How We Built The All Blacks: 6 Characteristics of High Performing Agile Teams

One of my favourite topics to discuss whenever I’m doing my Agile Professional training is around the concept of high performing teams. Using a sports team as an example, my favourite being the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team (rugby being the origin of the term Scrum), with a winning percentage of around 90% over the past 10 years, we can quickly look at and examine some common traits that bind a high performing team together.

Agile is also very much a team sport, and therefore coaching and support to achieve true high performance is really essential. Over the numerous times I’ve run my Agile training I’ve received numerous answers about common characteristics of high performance. In this blog post I want to highlight the most common – and I believe the most important – themes that we’ve identified.

Compelling Common Purpose

Image from Flickr, CC BY SA license

The first theme is a compelling common purpose. Looking at the All Blacks, we can see that the not only want to win, but they want to proudly represent their country by being the best team in all of history. They want to build on the shoulders of giants so that they can continue to be even better than those that came before them – always improving regardless of how good they are already. They go out onto the field with the desire – as a team – to perform to the best of their abilities. On the occasions that they do lose they come together as a team and think how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Even when they do win they reflect on what didn’t go well so they can continue on their path of being histories greatest team. Put that all together and you have a very compelling purpose: Playing as a team, proudly representing your country, and continuously improving while you do it.

If we think about a high performing Agile team they should also have a similar drive for results – the ‘win’ – but they need a combination of the other factors too. They should strive to excel as a team, to help each other improve continuously. They should work towards making sure that they and their company are always focusing on the right work; remembering that very key question, what is the value? A high performing team should always be looking towards the next highest value work that they can find, not just wait for it to come to them. They should always strive to improve, regardless of how good they are already. This is an example of a compelling common purpose.

Clear Roles

The second theme is clear roles. Using the All Blacks example again, every player in the team has a clearly defined position and special skill set to properly execute their role (as a person who actually played and follows rugby, I’m always amused by Scrum trainers who describe a Scrum in rugby as everyone being able to do everything – that’s not how it works!). Every player knows who should the be attacking and defending, and how their role should change as the flow of the game changes. That said, everyone also develops T-shaped, or even π-shaped skills, deep in one or two areas – but competent in others so they can mostly always do what is required to support the team. These clearly defined roles mean the team is always ready for anything, know’s who is responsible for making particular types of decisions, can quickly respond to any problems that arise, and quickly adapt their performance throughout the game.

For our Agile teams the same should be true. We definitely want cross-functional teams, but we also need to realise the most people have particular strengths and weaknesses, and by understanding these we can build a much stronger team. By having clear roles we establish a process whereby if issues do arise we know who is capable of dealing with them. We also need to recognise that we are a team, and although we have our own specialities, everyone on the team should work together to achieve the right end result regardless of that speciality. Roles are a great starting point, but certainly not the end point. If we have a team who knows what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how – generally – they will play together, we are much more likely to achieve a strong outcome.

Accepted Leadership

The third theme is accepted leadership. On the sports field we have a captain and vice-captain, generally chosen for their ability to lead and inspire greatness amongst their peers. The best leaders do more than this, allowing the right people to lead at the right time – situational leadership. In the All Blacks the players respect the captains opinion so that when he makes a decision it will be done, but the captain also respects the other players opinions enough that he frequently takes input from them as well. The captain knows that in order to achieve the best results he needs to leverage each and every team members expertise. He frequently acts a facilitator within the team to help the team solve their own problems and to achieve great results. He empowers people to make the right decisions at the right time without referring to him for judgement. All of this in turn leads him to be accepted as leader.

For an Agile team, managers, facilitators and Scrum Masters need to take a similar approach. They aren’t there to solve everyones problems, they are there to facilitate collaboration, a full-team performance, and to empower the right people to make the right decisions at the right time. By putting themselves more in the role of a coach and facilitator, and showing that they are willing to listen and learn, as well as willing to make decisions they can become a well accepted leader that inspires high performance.

