10 aspects of a perfect agile squad

How team structure and design thinking fit into your business strategy

By | 6 minute read | February 26, 2021

A well-established agile squad works in harmony to relentlessly iterate and generate high-value outcomes. They maintain a steady pace and deliver high-quality, quantifiable results that align with your business strategy. As I’ve learned working within an IBM Garage™ team, you need the right team structure—a mixture of personalities, talent and skills with a singular shared-growth mindset—for a squad to achieve this level of efficiency. These are 10 aspects of the perfect agile squad:

1. Keep the squad together at all costs. While team structure and roles can change, the members shouldn’t.

When a squad has chemistry, the well-being of each member is equally as important as the output of the squad. Teammates are proud of their output, and over time the group develops a sense of comradery as working relationships turn to friendships.

That bond is why it’s crucial to do whatever you can to keep an agile squad together. The more challenges and successes the group shares, the deeper this bond grows and more effective the team becomes. Since building relationships takes time, you’ll want to minimize changes in the team as much as possible.

2. The squad leader needs to be creative, influential and motivational.

A squad is made up of various subject matter experts (SMEs), but the squad leader is the change agent. This team member should be experienced in lean startup, lean user experience (UX), Enterprise Design Thinking™, agile and even some DevOps concepts.

The most successful squad leaders aren’t just experienced in Enterprise Design Thinking but are actually certified coaches. Creative by nature, these coaches can facilitate complex workshops that inspire squads to think outside the box and overcome challenges. A great squad leader is a strong believer in the benefits of agile practices and has the ability to ensure agile is a foundational part of the team’s culture.

3. The architect needs to drive the project forward, relying on experience and hands-on leadership.

Another driving force in an agile team is the architect. The architect helps the squad focus on the main goal of a sprint and keeps them from getting lost in the details. By relying on their experience, the architect is able to take a complex solution and simplify it based on the specialty of each team member.

The architect also governs the design and implementation of a solution and deals with any technical risks or blockers that arise along the way. While they listen to everyone’s opinions on the squad, the architect has the authority to make technical decisions. It’s important the squad trusts their experience.

4. Base every decision or build on well-founded research and UX.

A product will never be successful if the UX is not thoughtful and based on actual research. While you could argue that some products don’t have a user interface, so they don’t need a UX designer, you’d be doing your team a disservice. If there is a user, then a UX designer adds a valuable and objective perspective that helps keep your team focused on the user needs.

5. Extend the squad with the right technology and industry SMEs.

While the rest of the squad members don’t have a unique section in this article, they are of equal importance as the squad leader and architect. A squad’s success depends on every person’s contributions and their efforts to help when challenges arise.

The rest of the characteristics of the squad depends on what product is being developed. If you’re modernizing the technology of a pre-existing workflow, that requires different skills than creating a new algorithm to optimize a day-to-day process to ensure peak performance. As a result, the other squad members need complementary skillsets to both the task at hand, and the other members of the team.

6. Most of the squad members should be t-shaped skilled.

Once you have identified what skillsets you need on your agile team, then you need to select the right people within those skillsets. Both depth and breadth are equally as important, as seen in the t-shaped skills model. Each squad member should not only have a wide enough breadth of skills to be able help others and follow the progress of the team, but also harness deep expertise in a single area as a SME.

And just because you have a full-stack engineer—someone who can develop for mobile and web application solutions end-to-end without depending on others—doesn’t mean their skillset is best used that way. When you have teams that have both depth and breadth of skills, you can delegate work accordingly to accomplish the most in a sprint without overloading a single individual.

7. The culture that the squad believes in will secure its success.

A squad’s culture drives efficiency and productivity. Simply practicing agile, DevOps or Enterprise Design thinking isn’t enough—these ideologies should be an inseparable part of the day-to-day interactions of the squad. Teams gain greater autonomy and empowerment to make decisions from the agile and DevOps culture.

With Enterprise Design Thinking, squads also emphasize open and equally valued communication from every team member, prototyping and iterating normalizes failing and failing fast. This process fosters creative, original ideas and allows the most promising ideas to shine. But culture extends to the personal relationships at the foundation of the squad, including habits like weekend outings, casual happy hours or even monthly birthday celebrations.

8. Squad retrospectives are essential to reshape the squad for success.

To continue to grow and improve their performance over time, a squad needs to reflect on their work. Retrospectives, an important part of the agile framework, allow teams to address challenges and collaborate to identify solutions.

For example, if a new member to the team is lacking skills in a certain area or not moving at the pace of the rest of the team, this could be surfaced in the retrospective. The team could work together to talk about how to better support this person, ultimately enabling and empowering them and the team to be more successful in future iterations.

9. Regular squad meetups are instrumental in improving communication and collaboration.

Traveling for in-person meetups isn’t always sustainable or possible. To remedy this, some teams adopt hybrid approaches where members colocate for a week and then work remotely for a week, while others only gather during key agile ceremonies.

What’s important is that the squad works out a time and cadence that helps build and reinforce their chemistry and harmony. These regular meetups streamline communication, provide the opportunity to support one another and ultimately fuel the squad’s success. Even in all-virtual environments, virtual happy hours and always-on web cameras encourage remote workers to stay connected.

10. Most of the squad members should be in the same time zone.

Colocation can enhance team dynamics—but as we’ve seen with the pandemic, it’s not a requirement. As sourcing talent from different locations can help reduce costs, some squad members may reside across dispersed geographic locations. The key to success here is keeping the majority of team members in the same time zone so those regular squad meetups can still happen.

Identifying and selecting the right talent for your agile squad can be daunting at first, but as you move through the process, you’ll find that through small iterations, your team will be set up for success.

In the IBM Garage end-to-end model, our team works with you to identify pain points, develop innovative ideas and implement iterative solutions with manageable risk. We equip your team with the practices, techniques and expertise to execute along the way. The resulting collaboration delivers value through resilient deployments, an expansion of capabilities and accelerated digital transformation and value for our clients.