The top 3 most important skills for being a great team-working agile developer

1. The Skill of Collaboration
Why agile work with teams in agile frameworks is because of two factors. Cooperation skills and collaboration skills. Cooperation is the part when you work as a whole with the customer, product owner (if scrum), agile coach (scrum maser if scrum) , organisation and the team. Cooperation skill is one of the most important requirements for continues delivery and success. Without it you are lost. On top of cooperation you got collaboration. Collaboration is the part where there is room for innovations. When you as a team brainstorm, discuss how to go forward together, innovate new features or maybe effective ways to solve hard problems. Collaboration is working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals. Agile works because cooperation and collaboration is a must. In other methods like waterfall this is often split into all the different phases and different roles that poorly talk to each other. Every phase do its own work and deliver it to the persons in the next phase. It’s not effective at all and cooperation and collaboration will get lost.

You also need to welcome changes of the requirements. Waterfall mostly don’t. And we know that customers never know what they really want in detail so we really need to have a model that welcome changes. To welcome changes we need to cooperate and collaborate as a whole team. Use Collaborative Design if needed, use Agile UX, Lean UX or whatever you need for the user experience model. The UX people must talk to the designers and the developers to understand if the idea is too expensive or even possible to do. Testers might also have inputs regarding the UX. The developers might have learned some new technical frameworks that make the UX even better. Technical information that UX people often do not know about if no one present it to them. And it’s also important for the developers to understand the UX ideas. It’s also important for you as a developer to be curios and ask why to understand. Never assume anything (we will come to that later.) It’s also important as a team to be able to explain the goal to each other so we are all on the same page all the time in the whole process.

To get the most out of collaboration shared workspaces is important. The more distance to each other the harder it will become to collaborate with less misunderstanding. So as a team it’s important to have the possibility to talk to each other, and understand that talking with each other is a must. Your mission is to help each other despite your role. If you are not willing to spare time for a discussion you will probably harm yourself in the long run. The team as a whole will probably get problems. The team’s problems is also your problem. You are not alone in an effective team. The best tool for collaboration is people standing with a whiteboard. Different people understand information in different ways. To draw, talk, use metaphors mostly is enough for the teammates to understand the issues. If you are unsure if the persons you talk to understand what you just told them, let them explain for the team the same thing you just did to see so everyone is on the same page. Second best collaboration tools is video or skype calls, the worst media for collaboration is chat-programs and e-mail conversations [Cockburn – Agile software development].  So as a team try to demand for an open space where you can draw, talk without disturbing other teams any time you need to. If that’s not possible the collaboration part can be tricky and not as effective as needed. As a team member it’s important to understand that communication and meetings are not bad things. Meetings are held to solve problems and conflicts, communication in general to understand the goal and help each other reach this goal. Work close to each other so you can ask a question, let others review your work and you others and so on. Be open to share your ideas and thoughts and listen to others, work with the same principles and guidelines.

If you put people in different rooms they will surly produce something but without collaboration it will probably be something no one wants. The assumptions will increase and the blame as well. To blame people in your team indicates bad collaboration and only destroys it. So it’s important to handle conflicts in the collaboration part as well. Conflicts will be there when working so tight to each other, it’s unavoidable. So don’t be afraid of conflicts. But handle them as soon they arise.

Story:
I was one of the developers in a project for a big company that own buildings. The company I worked for was very fond of roles. UX, Designers, information Architects, Developers, Testers. All grouped together in different rooms based on their roles. Testers in one room, Designers in one etc. Every role had x-total time to deliver their part. The UX person got 100 hours. After 100 hours the UX person went to another project and the Designer gets the material and had 200 hours to add look and feel of the wireframes. The designer only got 70% of the work needed from the UX person. Because the UX person was assigned to other projects as soon the time was out the designer was forced to do the best he could. When the designer’s time was up the UX material and design sketches was delivered to the developers. The designer only managed to give the developers design for 55% of the projects main requirements. The UX never talked to the designer and the developers, the designer never talk to the UX person or the developers. When the developers needed to understand all the missing parts the project manager gave us this answer: “The UX and Designer are now in other projects” when we told the project manager that this is an issue, he just told us to assume what to do. We are the experts, how hard can it be? I think you can figure out the rest…

You are the expert [You tube]

2. The skill to gain respect/trust
Respect is a powerful skill, but also a really hard one. Respect others and you will also be respected. We all have different skills and talents, if we respect that we also get stronger together as a team. A respected team will get better relationships with the customers and the organization. Try to understand the strength and weakness within your teammates. Don’t blame a weakness, it’s your responsibility with the team to compliment them. Get rid of “me” and increase the “we”. We are doing this together, we support each other to solve the problems together, we can do it, we will do it… It’s not one person’s code that’s failing it’s ours (even if it’s a certain person who wrote it). If something is broken, fix it. If you blame the creator it will only split the team with conflicts and trust issues. One day you will be the one that break something and find gratitude if someone help you fix it.

Show gratitude to each other, compliment the achievements of each other. Even small parts count. If you say you will fix something, do it. Don’t commit to something you can’t handle. Offer assistance if someone got a problem and respect each other abilities. A highly respected team will get less conflicts and will cooperate and collaborate better to meet the same goal. By trust you get respect. Trust and respect are both two ways communication. You must trust others and respect others to gain both. Some organizations think that developers are the solution to everything and forget that the organization as a whole is. With bad leaders you get bad teams. It’s important to let teams coach leaders and leaders to coach teams. In agile frameworks like scrum you have retrospectives as a golden opportunity to bring this up if it’s a problem. If you got many conflicts in your team, then you know that you have trust issues. Bring them up early before they end up in resentments.

