success, or failure, is inextricably combined with our involvement, our personal skills, our ability to work as a team and our continuous learning process.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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