Team Smells for Coaches

Every agile coach will have a number of factors they monitor constantly. Many are barely aware of the "smells" they are looking for, but will have a constant awareness of issues that indicate that a transition is not progressing well. We provide a short list of common smells that indicate your agile project is not going as well as you hoped:

  • Heaping piles of unfinished work will appear when assigned work is not being finished as quickly as new work is being assigned. This is generally a problem when the velocity is not being respected. The Theory of Constraints tells us that we have to subordinate the business to the bottleneck, a simple idea which is very hard to sell. Work may pile up in development or QA, especially if it is also piled up in sales.

  • Individual work assignments are typical in non-agile shops, but agile developers team up and pair on production code. Managers may demand that individuals are assigned work prior to starting an iteration so that they may track the productivity of individuals. This is a disincentive for agile teams, because pairing with a colleague risks the work one is personally assigned. By pitting team members against each other in the fight for individual rankings, work assignments can destroy true productivity.

  • Back-channeling is occurring if certain interests outside the development team (Customer or outsider) go directly to programmers and give them individual work assignments. This prevents the programmer from applying his abilities to the completion of the iteration. It also damages true productivity as others are required to pick up the slack, and the targeted programmer is forced to task-switch unpredictably. Back-channeled communications are a complex flow with political complications that prevent a team from doing their best work. It is better to work with a simpler, transparent management and communication structure. Note that sometimes back-channeling is an attempt by a leader whose work has been de-prioritized to get it pushed through anyway in defiance of the management structure.

  • Blame-avoidance behaviors cause programmers to fear refactoring, redesign, and any important practice outside of a narrow job description. In fearful organizations, blame-avoidance prevents both productivity-wasting activities and productivity-enhancing activities. Fear is a reason to stay wrong, or at least to be right only in familiar ways.

  • The urge to matrix-manage the team is a result of a lack of trust in the team by outside forces. When pressure is on any team, the certain leaders may seek to control other teams. When managers from outside a team try to manage the team by force or fiat instead of through normal channels (planning, prioritizing, etc) then it is clear that there are unaddressed problems in the management chain. These problems need to be resolved before they break down the team.

  • Cargo-cult ceremonies are ceremonies carried out for the sake of the ceremony, rather than performed for good effect. Examples are planning ceremonies where estimates are not accepted and stories are not scoped to the iteration, scheduled retrospectives where no problems are really solved, iteration boundaries where work is carried over to the next iteration with full credit for "completion", etc. These are signs that the team is "seeming" agile, rather than "becoming" agile. It shows a lack of real change in values.

  • Test negligence is a particularly nasty sign of an team's lack of agility. It shows that work is not being done by testing, and any pairing that is occurring does not support the agile practice. Agile teams depend on copious automated tests to accelerate their production. If tests are not being written, or not being run, then the team is not going to expand its capacity to produce. It is common that this happens in conjunction with back-channeling and/or work piling up. Skipping testing is a time honored way to seem to cut corners while actually making the software harder and harder to modify.

  • Guarded speech is a sign that the real values and the spoken values of the team are not the same. It may be that the team is trying to be agile, but certain leaders or managers are not willing to hear it or else that the management is bought into Agile development and the developers are not buying it. It may be that there is some barrier to productivity that is being held in place by political or personal power of some leaders. Barriers to transparency tend to be political. It may be necessary to change the team's political situation so that they may work openly.

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