So much of the success of your software development depends on the strength of your agile development team. And of course your business success ultimately hinges on your team’s ability to execute well. Beyond simply hiring skilled developers, it’s also important that you take steps to create an empowered, high-performing, fun team.

As anyone who manages a software team knows, the job market for developers is extremely competitive, making it hard to attract and retain top talent on your team. When you take the time to develop and grow your agile team in the ways I’ll share below, the environment gets more exciting, team members collaborate better and enjoy each other more, and the team as a whole is more productive.

Establish a team-oriented culture

Rather than simply focusing on tasks and deadlines, invest in the formation and growth of the team itself. When an agile team enjoys each other’s company, works well together and trusts each other, the team will perform significantly better. Team members will be united, eliminating finger pointing and orienting everyone toward a problem solving, rather than a blaming, approach.

One of the keys to establishing such a culture is letting your agile team take problems and develop solutions themselves, rather than a manager telling them what to do or build. Make sure the team understands the challenges both the business and the customer are facing, then get out of the way and let them collaborate and own the solution.

You want to create an environment that is exciting and challenging—otherwise your developers will always be looking for better opportunities. Great developers want to be stimulated and invested in their work. Plus, a team that has fun and is empowered to succeed gains a reputation in the market that assists with recruiting additional talent.

Staff with the right talent

While it is essential that you hire developers with specific skills, it’s also important to consider how each potential hire will fit into your team and the culture you are building.

In terms of skill sets, there are a few perspectives you could take in building your team. While teams often go the route of hiring specialists, it may be more prudent to hire generalists, so team members can work on all different functions (full-stack developers, designers with front-end and development experience, etc.)

Then you want to focus on personality traits and work habits that will fit well with your existing team. Here are some characteristics to consider when building your agile team:

  • Communication skills: Different teams communicate in different ways, so you want to make sure that new additions to your team fit into your existing culture and style of collaboration.
  • Confidence but open to criticism: It’s great to have confidence in your work, as long as it doesn’t become defensiveness about the work you create. Look for candidates who stand by their work but also take criticism well and are open to continuous improvement.
  • Constantly improving: The best members of an agile team are ones who spend time outside of assigned work to constantly improve and learn new skills.
  • Empathy for the customer: One of the most important qualities for an agile team is the ability to view things from the customer’s perspective. When your agile team has empathy for your customer, they deliver higher value work that better meets customer needs. Look for candidates who are in the habit of approaching tasks and problems from the customer’s perspective; these individuals will be a great asset for your team.
  • Initiative: Another quality to look for in developers is taking initiative, particularly when it comes to creating efficiencies in their work. For example, they may spend a little more time to automate a repetitive task, so they don’t have to do it again.
  • Results focus: Look for and add people to your teams that are constantly delivering something valuable. When interviewing, listen to what the candidate is saying about the value that was delivered and how it benefitted customers and the business. If all the person focuses on is their experience or knowledge, chances are that they are not focused on delivering value.

Empower your team to make (and keep) their own commitments

While it is necessary to oversee and set expectations for your agile team, the best way for them to flourish is to empower them to work together and manage their own output. To do this, establish the business needs for a project, then allow the team to manage their own sprint, timing and task allocation (it’s also important to not change or add to the commitment during this timeframe). An important aspect of this process is ensuring the team truly understands the customer and the problem space, ideally through their own observation, to increase motivation and foster empowerment.

While the team navigates their sprint, encourage them to meet their commitments, and to review and remove impediments, but don’t always jump in to solve their problems as the team manager. Often the best way to support your team as the manager is to ask what impediments they are facing, and how you can assist in removing them.

An agile team I managed once needed to re-plan a sprint to hit a final deadline while meeting the needs of the client. The important part of the experience was that they realized on their own that their planned sprint wouldn’t meet their goals, and reallocated tasks to ensure they met their commitment—eventually getting 30% more work done than the original plan. The team was highly motivated to complete their sprint because they realized the problem and developed a solution on their own.

Ensure consistent practices

It may seem like a small thing, but there is a lot of value in having a high degree of consistency for your agile team, such as having sprint planning every other week Tuesday at 9:00 am (as opposed to every other week, whenever everyone is available). Having regular meetings planned gives people consistent expectations, so everyone can show up to meetings prepared, and no sprints get out of whack.

I once worked with a team of high-energy, smart people who were struggling with collaboration and missing the majority of their commitments, creating a very high-tension work environment. The problem was that the product owner traveled a lot and missed many meetings, which put the whole team out of sync. Digging deeper, the product owner didn’t have enough time to commit to the team and doing other essential job tasks. Once the issue was remedied and standardized practices were put into place, the team became high performing and positive after just two sprints.

Keep your teams together

It’s all too common in the software industry for a company to begin a new project, and build a new team to fit the needs of that release (and then disassemble and rebuild the team for the next release). The problem with this is that your agile teams will never reach their full potential if you don’t keep them together.

Durable teams take a long time to form, so the best way to foster a high performing agile team is to keep team members, roles, and the consistent communication practices they’ve set up the same whenever possible. Existing teams will actually learn new technology and take on new applications faster and easier than working with a whole new team.

Schedule regular retrospectives

Retrospectives are essential for fostering open communication and building healthy agile teams. This is regularly dedicated time where team members share what went well, what did not go well and what they would like to do different in future sprints.

Retrospectives are a safe time to share criticisms, which empowers the team to address issues instead of letting them fester. Acknowledging and learning from failure in a team atmosphere is very powerful and consistently strengthens your team.

Your turn: What do you think are important strategies for building strong agile teams? Share your experiences and suggestions in the comment section below.