Chapter 5: Keeping the Team and Team Members Accountable  

Perhaps the most common question asked when people are new to Agile is, “How are people held accountable?” it is a struggle for many project managers and people on the Development Team because accountability often drives projects. But within Agile projects, each person is responsible for keeping themselves accountable and for keeping the team accountable. Of course, some people naturally need a guiding hand or a little push to get tests done on time or produce the value that’s expected of them. How do you help these team members remain accountable to the team and themselves? How, as a Product Owner or a Scrum Master, can you hold yourself accountable for your task and upholding Agile Principles? 

When looking at how most business information sources define accountability, there is a pretty clear expectation. Across the board, people refer to accountability as an individual or group upholding their responsibility in terms of performance to a specific function. While this seems very direct many project managers and high-level managers will distort this definition to serve whatever purpose they have at the time. That simply doesn’t work in Agile Projects. Agile is so focused on iterations or increments that it is only possible to hold individuals or the team accountable for the current tasks at hand. One of the best ways to do this is to teach accountability so your self-organized team can build autonomy and confidence.  

How to Keep a Self-Organized Team Accountable  

Traditional management tactics teach us that managers, leaders, and entrepreneurs on any level need to engage employees and push them toward being accountable for their duties. Even when leaders actively avoid micromanagement, they can often get stuck in a parental type of loop where they check in periodically to ensure specific duties have been accomplished. Over time, that can effectively teach people to become self-accountable, and the manager and that employee can build enough trust in moving past those check-ins. But that means that that particular leader has to go through that process with every individual, and if one of those people leaves the team, they have to start over when a replacement comes in. Additionally, Agile Teams don’t have the time to teach self-accountability through this time-intensive method. 

Build a Culture of Accountability 

Many of the Agile Principles help build a culture of accountability. However, there are some elements of accountability that can be muddied or unclear and cause confusion among the Agile Team. This doesn’t just apply to Development Team members, but it also applies to the Scrum Master and the Product Owner. 

As part of building a culture geared toward accountability, you want to set clear expectations, define individuals’ capabilities, and keep clear measurements in place. All of these things you can do during the daily meeting, which means that you’re implementing a degree of accountability into the first 15 minutes of everyone’s workday. It’s an ideal situation that countless other managers wish they could bring onto their teams. 

To do this, when you host the daily meeting or when the Product Owner is present for the daily meeting, they should specifically open a window for questions and clarification. Remember that there should be no scoffing or putting down questions because that line of communication is vital to project success. Additionally, the Kanban, or Scrum board, will act as your method of measurement. This visual tool allows the entire team to see who is accomplishing tasks, and who is not. 

Have the Much Needed Conversation 

Sometimes you just need to sit down and have a one-on-one conversation. Agile teams don’t work for everyone, and the unconventional structure can make people realize they have a serious challenge when implementing self-accountability. Self-accountability does not come naturally to most humans. We largely work on external accountability, which is why the hierarchical structure of management serves well in most industries. 

If it seems within the first few weeks that someone is standing out as unaccountable or lazy, you may need to sit down and have a chat. This conversation can be hard. However, approaching it from the stance of wanting to gain understanding can make the conversation easier for both you and the team member. Ask them how dedicated they are to the project and how they feel about the current processes and task load they have. 

Remember that when you have problems with accountability, it may be caused by the team member feeling overwhelmed. They may be in a state of paralysis where they can’t start on one task because there are so many ahead of them. Additionally, they may have never worked in a situation where they’re self-accountable. They may need guidance or a set of tools to help them learn how to manage their time. 

And be sure that, when you have conversations about accountability, that it’s geared toward a productive, or problem-solving, result. You don’t want to sit down with team members and tell them that they’re not doing enough or that they are not meaningful to the team because they are unaccountable. 

Don’t Let Poor Performance Fester 

Poor performance usually isn’t something that will show up at the end of a project. Typically poor performers are identifiable within the first week or two of working as a team. Don’t allow poor performance to fester. Address it right away either in a one-on-one meeting or with the Scrum Master involved. 

When addressing poor performance, it’s important to cite specific instances and refrain from using definitive statements. For example, you don’t want to say, “Johnny, you never bring anything into the daily meeting.” This statement does not cite a specific example, and there are likely times that Johnny had brought something into the meeting. Instead, you might phrase it like this, “Johnny over the last week during the daily meetings you haven’t had any updates on your tasks where are you at in terms of progress?” 