Effective Processes

The fourth theme is effective processes. That means we know how we are going to work with each other, and what to expect from each other. In the All Blacks they have some set plays for specific situations, but they also have a general process for how they will respond to un-planable challenges. They have clear communication processes in place so that everyone is always aware of what the situation is, and how they can work together to respond to emerging situations. By having a clear process in place they can adapt and improve quickly regardless of the situation they encounter, and be happier doing it because they have a shared understanding of how they will work together and what to expect from each other. This is the result of effective processes.

With Agile we have a range of processes we know can be effective when applied well. Scrum, Kanban, SAFe and others can all be effective if applied well at the right time, and assuming a good understanding (and Agile mindset!) from the team involved. Most importantly is truly buying into the process; something I refer to as ‘doing’ vs ‘being’ Agile. Agile teams, in my humble opinion, should first reflect on the principles of Agile before moving onto the next level. Once they understand and buy into the principles, they can then decide more effectively what kind of implementation will work best for them. I see Agile as a toolbox with multiple tools inside of it, and in order to be most effective we need to choose the right tool for the right job. At the end of the day an effective Agile process should focus on collaboration as a team, defining and delivering the right work at the right time, and continuously improving as a team. I have a lot more I could say on this subject, but this is a great starting point for high performance.

Solid Relationships

The fifth theme is solid relationships. In the All Blacks they work very hard to build a great team culture, and that team culture influences the way that all players interact and the behaviours they believe are acceptable. For example, when new players join the team, a group of senior players will work with them to enable them to understand the values of the team, expectations, and help them address any issues or concerns that they may have. If there is an issue in the team, other players will work with the affected individual to help them address that issue. The team knows that each persons opinions are valued, and that they can feel safe to share ideas, opinions, and concerns, leading to a very transparent environment. If people respect each other, but are also willing to challenge and learn from each other, help motivate each other, and help each other continuously improve together, then they truly have solid relationships like those of the All Blacks.

In an Agile team this is equally essential. Trust, respect and honesty are key foundations that each high performing team is built upon. If the team lacks solid relationships then all of these key foundations will either suffer or not exist at all. We need to make sure we have the right mix of people on a team in order to develop solid relationships, but we also need to make sure we support people who join the team to help them understand how the can contribute and what expectations we have of them. When each team member is willing to be open and honest, willing to help each other improve, willing to give and take constructive feedback, that shows the we have solid relationships in place.

Excellent Communication

The sixth and last theme is excellent communication. In the All Blacks, the players are continuously having discussions, calling out to each other at each phase of the game to let each other know what is going on, how they can support each other, and how they can work most effectively as the game progresses. The entire team frequently gets together to talk about how the game is flowing, and what they can do to improve their game, and what issues they need to be aware of. The constant, high quality chatter that goes on in the team, before, during and after the game is an essential part of their success.

This is also essential for an Agile team to be effective; we need to work together to achieve great results, but how can we work together effectively if we don’t communicate well? In Agile processes such as Scrum we have regular check-in points such as a planning meeting, daily standup, review or retrospective to ensure good communication, but beyond this, in high performing teams, communication becomes an ongoing habit, a way of working, that is ingrained into each and every team member. Shared understanding is essential to team success, and excellent communication is a huge factor in getting us there.

Putting It All Together

At the end of the day, the All Blacks are human, and like all humans they can make mistakes or lose from time to time. What sets them apart though is that when they do make mistakes or lose, they don’t give up, they don’t point the finger and blame others, instead they take responsibility and look at how to improve. Most importantly they realise that success isn’t achieved through one or two star players, but instead is a whole team performance, from 1-23 (that even includes the substitute players!). This belief in the whole team, the willingness to learn and innovate, and to empower everyone in the team to contribute is a huge part of what has lead to their ongoing success.

We’d do well to reflect on this in our own Agile teams. What is our purpose? What do we expect from the different people in our team to get there? Are we enabling situational leaders, and providing ongoing coaching within our team? Do we have effective processes in place, and do we frequently innovate and improve them? Do we communicate effectively as a team, and what could we do to enhance that communication? Lastly, we need to remember we aren’t just one individual, we are part of a team, and in order to achieve team success we all need to work together, we need to help everyone learn and improve. United we stand, divided we fall. That’s true high performance.

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