Be open minded, let go of control and make you vulnerable. It’s important to make mistake and it’s also important to be able to. Making mistake is not a weakness it’s you motivation for establish strength and knowledge. See things from other perspectives is a skill. That’s why you also must let go of fear and control and make yourself vulnerable. Let others know when you did a mistake rather than activate defensive mode. Take a moment and reflect how you act in front of others that just made a mistake. You don’t blame them, right? You often give them your hand and help them do better, right? We are all the same, other people have the same feelings, don’t judge yours. Be transparent with your team. The same goes with collaboration with customers. Be transparent, try to see their side before you criticize them. If there is some kind of conflicts with the costumer it’s mostly because you don’t see the vision and goal the same way. Open up your mind for new ideas and give yourself the opportunity to change how you think and how you view the world. Doing so increases the options to enter new ways to solve problems and increases your confidence with others and you will gain more respect and trust too.
Coach your teammates, let them know that mistakes are not bad, give them positive feedback, don’t blame them for their mistakes. And most of all listen to what they have to say.
That doesn’t say you cannot have strong opinions, but you need weakly held.

Story:
The first time I was a full time Team Leader I did the biggest mistake ever. I thought I could handle everything. The requirements with the customer and the team, the architecture of the system, the design of the system and to lead the team. I got trust issues, the respect was very low, the collaboration was bad, and everything was bad. I could not understand why. I was there supporting the team with every little question that was delivered to me. I told them what to do all the time. I worked overtime for my team and all I got was angry comments, no respect at all. When I told something they ignored me and went to someone else. Later on I found out that my good will was just bad. I wanted so badly to help my team to succeed so I took all the responsibilities from everyone. That’s a nightmare for a team. You can never create a self-going teams if you take all the responsibilities. It’s important to hand it over to the team, let them solve the problems together. I took all the trust from them not letting them decide by them self. I was not open minded, I never saw the forest for the trees. This is also important for the team members, don’t take too much responsibilities let other have some. Even if you are or think you are better than them. It’s so easy to be the one taking most of the responsibilities, the one the team must ask if they want to go forward. In the end you are the one your teammates will blame if anything is broken. Let all take responsibility and let them learn from each other’s and their own mistakes, just be the mentor and the mentee.

3. The skill to challenge Assumptions
Assumptions are our worst enemy. It often give us bad business. We often make assumptions when we don’t fully understand a situation or a need. The reaction is natural for making up our own story by filling in any missing information. We do this because we try to make sense of uncertain requirements or customers need. The problem with this is that most of the time our story is incorrect and most often causes all kinds of complications. Assumptions is like the red devil on our shoulder while the good angle is on the other side and try to tell us something but we won’t listen. We are afraid of showing weakness and think we do well by our assumptions. Bad assumptions just don’t give you bad decisions or features it infect the whole team.

Challenge assumptions by getting more information about something if you are not certain. In some mysterious way questions seems to be a weakness but it’s not. To not ask is. So when you don’t know it’s a clear sign you need to get all the facts. Coach your teammates to be open with questions. Don’t blame or reject questions, they are often you and your teammates guide to success.

There is no stupid questions only stupid answers. The fact is, we don’t know what the truth is unless we ask. If you find a bad requirement go ask for more details. In agile frameworks like scrum you got the product owner as your service to help you understand the requirements. Never blame the product owner for bad requirements, the product owner also need help to get the best out of the team.

You also need to be curious to challenge assumptions. If someone talk about things you don’t know anything about, just ask or go and google it for a while, you will be amazed what you will find out. Don’t stop with “I don’t know”. If you can’t find any answers at all, remember it’s no weakness to ask for help on forums or in other teams. Ask for help is strength. It also increase respect and awareness. With high curiosity you will also grow up and continue to learn and practice new topics. Knowledge is your tools for success.

Let your teammates know that words like “how? Why? etc. are the words of curiosity and also very important to understand to move forward as a team. If you feel that someone in your team are not curios at all and always want you to fix the problems for them, try to motivate them by ask them questions back rather than just give them an answer.

Story:
Some years ago I took over a project after a team leader who quit his job for another one. The project was one month late. I asked the team how long they had come. The answer was that 70% was done. When I asked the customer if they were satisfied so far. I got the answer NO. We haven’t seen anything yet. I found it odd and asked the team do demonstrate the system for the customer. What we found out was that it was only 30% done. The rest was just assumptions by the team. I asked how this was possible. The team told me the team leader and product owner was too busy in more important projects so they were never around. When I asked the customer they told me they wanted continues deliveries and continuous feedback loops but got none so they thought we know what we were doing because of the silence. I think you can imagine how that project ended. I bet most of you have been in this kind of situation before.

Summary:
Delete the “Me and you” and add the “We”. Never assume anything and ask when uncertain and give feedbacks and be open minded for all kinds of collaboration, even if it’s about solving a conflict within the team, with the customer or just find out how to solve a problem.
Who is Johan Normén?
Johan Normén is 37 years old, work as a speaker,mentor, team leader, agile coach, and senior .net developer at Softhouse in Gothenburg Sweden.
He has over 18 years business experienced and worked in many different projects and roles. Was one of the creators of Swenug (Sweden .Net User Group) with over 3000 members all over the country. He started the computer era as game designer at the age of 12 with his Amiga and team. Has been nominated two time as the top 100 developers in Sweden in the Swedish version of Computer Sweden.

@johannormen

Special thanks to Linus Norén for the review of this post.

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