Every bit of code that gets shipped is inherently a team effort. That single team effort is then multiplied hundreds of times over as more code gets committed to a project. The magnitude of collaboration involved in delivering quality digital products and services is impressive, to say the least. But to get there, it also means managing teams of people with different work styles, communication preferences, and motivators.
As a leader of an agile development team, how can you make sure that you’re fostering healthy team dynamics while also supporting individuals in getting their work done?
It can be a delicate balance, but one simple framework you could use to start identifying team members’ preferences is to ask whether they consider themselves to be introverts, extroverts, or ambiverts (an even split). While it’s important not to over generalize or over index on these definitions, it can be a good starting point for a discussion about a person’s ideal working conditions. From there, you can establish the right team rituals and communication cadences that help everyone thrive.
Here are some tips on how you can get to know your team better and foster good working relationships throughout the lifecycle of a project.
Defining introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts
According to Dictionary.com, “Ambivert, introvert, and extrovert are all words used in the study, classification, and popular discussion of personality types.”
Extroverts are said to be more focused on the outside world. In the workplace, they’re likely more energized by social situations.
Introverts tend to be more focused on their inner world. They may need more time to themselves to gather and process their thoughts.
Ambiverts, as the name would suggest, may inhabit both qualities depending on the situation. They may need a balance between group discussion and time alone.
Most people don’t define themselves by these characteristics, but talking about people’s needs in these terms can act as a helpful barometer or launching point for insightful discussions with team members.
Managing individual and group dynamics within agile development teams
Learning more about team members' individual needs means that, as a leader, you’re able to make better decisions around how the team communicates and collaborates.
If you have a group of mostly extroverted people, the team may want more opportunities for co-working, though you may need to watch out for distractions (and if distractions are a chronic problem, check out our guide to focus-driven development).
If you have a mix of extroverts and introverts on the team, which is highly likely, you may want to spread team meetings out more. You might also consider shifting some meetings to virtual, asynchronous touch points (like Slack) so that people can participate in discussions when they’re ready and not have to break from the flow of their work.
The better a handle you have on people’s individual needs, the more effective you’ll be at developing a team that has great rapport and a high degree of trust and mutual respect. Creating psychological safety amongst a group of people takes time and attention to detail, so although you may be tempted to focus on assigning tasks, taking some time upfront to learn about team member’s needs is never a bad investment. Check out our blog post on communication styles to learn more about why this is so crucial for team success.
Leveling the playing field for participation: Ensuring every dev has a voice
Everyone wants to be seen and recognized for their work. Some may prefer public gestures and others may prefer quieter celebrations. Honouring these individual needs is crucial to showing that you respect every person’s humanity.
Things can get a bit trickier when you’re managing multiple, seemingly conflicting, needs at once. But the fact is that you need to all work together as a team, so how do you make sure that everyone is equally contributing and participating to the group dynamic?
Fortunately, we live in a time where there are a tremendous amount of communication tools and softwares at our disposal. We don’t have to rely on time intensive and costly in-person meetings to carry out our work (although those meetings definitely play an important role). Managers can set up conversations so that everyone feels empowered to participate.
A mini-guide to running inclusive agile team meetings
1. Agenda, Agenda, Agenda
Prepare and share a meeting agenda ahead of time. People who are less comfortable with spontaneous discussion will appreciate being able to prepare their talking points and will likely be more inclined to chime in. That said, don’t be afraid to call on people directly in meetings. It ensures that attendees know they’re expected to show up having put in some thought into the agenda points.
However you still want to be mindful of making meetings a safe space for all contributors. If needed, take the time to talk to individual team members before the meeting and let people—especially the ones who are typically reluctant to speak up—know that you may call on them to share their perspectives.
2. Assign a meeting facilitator
We’ve all been in meetings where conversations go off on a tangent or someone winds up dominating the discussion. You can’t stop human nature, but you can put a process in place to ensure that things get back on track if and when these issues arise.
It’s helpful to assign a meeting facilitator who’s managing the flow of conversation. The person who called the meeting may be the most appropriate person for the job, but that’s not always the case. If that person will be tied up with a presentation, it may be helpful to have someone else in charge of making sure that different people get equal time to talk and share.
You’re also going to want to ask someone to take meeting notes. This is a good accountability measure for making sure that next steps and decisions are captured. It also helps to share these notes with the team afterwards so that everyone could refer back to them if doubts or questions crop up.
3. Connect your work tools and your communication tools
Centralized, asynchronous communication tools—such as email, Slack, and Microsoft Teams—allow a team to continue conversations and troubleshoot issues between meetings. With everyone communicating in writing, you can avoid the pitfall of discussions getting monopolized by just one person.
Decide as a group which tools you’ll use to communicate with each other about various aspects of your work. It’s OK to be prescriptive here, like outlining where and how you’ll do every day check-ins and scrums versus how you escalate and resolve issues as a team.
Speaking of which, the bonus of integrating your various software tools and systems (such as GitHub and ZenHub) with platforms like Slack is that the whole team gets to be privy to the same information at the same time. Without that, you risk accidentally excluding team members from group discussions.
How to reduce groupthink and bias during team meetings
When you bring a group of people together, groupthink can happen. Basically it means that people are generally more susceptible to agreeing with one another in a group setting—whether to keep the peace and seem agreeable or because they perceive a threat to their safety or position. It’s natural for people to protect their own interests. In fact, it’s an inclination that’s so hard wired into us, a lot of the time we may not even know we’re doing it.
Making meetings more inclusive (using the mini-guide we provided above) is just one part of making sure that you’re laying the groundwork for open and candid discussions. If you really want to optimize your time together as a team, while also ensuring maximum participation, it’s a good idea to lead with an anonymous survey or poll. This is especially true for spring planning.
Use polling and survey tools to your advantage
Sprint planning is an exercise in turning subjective data into objective plans. Everyone inputs their best guess as to how long a task will take and then it’s up to a leader or manager to find the right average.
Instead of dedicating many hours to this process in an in-person meeting, maximize your time together by getting people’s estimates ahead of time. And to remove any chance of team members influencing each other’s thinking, it’s best to ask everyone to submit their responses anonymously. (For ZenHub users, you can achieve this through the planning poker feature.)
Asking members to submit their time estimates ahead of time can give you solid data around where the team’s opinions converge and, perhaps more importantly, where they diverge. When it comes time for your meeting, you can devote more of the agenda to ironing out the story points that people seemed to disagree on. Using this information to maintain good meeting hygiene really accelerates your planning process. Not to mention the fact that it helps everyone on the team feel heard and leads to more confident decision-making.
There’s a lot to be gained when a team coalesces. That’s why it’s important to actively talk about how you would like to work together and how you prefer to be engaged with on work matters. It’s never an easy feat to balance the needs of individuals and the group as a whole. With time and care, leaders can help teams establish a successful working dynamic that has you meeting project goals while engaging team members in a meaningful way.