by Sharon Florentine

4 keys to assembling a successful agile team

Feb 27, 20197 mins
Agile DevelopmentProject ManagementSoftware Development

Agile teams are only as effective as their members. These core factors and key questions will help you select and develop the best.

women desktop team
Credit: Getty Images

To facilitate business transformations, organizations in nearly every industry are eying agile as a key strategy for delivering products and services quickly — and with the customer in mind. But the shift to agile is fraught with challenges, and while many IT leaders have experience implementing agile methodologies, misconceptions abound.

Agile in the trenches differs from agile in theory, but one thing remains clear: collaboration is key. And it all begins with a well assembled team.

[ Looking to make the switch to agile? Check out our switcher’s guide to agile project management. | Learn agile’s darkest secret and how companies fail at agile. | Get the latest project management advice by signing up for our CIO newsletters. ] and McKinsey & Co. recently set out to answer the question, What makes a successful agile team? The resulting study, How to Select and Develop Individuals for Successful Agile Teams: A Practical Guide, explores the values and traits of the individuals that make up successful agile teams, defines core concepts and offers valuable insight for anyone looking to improve recruiting, hiring and coaching those teams.

The following four primary factors should be top of mind when selecting and developing members of your agile teams, according to the research.


Traditional motivators associated with productivity, efficiency and risk need to be replaced with a focus on outcomes and customers as a grand goal, according to the research.

“Your organization and processes have to be aligned to the customer or to a set of values,” says Dave West, product owner at “There’s a need for clearly defined outcomes; the intimacy around the customer vision and desire to deliver value for these outcomes.”

West stresses that staff are often motivated by these outcomes. “You can get a lot more out of the organization by giving them an understanding of the customer and the outcome they’re trying to get to,” he says. “Successful teams really care about the outcomes they’re driving, and people who do well with agile have an affinity for that.”

It’s essential to gauge individuals’ interests, what gets them excited and where they see themselves in three years. In addition, those who enjoy solving complex problems and view ambiguity as an opportunity to learn are more likely to thrive, the research suggests.

Expectations and trust

Agility is all about teamwork. Successful agile teams require people who work well together and do what is required to deliver the outcomes desired. But many times, the expectations of colleagues — and of customers and stakeholders — will be fluid and dynamic, West says. And because successful agile teams tend toward a flat organizational hierarchy and are self-directed, a new balance between expectations and trust must be established.

“Mass production systems believe in a ‘parental’ hierarchy of management,” says Wouter Aghina, partner at McKinsey and a leader of McKinsey’s agile organization work. “You have a project leader who’s saying, ‘Okay, we have to develop these parts. You will develop X and he will develop Y and I will tell you what to do and you will sit behind your desk and do the work and if you have a question come to me and I will solve it.’ This is proving more and more ineffective; it doesn’t work and it’s really demoralizing,” he says.

Instead agile teams should have a separation of work management from value management, West says. 

“One of the biggest reasons to do this is to create trust and transparency, and that’s hard to do when the same person is both managing you and incentivizing you,” he says. “This kind of ‘servant leadership’ can’t fulfill these expectations and also build trust and transparency, which are necessary in successful agile teams.”

It’s important to ask questions about how individuals work with others, how they manage work in a team and what they expect others to do in support of them, the research says. That way you can be sure to bring in people who will thrive in the kind of environment a successful agile team needs.

A customer-centric perspective

Succesful agile teams engage with customers and learn about their needs. In traditional organizations, there’s usually one point of contact — one person or group — responsible for interacting with the customer; in agile organizations, customers and agile teams learn together to achieve goals and find the most economic solutions.

When a team is focused on customers and uses an agile approach, it tends to deliver value to the customer incrementally and frequently, the research shows. Agile teams are also more easily motivated, because they know who they are helping. To ensure you have the right personnel on board, be sure to ask questions about what they might expect as customers and what customer service means to them.

Care for the craft

Caring about one’s craft and the outcomes that one’s work delivers is essential for any member of an agile organization. Agile teams take ownership of the product they deliver. For them, pride in the product and outcome is more important than pride in the process, the research shows.

“One of the most difficult aspects of agile for organizations who are going through or who have gone through a transformation is understanding the complexities and ambiguities of this kind of knowledge work,” says West. “In traditional organizations, these models work when you have problems that are well-understood. But especially in these new, IT-driven, innovative environments, these knowledge workers and the problems that they’re working on are complex and rapidly changing.”

More often than not an agile team doesn’t exactly know what the work is, or even what the problem is, until they get to work, West says. Because of this, successful agile teams know that the process can and will change as they review the relationship between the process and the value and outcomes it achieves.

To ensure team members are fully vested, ask questions that focus on previous experiences with work they’re proud of and on connecting those experiences with their goals and values, as well as the goals and values of the organization.

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