Teamwork in Agile Software Development

A cabin in the woods for an entire day with your fellow colleagues. An afternoon at the zip line park with your colleagues. A morning of brainstorming followed by an outdoor barbecue. A day of volunteering at the local food bank with your agile software development team.

These are just a few examples of types of teambuilding exercises you’ve likely experienced. The examples might not be exact, but the premise is the same – get everyone out of the office so they can relax, take a break from work, and get to know one another. While many of you might dread these teambuilding events, they do in the long-run make a big difference in how well everyone clicks and works together.

If there is one thing that successful agile software development depends on, it is – teamwork. Without teamwork, the open communication, cross-collaboration, trust, pair programming, confidence, and security erodes. Not to be too cliché but the stronger the team, the stronger the outcomes, the stronger the organization, and the stronger the clients. Underneath all of this is the confidence in knowing that your teams are cohesive units.

The Importance of Teamwork for Agile Software Development Success

You’ve likely worked on a highly dysfunctional team. These teams are often riddled with in-fighting, zero communication, deep mistrust, and lingering feelings of being threatened by colleague success. You want to avoid this at all costs.

In an agile software development environment teamwork is a must have. Along with the obvious benefit of creating a cohesive and enjoyable work environment, teamwork is instrumental in the pursuit of your organization’s goals.

  • Efficiency needs teamwork. It’s really hard to be efficient when you don’t know what your colleagues are doing. By applying the basic principles of agile, you get open communication and collaboration – making it easier for the team to be naturally efficient. Encourage your team to speak openly about their needs, blockers, questions, and fears.
  • Creativity comes from teamwork. When the team feels supported, people are more willing to take risks and think outside-the-box. In such a supportive environment, you’ll see your colleagues suggesting fresh ideas and being open to constructive feedback. True teamwork inspires confidence and trust, enabling creativity and intelligent risk-taking. Consider this quote from a leading research paper on teamwork in agile software development, “… fostering creativity is one of the keys to response to common problems and challenges of software development today. The development of new software products requires the generation of novel and useful ideas.”

As you know, the very success of your organization’s projects and success depends on that of your team. You need your team to be successful and this demands true teamwork. The lingering question is in how to best achieve this teamwork within your unique team.

How to Build Teamwork in Agile Software Development

It’s not easy to build a cohesive team – you’ve got a variety of personalities, unique career aspirations, and people who are there for a lot of different reasons. There are the fully-committed software developers who do it for the passion and there are those who work in software development because they need a job. You’ve got driven team members who are willing to put in extra hours to find better solutions and colleagues who have a busy life outside of work and can’t commit to more.

So how do you take this jumble of people, personalities, goals, and experiences and create an agile team that is going to support one another through the ups and downs of software development?

  • Psychological safety. Thanks to research from Google and its Project Aristotle, there is a better understanding of how and why psychological safety is key to building a successful team. Psychological safety is that feeling you have when you know you can completely be yourself at work – you don’t need to pretend or leave your personality at home. “What Project Aristotle has taught Google is that no one wants to put on a “work face” when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel “psychologically safe”, we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes to share things that scare us without fear of recriminations.” Because successful agile software development depends on the team being able to openly communicate and collaborate – there must be a strong net of psychological safety.
  • Skills and personality matter. You can’t force people who don’t work together to become a successful agile team. While you do have to work with the people you have, you can hire for the right personalities and skill sets. Think about how people mesh together – don’t put all of your junior developers together and expect them to lead each other. An agile software development team needs to have leadership from within and this requires having team members who are comfortable and familiar with agile methodologies.
  • Software development is key. In some agile software environments, the product owner, Scrum Master, and PMO appear to work in isolation from software development and quality assurance. This only leads to one thing – team break-down. Keep your agile software development team involved through-out the entire project planning, scoping, and delivery process. Connect your software developers with clients when it makes sense to help build a feeling of connectedness to organization goals. Too many software developers get frustrated because they don’t feel like they’re part of the process – keep your team involved and invested for effective teamwork.

You might be wondering why co-locating, pair programming, iteration reviews, test automation, and strategic on-boarding didn’t make the list of keys to teamwork in agile.

Pair programming and co-locating won’t work if your team simply doesn’t get along. Iteration reviews will be very stressful and fraught with passive aggressiveness when psychological safety is missing. And a disconnected software development team simply isn’t going to care about anything beyond what they are working on.

Without psychological safety, the rights skills and personalities, and integrated software development – the effort put into these other principles of teamwork is wasted effort.

This is the thing about teamwork – it’s a fine balance and it takes a willingness to work at it to get it right.