Sunday, October 25, 2009

Managing Agile team chaos with smaller sub teams

Agile practices work really well when you are dealing with smaller teams. Small teams are bound to be much more efficient and focused. It allows people to know each other well, while having fun at work. Simply put, it reduces the amount of bloat or waste, and it becomes quite evident when you see the team working.
Ideal Size

I prefer a team to be a max of 2-3 developer pairs. Any number more than this calls for a team to be split into smaller sub teams.

Team composition

Ideally based on features or themes. If you have 4 pairs of developers you are bound to be working on more than one theme or feature. A good Business Analyst or a Product Owner should be able to identify these themes in the functionality being developed. If you do not have 2 broad features, try to club the smaller features based on a pattern or a theme. Never split the team based on infrastructure (eg: UI team, Services team)

Align a BA and a QA to be focused on specific themes. If the features are functionally less complex, then a BA and a QA might be shared across these teams.

Split the meetings, making them shorter and more focused

The idea of reducing bloat also applies to the team meetings. Have separate standups among the smaller sub teams. When you have a max of 6-8 people in a standup, everyone will be attentive, interested and will remember what the first person said in the standup when it ends.

Split the Iteration Planning meetings also according to teams which are focused on tasking and estimating features they are developing. You can even have mini retrospectives with sub teams on a regular basis.

Split the card wall

The story card wall tends to clutter up with cards for 6 pairs of developers. Splitting the card wall into separate ones for each sub team helps in keeping the card wall cleaner and motivates the team to keep it up to date.

Handling dependencies across teams.

There will always be dependencies between sub teams. The teams might share some areas in the code base, builds, QA integration boxes etc... A PM or a lead of the whole team plays a vital role here. A PM will have to be part of both the standups regularly and ensure that dependency blockers are removed by teams communicating effectively. As long as the teams are sitting closely, once can always shout out if there is a show stopper !

The whole team can talk about technical dependencies and showstoppers in impromptu developer huddles/technical standups as and when required.

Managing people rotation between teams

People will get bored working on the same feature. Developers will be bored if they were working in a team just fixing bugs or small enhancements. similar is the case with BAs and QAs.Rotation is also important to allow team members to pair with members of the other sub team.

Any rotation between teams can be done at the beginning of an iteration. 1 person swapping in between two 2-pair teams would be ideal. A PM can also choose to limit the number of rotations based on constraints such as knowledge around a particular area of functionality etc...

Better feedback, pair rotation, and self organization

In a 8-10 people team sitting across a table, people can quickly learn about each others strengths and weaknesses. Knowing each other well automatically allows for a better feedback culture within the team. Pair rotation within 4-6 people allows people to pair with everyone in the sub team.

In a small team people have the tendency to self organize themselves. You will see people take on more responsibilities, sometimes a BA playing a PM hat and proactively planning stories for the next iteration. People will not wait for a retrospective to speak their mind about a certain issue, but shout across the table !

Stitching it all together

The Project Manager of the whole team plays a key role in keeping the sub teams focused and on track. For this purpose a PM can conduct an Iteration Close/Planning meeting with the whole team, showing team members where the team stands on velocity, and scope burn down, along with any team rotations for the next iteration. This could be followed by letting the whole team know the scope planned for next iteration.

Needless to say that team outings and other fun activities would involve the whole team !


  1. When building great teams, it is mandatory the Management should look at the team with trust. If the team comes up with an estimate for a USer Story, The management should not challenge it, rather let the team learn by executing. Management should never think people will fool others if they are given a chance to organiza them selves.


  2. Providing the team to make decisions and then be responsible for those decisions is a great way to delegate.