Building Teams
August 26, 2019

How to Build Powerful Project Teams Using an Agile Team Structure

How do you decide who will work on your organization’s most important projects? If a big tech project needs to get done, who carries the ball? Do you lob it over to IT and hope they’ll have time and resources, or do you build a team based on who has the skills and interest to get it done well?

There’s a new trend emerging in offices all over the world that’s helping organizations drive more productive work: agile. It’s a term borrowed from software development, and many organizations are approaching team building through the lens of agility, with the idea that they can create more responsive, independent teams that can better serve the organization’s needs, both internally and externally.

Ready to jump on the agile train? If so, here’s you can begin the process of building an agile team structure.

What exactly does agile mean anyway?

An agile team is one built to respond quickly to change, whether that’s changing market forces, a problem with a product or new customer demands. These teams are adaptable, not set in stone — think of them as living organisms that can respond to their environment. In other words, an agile team is built to be fast. Often, business is the survival of the swiftest, and agility offers your organization the chance to innovate and even reinvent itself in response to challenges.

So how exactly does this work? Well, teams are formed to address various projects or problems. To do this, agile organizations have to constantly re-evaluate their needs. The management consulting firm McKinsey — an agile organization itself — offers some advice on building an agile organization:

“They regularly evaluate the progress of initiatives and decide whether to ramp them up or shut them down, using standardized, fast resource-allocation processes to shift people, technology, and capital rapidly between initiatives, out of slowing businesses, and into areas of growth. These processes resemble venture capitalist models that use clear metrics to allocate resources to initiatives for specified periods and are subject to regular review.”

Agility isn’t an end goal — it’s a frame of mind that dictates process throughout an organization. It's an iterative state of constant improvement and refinement. The way an agile organization works today isn’t how it will work tomorrow, because the dynamics within and outside the organization are fluid and constantly shifting. Agility means shifting with and in anticipation of changes. In the end, it’s survival of the swiftest.

To become more agile, invest in human capital

The term “agile” may lead some to assume that the company’s org chart is being thrown out the window. While agile organizations are indeed a means of countering the molasses of bureaucracy, this doesn’t mean that suddenly everyone is their own boss. In fact, one of the most agile organizations on the planet is one of the oldest, largest and most hierarchical organizations there is: the United States military.

Size-wise, the military is a massive tanker ship, but it has the ability to respond to situations around the world with the nimbleness of a ski boat. With only a few days’ notice, the military has the ability to put teams of complete strangers together, all while ensuring that these nascent teams have the diverse skill sets required to complete their mission.

The secret is investment in human capital. The military keeps detailed records of members’ skill sets and training — and, in another trademark of agile organizations, it also encourages its members to acquire new skills. That way when it’s time to put a team together, the military has everything it needs to ensure that it has the best people for the mission, no matter whether they were most recently working in Afghanistan, South Korea or Detroit.

How agility has helped other organizations innovate and thrive

Software companies and startups are known for being agile organizations. One of the most famous examples is Spotify, whose “squads” are organized with agile principles. They’ve leveraged this model to support 95 million daily active users, and grow to a $25 billion market cap as of Q2 2019.

But no matter the age of your company or what it does, agile frameworks can help your organization transform itself and thrive. John Deere & Co. is a great example of this. It’s much more than the company that makes tractors; it’s also a software company. By switching to an agile team framework, John Deere was able to provide faster updates for its products, and coders were able to work more collaboratively to get things done, exchanging ideas and driving innovation. Additionally, the company has invested in educating other areas of the business about agile, including hiring outside experts to help in training.

If you’re ready to go agile, start by choosing your department’s top priority and building a short-term team to tackle it. Once you’ve tested an agile work style, you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned to more parts of your organization.