Role Clarity Deficiencies Can Wreck Agile Teams

Reviewed by Greg Wilson / 2022-04-24
Keywords: Agile Development

I cannot do a better job of summarizing this paper on agile teams than the authors do themselves:

  1. Self-organization becomes very hard when there is incomplete understanding of the roles in the team;
  2. this happens suprisingly often;
  3. coach-facilitated reflection on roles can presumably help;
  4. achieving sufficiently complete understanding and acceptance is difficult even then.
  5. Once achieved, good role understanding and acceptance helps a team to be effective and work together well.
  6. The process of gaining role clarity is difficult and can be emotionally challenging.
  7. Technical skills can be less important than being self-reflective.

Reading this paper has made me reflect yet again on how resistant most programmers (including my younger self) are to the idea of treating teamwork as a first-class skill. I played rugby in high school and ultimate frisbee in my thirties; in both cases, I expected and accepted that my teammates and I would do drills and practice together in order to learn how to play together. When was the last time you and the developers you work with created, reviewed, merged, and deployed a practice pull request while someone observed and offered advice on how you could do it better? And yes, lots of companies have or bring in agile coaches, but in most of the cases I've seen, this is only done for a short transition period ("We're going agile this week…"). As Barke2019 says, "Team reflection about roles appears to be a near-continuous need."

Barke2019 Helena Barke and Lutz Prechelt. Role clarity deficiencies can wreck agile teams. PeerJ Computer Science, 5:e241, 2019, doi:10.7717/peerj-cs.241.

Background: One of the twelve agile principles is to build projects around motivated individuals and trust them to get the job done. Such agile teams must self-organize, but this involves conflict, making self-organization difficult. One area of difficulty is agreeing on everybody's role. What dynamics arise in a self-organizing team from the negotiation of everybody's role? Method: We conceptualize observations from five agile teams (work observations, interviews) by Charmazian Grounded Theory Methodology. Results: We define role as something transient and implicit, not fixed and named. The roles are characterized by the responsibilities and expectations of each team member. Every team member must understand and accept their own roles (Local role clarity) and everbody else's roles (Team-wide role clarity). Role clarity allows a team to work smoothly and effectively and to develop its members' skills fast. Lack of role clarity creates friction that not only hampers the day-to-day work, but also appears to lead to high employee turnover. Agile coaches are critical to create and maintain role clarity. Conclusions: Agile teams should pay close attention to the levels of Local role clarity of each member and Team-wide role clarity overall, because role clarity deficits are highly detrimental.