Using agile development practices to improve team performance: A guide

Andrew Odewahn is the CTO of O’Reilly Media. He’s into developer education, open source books, Jupyter, Docker, Go, React and just generally lowering the barriers to entry on technology.

As the world braves a global pandemic, organisations are continuously adapting to working remotely. While teams are working hard to stay productive during these difficult times, there is still a learning curve to acclimate to the current remote setup – a setup which now involves sharing workspaces with spouses, roommates and even rambunctious kids.

From my experience as a software developer all the way through my current role as a CTO, I’ve encountered a variety of work styles – and have found that teams who follow an agile methodology are far more productive than teams following other practices. The guiding principles of agile were created so that teams can focus on one task at a time, with the ability to respond and pivot quickly as user needs and market forces change. The overarching idea of this approach is that if too many things are attempted at once, the team will ultimately fail from being overwhelmed and disorganised.

While this methodology is often followed by software development teams, there’s a lot that anyone in the workforce can learn and adapt from agile development practices which will help them stay productive while working at home.

Key agile practices to follow

The most important aspect of the agile philosophy is the concept of self-organising teams. One of the twelve guiding principles of agile is that projects are built around motivated teams. These teams choose how best to accomplish their work and should be empowered – and, more importantly, trusted – to manage their own work.

Some of the best practices any team should follow, regardless of where they’re working, include:

  • Practice daily communication with teams. Regular communication provides teams with the knowledge of what’s being worked on and when, and also gives an opportunity to identify any issues and determine how to fix them. On a technical level, a messaging app like Slack is essential for the current remote work environment. Creating two Slack channels – one external and one internal – will also help team members stay focused and collaborate on projects. An external channel allows teams to monitor and bring in additional considerations or issues from outside of the core team to discuss, while an internal channel is focused on how to fix those issues
  • Take and share notes with the whole team. A system for sharing information between team members is essential. Using a fairly simple system of written notes with sharing capabilities, such as Google Docs, allows everyone to stay up-to-date and on task in regard to the status of a project, who’s owning what, or which project templates that must be followed. The idea is that if someone is unable to attend a meeting – or needs an updated tracker of where things stand – they can review the notes at any time, on their own
  • Assign team leaders to triage what needs to be done. Prioritising which tasks to tackle first allows teams to better manage workflow based on their importance or the level of effort required. Once tasks are ranked by order of importance, the team can further develop different strategies or assign the resources needed to complete each task
  • Keep a strict daily routine. Establishing a routine to prepare for the workday goes a long way towards getting into the right mindset and enabling individual team members to focus on work. Once ready to begin the workday, spend 15 minutes asking basic questions such as: “What am I looking to accomplish today?” “What did I accomplish yesterday?” “What’s blocking me from being successful or completing my project?” This process will also help teams focus on their most important goals for the day

Additional agile strategies: Kanban boards

Kanban is an agile workflow management method designed to help teams visualise their work and maximise efficiency. At a high level, a Kanban board is a physical or digital board used to see all your items and where they fit in the flow from to-do to doing to done. Developed originally to improve manufacturing efficiency at Toyota, Kanban boards have grown extremely popular in business units across multiple industries – and are applicable now more than ever because of their responsiveness to changing rituals and times.

Creating a Kanban board allows individual team members to easily identify top priorities and move onto the next project through clear visualisation of all the tasks that must be completed, in context of each other. They can also be incredibly informative and help keep things on track when specific projects or workloads become complex. Once a Kanban board is created and filled with individual task cards, teams will literally be able to see which columns are overcrowded with tasks, which allows them to spot bottlenecks in their workflow and tackle them properly.

No matter which of these practices are implemented, ultimately, following an agile mindset will help teams deal with – and succeed in – our current uncertain and turbulent environment.

Interested in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this and sharing their experiences and use-cases? Attend the Cyber Security & Cloud Expo World Series with upcoming events in Silicon Valley, London and Amsterdam to learn more.

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