Ignoring Collaborative Demands Sinks Agile Teams - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #757

Ignoring Collaborative Demands Sinks Agile Teams

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Many organizations ignore the collaborative demands of agility and are then surprised when agile teams fail to produce the expected results. Four collaborative practices based on organizational network analysis takes full advantage of social networks to enhance the success of agile initiatives.


The concept of agility — an approach to innovation and development based on shorter project timeframes, focused targets and ‘sprints’ — was first conceived in software development companies. Metaphors such as SEAL teams are used to describe these fast-moving, nimble project teams. 

This attractive concept is spreading to more traditional companies and industries, although with uneven success for the reason that what might work for software startup SEAL teams does not fit with the network-centric nature of larger organizations. Projects in these organizations are accomplished through a variety of collaborations with disparate and often dispersed individuals and groups. 

Agile teams can be successful in larger organizations if they understand the context of networks that is critical to their success. Organizational network analysis (ONA), which reveals the network path through which collaboration and decision-making occur, can offer a comprehensive map to the collaborative complexity of an agile project. With this information in hand, leaders can factor in the collaboration demands of the project.

Based on years of research into organizational network analysis, Rob Cross offers four practices that guide leaders in managing the power of social networks to strengthen agile initiatives and enhance the performance of agile teams. 

Practice number one is to select agile teams based on human and social capital. Many organizations fill their agile teams based on human capital considerations, such as employee reputations, leader recommendations and performance ratings. The challenge is that companies tend to look to the same “stars” for each project, resulting in a collaborative overload for the individuals chosen. Pulled in many directions they are unable to contribute as fully as they should to the many projects to which they are assigned. 

Cross suggests that companies would be better served to look to ‘second-tier collaborators’ who will have more time to devote to the project while also filling specific network roles. In the General Motors agile initiatives Cross researched, for example, he found that GM would use individuals who fulfilled the network roles of energizers (building support), challengers (nurturing product conflict), connectors (leveraging the network) and brokers (linking the groups together).

Practice number two is to proactively manage connectivity with experts outside the team. Successful agile teams need connections to ideas and innovation located in other parts of the organization — as well as outside the organization. Companies have experience in staying ‘close’ to the customer. They have less experience in connecting with external domain experts or internal colleagues to gain the insight that can be applied to agile initiatives. ONA can identify who these experts and colleagues might be and how to best connect with them.

Practice number three is to manage team collaboration and energy/purpose as a network. Sometimes lost in the concept of teams and teamwork is the fact that teamwork refers to collaboration — and the success of teams depends on successful collaboration. Managing teams from a network perspective can reveal internal and external patterns that explain why a team might be failing. For example, in some teams, ONA can show that all decisions flow through the leader of the team. This dynamic leads to obvious problems from slow decision making to leader burnout and disengaged team members. The opposite problem is that all team members are involved in all processes and communications, resulting in an overwhelmed team. One external pattern might be isolation — the team operates on an island separate from the context of the initiative.

Practice number four is to simultaneously innovate work outcome and adopting network. The focus here is on collaborating with the partners involved in the development activities of the agile team but also with the stakeholders involved with the implementation of the initiative. Conflict between colleagues who have developed a project and colleagues who are asked to implement a project in which they were uninvolved is common. While not all stakeholders can realistically be included as staff in the project from the beginning, the adopting network should be identified and somehow included as the project progresses. For example, a network of support for the project can be developed before the initiative is fully completed and ready for rollout.


While the image of a SEAL team stealthily sweeping in on a target and capturing it before the opposition knows what’s happening has a certain competitive flair, the reality is that agile teams in larger corporations are embedded in networks that will contribute key elements required for their success. Not recognizing the collaborative networks in which agile teams are embedded can lead to failure for a number of reasons including but certainly not limited to disruption of work flow, burnout of team leaders or team members, and resistance to adoption. 
The management of agile teams is therefore better approached from a network perspective, rather than as self-contained, stand-alone entities. The four practices in this Idea will guide leaders in identifying and managing collaboration patterns inside the team and out.



  Rob Cross’ profile at Babson College
  Heidi Gardner’s LinkedIn page
  Alia Crocker profile at Babson College


Networks for Agility: Collaborative Practices Critical to Agile Transformation. Rob Cross, Heidi Gardner & Alia Crocker. Connected Commons (March 2019).

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Idea conceived

March 7, 2019

Idea posted

Jan 2020
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