Do introverts and agile teams make a good combination? Hmmm. I wonder. Not without some care and attention, in my view. As an introvert myself who often coaches other introverts, I keep hearing challenging stories from clients whose work in the tech industries involves an association with agile scrum teams. (For those readers not used to the terminology, agile scrum teams are technology development project teams who work in a dynamic and fast-paced way). “I keep being talked over all the time – I can’t get a word in edgeways!” “The morning standup scrum meetings are so confrontational – I dread them!” The way they talk, my clients evidently have a palpable fear about their visibility in these agile environments. And their fear is paradoxical: on the one hand, they worry about putting their head above the parapet lest they be put on the spot by an aggressive team leader in front of their peers. On the other hand, they get stressed about not being noticed at all if their more extroverted colleagues hog all the airtime at team meetings. A real conundrum. So what to do?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a fan of agile methodologies. They’ve brought a much-needed lightness of touch to software development in the past decade and a half. Some of us remember the old (heavy-weight) “waterfall” days where drowning under a pile of project spreadsheets was a common occurrence.
But there’s no doubt they favour extroverted behaviours over introverted. Collaboration and conversation often take up much of the day on an agile development team. You’ve got to be able to think on your feet in front of your peers; to feel comfortable exposing your – less than finished proposals – to colleagues for their critique and to develop a bit of a rhinoceros hide when it comes to participating in sprint retrospectives. Agile processes will force an introvert out of their comfort zone by requiring them to behave in an extroverted fashion. Whilst this is OK for a limited period of time, sustaining this extroverted “performance” can be exhausting for the introverted scrum master and agile team member. Open-plan workspaces and limited privacy further ratchet up the stress levels.
So – to return to my earlier query – what to do? It all boils down to skilful leadership. Leaders who can recognise and champion the benefits which a diverse – in the sense of extrovert and introvert – team can bring. And can address the needs of both. Agile needs a mix of both to function optimally, according to Ken Howard, author of The Introvert’s Agile Survival Guide. Which is just as well, given that most development teams are likely to comprise quite a few introverts.
Howard has some simple advice for introverted scrum masters:
- First, steel yourself to go outside your comfort zone to engage with your team. It’s essential – do it.
- Second, take some of the fear factor away from meetings by introducing more structure into how you run them. In other words, less “free-form” interaction, more “top three questions”-type agendas.
- Third, when facilitating sprint retrospectives – an unnerving prospect for many – decide ahead of time which retrospective technique you plan to use. Also address the needs of other introverts who will be at the meeting: issue notecards or post-its to everyone to capture initial thoughts – and then have the roundtable discussion.
- Fourth, from the outset of any project, help your introverted team members by establishing work agreements across the team which meet their needs. For example, frequent unplanned discussions in an open plan environment are bound to exhaust and annoy them. Leading to reduced productivity and unhappy bunnies. So schedule discussions at fixed times. Set up a quiet zone with a “no talking” rule where team members can work happily without interruption.
I’ll add one more: if you think the extroversion/introversion dynamic is going to be a live issue for your development team, then make it your business as the scrum master to ensure the extroverts on your team understand and empathise with the needs of their introverted colleagues. And vice-versa. There are loads of online resources out there to help you, such as Lisamarie Babik’s useful slidepack which you can adapt and use as the basis for an early team discussion.
What’s been your experience of working with an agile team? Love to hear your stories! Leave a comment below.
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