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The psychology of agile teams: what we learned

Last week Megan Cook, Head of Jira Software and Mahreen Khan, PhD, Organizational Psychology hosted an “ask me anything” session focused on the psychology of agile teams. We received 22 questions, 160 likes and upvotes, and over 4,400 threaded views.

A huge, heartfelt “thank you” to everyone who contributed such thoughtful questions about various agile/teamwork struggles you’re facing. Your questions spurred some brilliant dialogue that we’ve pulled from to highlight 5 key learnings. We hope these takeaways prove helpful for your team!

High-performance is a journey, not a destination

It’s natural to want to know exactly what it takes to be a high-performing team. But in the same way that there’s (unfortunately) no definitive measure of a successful life, there’s no definitive measure of a successful team. At the heart of continuous improvement is the idea that even the best teams in the world have areas they can work on.

As Dr. Khan revealed, “Whilst it is possible to track a team’s performance, and to improve performance, I don’t believe it is possible to determine whether a team has reached its optimal level of performance. Even in elite teams, I believe that there is the capacity for improvement. Given this, the focus should be always on improving team performance as opposed to determining whether a team has reached its optimal level.”

While it’s still crucial to set goals and have a common ‘North Star’ to work towards together (setting OKRs can help with this), you should always be aiming to improve no matter how many goals you’ve crushed or how many “up and to the right” metrics you’ve posted.

Team performance is holistic

Team performance in terms of team output (the extent to which teams have achieved their goals, hit their metrics, etc.) is only one piece of the puzzle. In order to understand how a team is performing, it’s also important to get a sense of how happy the team is. Happiness can be a pretty vague concept, so it’s useful to think of multiple psychological factors alongside it. As Dr. Khan notes, “When measuring psychological factors, you would not simply choose one variable, you would choose many. Team happiness is more of an umbrella term, but ideally a team would measure things like team confidence (or morale), team cohesion, team climate amongst many others. By combining multiple aspects of team psychology, you are more likely to get an accurate picture of your team's health.”

What’s the best way to measure these psychological factors? Dr. Khan suggests a regular survey that can quantify the way in which a team's thoughts and feelings are changing over time. Team leads should also have regular check ins with each team member and ask them directly how they’re feeling about team dynamics. It’s all about open and honest feedback that can allow the team to address the root cause of problems before they become too integrated to remove.

Team and organizational change is hard – Focus on what you can control

Wouldn’t it be great if you could magically change other people’s behavior? Unfortunately, as we all know, we can only directly control our own behavior. And that’s ok! You can start small, and work to influence other teams and teammates as you go.

Megan gave a few great tips to help leaders gain buy-in and build trust during times of change:

  1. If you feel your team can be vulnerable and open about sharing team pains in from of leadership, try a Health Monitor. It’ll give you a great structure to compare your team to the 8 qualities of high-performing teams and hopefully elicit conversation among the team that helps the leader see how their behavior is affecting the team. 

  2. If you feel your team will not be comfortable openly discussing their pains, you can try a Rules of Engagement play. I like this option because it’s a way to openly discuss and improve the pains of your team’s processes without forcing an uncomfortable conversation about the interpersonal dynamics that the team might not be ready for.

  3. Start a mentoring ring or learning circle with other Agile teams at your company. This gives everyone a forum to share learnings and help each other find solutions to the problems they’re facing. It’s also a chance to build great relationships across the organization.

The best agile teams have tension

It seems a bit counter-intuitive, but agile teams thrive when there is some healthy tension and conflict. For example, an ideal agile team structure includes both a Product Owner and a Scrum Master to balance the needs to the customer with the needs of the team. As tempting as it may be to have one person play both roles, it can be detrimental.

As Megan told us, “There’s a healthy tension between pushing the boundaries for the best possible product for the customer and pushing back on scope so that the developers can deliver within the estimated timeframe. It’s very hard for one person to argue both positions. They have to argue with themselves and usually one side suffers.”

And Agile can actually help teams surface tension earlier to mitigate problems before they have a chance to affect team morale or reach the customer. For example, a Kanban board can give developers some much-needed visibility into the amount of work in flight at any one time, while highlighting stages that work tends to get stuck.

Not all conflict is bad conflict

Dr. Khan noted two distinct types of conflict on a team: task conflict and relationship conflict. Task conflict occurs when there’s disagreement related to the actual tasks the team is working on (i.e. a team may have differences of opinion regarding ideas for a project, or the best way to implement a particular project). Relationship conflict occurs when team members do not like each other, and can involve annoyance, tension, and, animosity. Relationship conflict is detrimental for team morale, whereas task conflict can lead to better decision-making which leads to better performance. 

The best way to ensure you’re steering clear of relationship conflict? Build up that team trust. As Dr. Khan told us, “Teams that have greater trust between team members experience less of a spillover effect [task conflict transforming into relationship conflict]…teams that use constructive conflict resolution strategies focused on problem-solving and compromise also experience less of a spillover effect.”

Tip: Try out a few of these Atlassian Team Playbook plays aimed at forming connections and building trust.

Bonus: Throughout the AMA we recommended a handful of Atlassian Playbook plays that support continuous team improvement. Here’s a roundup of our top picks:

What takeaway are you most excited to bring back to your team? Any we left out? Let’s keep the conversation going!

1 comment

Great work and dedication keep it up

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The psychology of agile teams: what we learned

Last week Megan Cook, Head of Jira Software and Mahreen Khan, PhD, Organizational Psychology hosted an “ask me anything” session focused on the psychology of agile teams. We received 22 questions, 16...

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