Creating Successful Agile Teams

One of my favourite parts of being a scrum master is working beyond the team with the wider organisation. Doing this you get a huge amount of exposure to things that might be impacting value and, subsequently, an opportunity to build an end-to-end picture of why. 

scrum master scrumbag

I have worked in a number of new teams over the years (because apparently I’m old now) and there are definitely some key patterns that I observe which can limit the success of new, and existing, teams. I’m thinking of agile teams in organisations with a more traditional mindset; however, the following can probably be used as a sense check for most teams out there.

In no particular order I’ve grouped them into:

  • Alignment
  • Boundaries
  • Complexity
  • Approach
  • People
  • Professional and Personal Development


Without a single, clear focus you are asking for trouble. The team needs clarity on the direction they are heading in to avoid a backlog of work becoming aimless or scope creeping.

product backlog with multiple products

Some questions you can ask:

  • Is there a singular goal for the team?
  • Does anything unrelated to the goal get priority?
  • Is the team clear on why they have been assembled?
  • Is the business clear, and in agreement, on what the team is there to do?
  • Are both the team and the business aligned on the goal?
  • Do we know how to measure progress to the goal?


Without defined boundaries people may not be clear on the best way to interact – old behaviours may creep in and effectiveness is impacted because that level of transparency wasn’t given. Use Emily Webber’s Team Onion to define those boundaries and desired methods of collaboration/ communication.

Some questions you can ask:

  • Do the managers know how the team will be working, the approach? 
  • Are they comfortable with their level of involvement (e.g. not assigning different work to the people in the team that gets in the way of them being a member of the team)? 
  • Is leadership aware of their role in the team? 
  • Is the team aware that they are part of a team and not just an individual that does what they want?
  • Do people understand their role and responsibilities?
  • Do people understand the expected behaviours and mindset required for success?


It’s important to understand complexity because it directly feeds into the approach you should take. Use the Stacey Complexity Matrix to assess the situation. 

Stacey Complexity Matrix

Some questions you can ask:

  • How hard is this work to deliver or goal to achieve? 
  • How clear is the scope?
  • How fixed is the scope?
  • Do we know the solution / technology we need to deliver it
  • Do we know which people/ skill sets we need to deliver it


Your approach is directly related to complexity. You don’t need Scrum to plan a birthday party, I probably also wouldn’t use it for a data migration. However, if the situation is complex but the outcome clear then an empirical process control framework would be the perfect one to adopt. This links to boundaries, so if you decide to use an Agile framework make it clear that Agile is not a buffet.

empirical process control vs defined process control

Some questions you can ask:

  • How are we going to deliver the work (based on complexity)?
  • Who is involved in that decision (are we including the team)?
  • Is a plan-based approach better than an empirical one (or vice versa)?
  • Do we have dependencies?


It’s important the people on the team have clarity, this comes from being clear on alignment, boundaries, and approach. Make people in a team fully assigned to that team. Cognitive load needs to be considered and sharing people across teams or mis-designing the teams can cause collaborative overload.

confused agile teams

Some questions to ask:

  • Do the team know what’s expected for them (see alignment)?
  • Does the team know what success looks like (see alignment)?
  • Is every member of the team assigned full-time?
  • Does anyone have any additional responsibilities that aren’t adding value?
  • Do the team need any support they currently aren’t getting?
  • Is the wider organisation providing the right environment for this team to succeed?
  • Does the wider organisation trust the team to self-manage?
  • Does the team have all the skills necessary to achieve the outcome?
  • Is the team empowered to own the end-to-end service?
  • Is the team over-skilled?
  • Is the team allowed to change their skills profile if the situation changes?

Professional and Personal Development

I’ve kept personal and professional development separate from people as I believe it’s incredibly important and often overlooked.  This is a bit of an addition to boundaries. If you’re asking teams to work in a certain way, get them some training. Get leaders and managers training too. Make sure everyone is one the same page about how they need to work – if you don’t know how to approach this then start with my guide to approaching professional development.

Equally, allow for innovation – invest in things that could add value; for example: time. Time to do extra reading, coding a new language, attending a meet-up. Whatever someone deems best for their development.

If you value and trust your teams, show it and you will get the best from them.