“A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” – John Burroughs

At the end of a conference presentation, I was recently asked “how can I tell if an enterprise agile team is failing?”. A question for which I didn’t have an immediate satisfactory answer.

Much of what is written on the topic of agile team failure deals with the “why”. Lack of vision, empowerment, accountability and commitment to the principles over the method are often cited. But none of this tells you how to catch it in motion. We also write a lot about turning failure into a learning opportunity through such techniques as used by Eli Lilly since the early 1990s, holding “failure parties” to honour intelligent, high-quality scientific experiments that failed to achieve the desired results. But what if we could intervene before a team was deemed a failure? What type of real-time indicators might you look for?

At the beginning of projects, we spend time gathering critical success factors and developing KPIs. But we rarely (if ever) set criteria to alert us when an agile team is failing. Examining these criteria up front acts like a project pre-mortem. We can spot where things might go wrong and where the data points to let us know might come from.

Here are some of the things I look for in my teams:

Data cues

  • Tasks stuck in review for more than 2 sprints
  • Number and origins of interrupts per sprint
  • Workload imbalance across the team

Behaviour cues

  • Tension at check-ins, people avoiding eye contact with each other and short, nondescript updates.
  • Lack of comms outside formal structures and a general lack of interaction.
  • Blame & singling out individuals when things are amiss during daily stand-ups or weekly reviews. Be especially vigilant for blame-assignment at retrospectives.
  • Lack of collaboration or indeed in some cases over collaborating. 
  • High team turnover.
  • Lack of laughs. A silent team is always a concern. Even if the work is intense (and for us at Post*Shift it often is), breaks, lunchtimes and stand-ups can still be fun.

What other tell-tale signs would you look for?

Here are some interesting reads on team dynamics: