How to Create a Team Culture of Agility

August 6, 2020

by Pam Boney


Everyone is talking about “agile.”  Agile culture. Agile executive. Agile organization. Now that it’s reached popularity in the masses, the term has become muddled, overused, and distorted into “something we’re doing” without understanding what it means. Yet, it is crucial to a team’s ability to move quickly and innovate to drive competitive relevance. Most leaders don’t know that it's much more than “flexible” or “adaptive,” words often used interchangeably for agile.

What it requires of the people who drive agile behaviors is even more essential. Our research has demonstrated that strong internal character is the central ingredient of an agile culture where innovation is likely to occur. Way beyond “soft skills,” being agile means showing up focused, influential, and driven towards a common goal. Specifically, it means operating from wisdom, courage, resilience, and humanity all at once. That’s no small feat.

Agile leaders with strong internal character are often the primary source of organizational courage and catalyze change with ease and grace. They use plain language, practice respectful honesty, and bring out the best in those around them. We’ve found evidence for twelve character strengths that drive generative culture and innovation. Here are some of the strategies we’ve employed that keep our great team culture agile and fast.

Seven Strategies for Building an Agile Team Culture:

We’ve found that the best approach to keeping our team balanced and healthy is about monitoring the team’s mood and then coaching immediately to remove blocks. It’s also essential to set up the workflow to help everyone understand how to succeed in an agile environment. For this, we borrow from the agile method used by technology teams. Following are a few of the tenets of agile that are immediately useful:

  1. Transparency: One of the leader’s most important jobs is to remove obstacles from the workflow and provide resources quickly. We’ve used the Kanban version of the agile method supported by software that ensures teammates or leaders do not block workflow. (we use Trello). This method enables real-time communication and full transparency, so the leader can ensure that team members’ work is unblocked and resourced just in time for workflow continuation. This transparency enhances accountability among team members who might not be comfortable communicating with candor one-to-one.
  2. Clear Expectations: Another valuable component of this method is that complex projects chunked down into tasks that can be accomplished in the current sprint (two weeks). By time-blocking work in this way and keeping all other ideas and projects in the backlog, your team will feel their work is more doable. Approving the feasibility of the current workload weekly also serves you as the leader, so your expectations are clearly stated and satisfied. Everyone is clear about how to succeed each week.
  3. Radical Candor: The first two mentions above also help teams learn to speak more directly and resolve differences with the support of all perspectives, including the leader in a weekly review called a scrum. For example, if someone’s progress on work is blocked because they are waiting for a teammate or vendor to get back to them, it is clear that there is an obstacle the leader can help remove. This clarity allows relationships to stay positive and productive too.
  4. Remote work: Some of the best agile teams are remote workers and love it. We’ve been “remote” for a decade and would never go back. People are social beings and, when presented with social distractions during work hours, will often choose to jump into watercooler-talk, gossip, speculation, and more. Ten years ago, we leased office space for one year and saw a massive drop in productivity. That’s because we are acutely aware of the unconscious activity of ego-games, an awareness that most teams don’t understand. That’s what we do. We help teams become aware of this phenomenon and reduce it significantly to grow a culture where people love to work.
  5. Trust & Responsibility: Sadly, many leaders still operate from an old paradigm that people will slack off and not be productive if they work remotely. Our view is that hiring the right people makes all the difference. If you employ responsible, self-initiating achievers, then it is also appropriate to trust them. We use real-time software (Slack) to connect throughout the day, which helps me, as a leader, stay tuned into the workflow. When people need uninterrupted time to concentrate and focus, they go offline and let each other know they don’t want to be disturbed. If we hire mature adults, we should also treat them this way.
  6. Limited Meetings: We only have one meeting a week about workflow. And concise meetings for sub-teams to discuss specific topics and workstreams. That ego-game drama mentioned in #4 above is what happens when people are in meetings all day. The ego is quickly lured into drama and unconsciously seeks approval, attention, recognition, power, and status. These strivings are not bad in themselves in moderation, but when you are sitting alone with your work, you’re more likely to be productive and creative.
  7. Social Connection: Lastly, because we all want to feel part of a strong team, we use the first 10 minutes of every weekly scrum to connect and check-in on our personal lives and news. As a remote team, this employee engagement is an integral part of how we show our humanity and connect personally. We sympathize with tough news, laugh about mishaps, and celebrate good news. As a leader, I’m also scanning for signs of stress and making mental notes to follow up with those who need further discussion or laser coaching sessions to alleviate symptoms or shift to a more positive mindset.

Agile strategies serve to reduce stress in both the leader and the team because individuals have time to reflect, concentrate, and work without as much interruption every day. We’ve found that we can be exponentially more productive and creative because of the extra space. Working remotely also enables us to mix work and life responsibilities with ease. Because we are all trustworthy, responsible, and dedicated, we also trust one another.

The most crucial thing you should do right now

Since culture sets the overarching tone of how we interact, building a team culture is the most vital strategy to reduce stress. Having stated values for how your team agrees to work with one another is crucial. It’s also essential to have a cadence of regular team building, educational growth, and planning meetings in person (or, for now, virtually). The most important lever we’ve learned has also become the core product we offer on our mission to help team leaders build a culture where people love to work. Our personality and development assessments teach everyone how to recognize and help colleagues when their stress reaction kicks in. Once the four Tilting patterns become part of a common language, everyone can quickly lend a helping hand when someone falls into stress instead of judging them, which creates divisiveness. Above all, this team-building tool helps each member of the team show up at their best more of the time.