By introducing effective feedback loops rather than long slow pieces of work, teams learn faster and thus have the opportunity to substantially improve the value of the product that they create or the service that they provide.
But this is only half of the advantage of implementing effective feedback loops.
If you believe that team members, with all their diverse skills and abilities, are valuable assets, then the same feedback loops should also allow the team to more effectively invest in their own development, becoming an ever stronger team over time.
To me, this is actually the greatest advantages of operating in an agile way.
Some teams are happy to stay the same
Not everyone sees growth as the greatest advantage of their way of working though.
Some teams are great at removing impediments and changing work practices, but do not have time for honing and sharing their skills and talents.
I guess this would be OK if the team were skilled enough to do their work and the world they operated in was not changing.
Some dodgy mathematical modelling
I have some bad news though. All the teams that I work with exist in a changing world.
In a changing world, if the team’s skills stay the same while the world is continually changing, then their skills are gradually becoming less relevant and this decreasing relevance has a large impact over time.
If the team becomes 1% less relevant each month, then they are 12% less relevant at the end of each year.
They are less safe in their roles, they are adding less value to stakeholders and they are less resilient if a major shock or change occurs.
Where the gap is small, the team can make up for it by working harder and by increasing their reliance on one or two key people. But where this is the case, the team are becoming less resilient and if they do face a major shock or change, then the impact will be worse and the time to get back on top of things will be longer.
In the extreme, one major shock can leave the team reeling, struggling and working even harder and while relying even more on one or two key people … when the next shock hits and then one after.
It follows then, that if your skills stay the same and the world keeps changing, then you are effectively depreciating the value of your people. In my last article I said that you can depreciate your team and then sell them for scrap. But I concluded, as I hope you would, that this is a bad way to manage valuable resources like talented humans
On the other hand …
If each team member becomes just 1% more skilled each month, then each person is 12% better at the end of the year.
But actually there is a compounding effect here for cross-functional teams, because each team member can now rely on people who are 12% improved as well. This means that each person can actually see a 25% improvement over the year (1.12 * 1.12 = 125% improvement compared to the year before).
Note that this does not even need to be a new skills being added. It could be some more people being able to do something that only a few could do well, or it could be a better ability to work as a team. It can even be honing existing skills instead of allowing them to plateau.
In this scenario we have increased capacity to give value to our clients, increased resilience in the face of shocks and change and increased capacity for the team to expend less effort getting the work done.
You might not agree with the exact figures in my dodgy models, but hopefully you agree with the over-all trends. So let’s assume that there is at least a chance that I am right.
But do you have time to act on this?
The team are probably quite busy, so if they see personal development as something they have to do on top of their existing work then they will probably not find time to do it.
But if they can integrate development into the work that they are already doing then they can probably achieve that 1% improvement in a sustainable way.
That is one of the key messages in the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. But even if you don’t read the book, you can simply use agile approaches to maintain good habits in your team.
A simple fix is to talk about what skills, traits, experience etc helped you deliver success and which skills and experience could enhance your ability to deliver value next time. But there is a subtle point to remember here.
If you agree what skills you need and only talk about who you can
exploit use to deliver work, then you are effectively treating people as consumable resources. If instead you ask who you can involve to both deliver the work AND learn about it then you are treating people as valuable and you will have a stronger team each month.
That much should be easy and should be common practice.
Skills that do not need improvement?
In some cases you can use a team of expendable people who you want to use for one short piece of work. You could use the people in your team to continuously do simple work without growing. Unfortunately I still think they will become bored and stale.
A better approach for this kind of work might be to go to a website like airtasker.com . Explain what you need to people who do that kind of thing for a living. They will then let you know if they think they can help and then you then pick the people who seem well suited, use them and pay them.
There is nothing wrong with this and I often think we should do it more. Especially where we want to access generic skills or access capabilities that we do not have in our team without having to go to a lot of trouble to bring new people into the team.
Or you can look for ways to make the services “self-serve,” teaching your customer to do it themselves and equipping them with some simple tools instead of you having to repeat the work each time. This increases their skill and leaves you open to improve yours.
But where your work relies on cross functional skills being integrated together, or where you want to use the same people again and again, then you want them to learn from each experience, rather than just submitting their work and moving to the next assignment.
In my view it is part your job as a professional is to continually work on your own capability, as well as teaching others.James King
Integrating learning into your story wall
Many agile teams use Kanban wall and things like that to make their work visible. But if the team see improvement of team skills and career prospects as part of their work, then they should probably be making their personal development work visible too.
Some teams do this by adding some user stories for team members and tracking them as part of their sprint goals each sprint.
As a junior developer I want to learn more about the Assyrian Numerology Framework so that I can improve the magical alignment of my code when it is used by mortalsAttributed to Developer Dan – Possibly not a real quote
However, some teams use the structure of their story wall to also facilitate their ongoing learning. By adding a column or an additional row, the team can track the learning involved in stories as well as the value delivered to clients.
The way you work involves habits and opportunities. If you deliberately build in habits that build capabilities and you find ways to make your skills and abilities visible so you can scrutinise them, you will continually grow stronger.
If you make your skills invisible and build in habits that restrict the opportunity for personal development then your team will slowly grow less resilient and less effective, even if you work hard.
So even if you want to maintain your current results you should be using your way of working to maintain and invest in your ability.
Of course, if you have been reading my recent articles, you will notice that all this improvement comes from single loop learning. If we add another loop we will see even greater gains. So if you take time for succession planning and capability improvement outside the daily grind then you will see an even greater return on your investment.