How highly productive agile teams behave

Sept. 16, 2020 / By Steve Austin

As a product manager at 3M HIS, I observe software engineers working together in scrum teams because we are an “agile shop,” using agile development practices throughout our organization.

But we haven’t always been an agile shop. Over the years, I’ve also been part of many projects and teams that used more traditional project management approaches, often called “waterfall” project management today. With the benefit of hindsight, I can confidently say that agile, when practiced consistently and sincerely, leads to better outcomes and higher quality. This is because agile creates an environment that focuses on delivering the most value more quickly, based on customer feedback. As a manager, to observe a strong agile team in full stride is truly a rewarding experience.

It’s not that non-agile groups or projects can’t be successful or productive, but an agile approach delivers better and more predictable results faster. It is also an approach that allows teams to be more flexible and adaptive.

Because of this, I believe agile practices have a strong relevance to many revenue cycle workflows and operations, particularly with today’s rapidly shifting priorities. If you’re not familiar with agile practices, my next few postings should give you an introduction to some of the key concepts and, I hope, will inspire you to research further.

For this post, I want to focus on the key behaviors that agile teams should follow.

In agile, we call these behaviors the scrum ceremonies, a phrase that basically means the team gets together on a routine basis to communicate, without fail. The ceremonies are meetings with preset expectations for what will happen during them.

The AGILE Team

To start, agile is all about teamwork. Agile is about maximizing team performance within an organization. Every scrum ceremony is based on communication.

An agile team is often called a “scrum team,” a concept borrowed from the sport of rugby. One of the defining elements of rugby is the scrum, when players from both teams form a tight group to contest possession of the ball, locking arms around shoulders, leaning in together as a group for maximum force against the opposing team. In a rugby scrum, each player has a role to play; the success of the scrum is largely the result of teamwork, when all players work together towards a common goal. The highest performing software engineering teams do exactly this, and the “scrum” analogy fits perfectly.

The same could be said for the success of revenue cycle teams (or any teams for that matter). The more that individuals work well together, the better results the team will get. Success generates more success, morale improves and your teams will enjoy their work more than ever.

Typically, agile scrum teams have just a few members, anywhere from three to nine members, with five members considered the most productive because larger groups increase communications overhead which makes it more difficult for team members to work closely together. Every team has a leader, called the product owner. Teams typically have a “scrum master”—a master of ceremonies, so to speak. The rest of the team are specialists and engineers. Teams give themselves their own team names too, which gives them an identity and a unique spirit.

Scrum teams work in sprints, typically a week in duration. The sprint is important because it creates a regular time box, which is critical for showing the team’s progress. Scrum ceremonies occur during the sprint and the ceremonies and the cadence of sprints are what makes agile teams so effective. By basically starting anew with every sprint, teams can re-prioritize and change direction if needed. A weekly sprint gives teams a unit of measurement to show progress: improvements in quality, impact, or productivity.

The core agile Team ceremonies

  1. Sprint planning – to map out what will be committed to during the sprint.
  2. Daily stand-up meetings – for team members to let others know what they are working on and if they need help.
  3. Backlog refinement – in depth discussions around upcoming work. Teams define what needs to be done and how it will be done.
  4. Sprint review – to demonstrate all that the team has accomplished in the previous sprint.
  5. Sprint retrospective – to discuss opportunities for improvement.

I will go into more detail about these ceremonies in upcoming posts, but these are the core behaviors that strong agile teams perform.

Lastly, keep in mind that agile is a practice rooted in continuous improvement. There are many ways to use agile, and I’ve only skimmed the surface of how agile works. Are you already doing scrum at your organization? Do you have questions I can address in a future blog post? If you do have an agile practice at your organization and you’d be willing to be interviewed about how the practice has changed your operations, feel free to leave a comment below or send me a message on my blogger profile page (look for the “Ask the Expert” form in the right-hand column). We’d love to share your success stories here at 3M HIS Inside Angle.

Steve Austin is innovation manager for the 3M 360 Encompass System.

Looking for ways to streamline the revenue cycle, automate coding and reduce burdens on clinical staff?