Consider the Rest of the Team 

If you’ve done all of the above and still have trouble with one or two team members, it’s time to take it a step further. It may be easy to confront an employee or team member who is clearly letting down the rest of the team. But, once you’re sitting down and having that discussion or you’re able to hear their side of the story, it can become very difficult. We mentioned earlier having the much-needed conversation of getting to the root of the problem period, but there are times when people don’t respond to internal or external accountability, and it can lead a project to failure.

If you’re struggling with confronting an employee who simply doesn’t seem to understand accountability, consider the feelings of the rest of the team. How is Brittney supposed to feel when Jenny never completed her tasks for a sprint? How should Sean feel when Gerald suspiciously misses days when meetings are scheduled? If you’re finding it difficult to implement accountability practices, consider the remainder of the team; the people who are working hard. 

Helping Teams Adjust to Agile Accountability and Management Tactics 

A running joke among developers is that Agile Accountability is an oxymoron. To some degree, it’s true. On a typical project, the team will have one clear manager, and that manager may report to a project director or coordinator. That clear line of communication ensures that one person is ultimately in charge of all the decision-making, and everyone else is working to execute their plan. 

On an Agile team, that’s not the case. But many of your Agile Team members may have already become accustomed to simply being told what to do and then following orders. You will need to help your team adjust to Agile Accountability and to move away from traditional management tactics. This may be as hard for you as it is for them. 

One of the best ways to approach this transition is to guide accountability with questions. If someone asks you, “What is the deadline for this?” You can respond with, “How much time do you need to complete it?” when you put the emphasis on their abilities you give them the opportunity to set a reasonable deadline for themselves, set an early deadline that may lead to a lower value, or set a late deadline which may lead to lower productivity. Often the initial answers won’t be extremely accurate, but after the first few weeks, your team should start to understand how long certain tasks do take and then provide a more accurate scope of time. 

But of course, time isn’t the only issue when it comes to accountability. For example, someone on your team may lack the skillset or knowledge to complete one of the tasks during a particular Sprint. They may at first be hesitant to expose that they don’t have the know-how, but part of accountability is owning up to knowledge gaps. Again, going back to the earlier definition, you’re responsible for completing a certain function or duty, and that means seeking out the knowledge or closing that knowledge gap to fulfill that responsibility. You can address this issue by creating a culture of ongoing learning or continuous improvement. 

There are many aspects of working on an Agile Team that are far different from working on a typical project. The challenges your team faces in adjustment will vary dependent on the people involved. It’s up to you as either the Scrum Master or Product Owner to identify where you need to help your team adjust and what management tactics can stay and which need to go. 

Increments and Updates 

The method of working in iterations or increments allows one of the best ways to teach accountability to arise naturally. Public praise and positivity within a team not only improve team morale, but it helps heighten the accountability of every single team member. Not everyone on the team has to be Mr. Positivity, but it certainly helps when everyone on the team gets some sort of recognition when they meet a goal or complete a task. 

The daily meeting updates and Sprint review meetings are specific times dedicated to acknowledging the people who have accomplished something on their task list or stricken something off the backlog. 

Use the Agile structure of increments and updates to help build this type of public praise and replace consequences with rewards. Additionally, increments and updates allow Product Owners and Scrum Masters to develop accountability the same way that athletic coaches do. Coaches pushed their athletes to practice with an intense focus even though it’s not a game. They use drills, scrimmages, and practice runs to continue improvement and continue learning. That effort of constantly getting better and constantly working with a hyper-focus also helps to build accountability. You’ll see as you move from iteration to iteration, or from Sprint to Sprint, that your team members will naturally continue to build their accountability skills. 

Collective Skill Sets 

There is one action that anyone on an Agile Team can take to improve accountability for the entire day of the project greatly. Most teams get held back from a responsible state because they are stuck in a problem-identifying mode rather than engaging their creative problem solving and pooling their skill sets together. It happens the same way that a virus spreads. One person feels that they don’t understand the problem, but the work is their responsibility, so they’re going to move forward with what they have available. What they don’t consider is that one of the resources available is the collective knowledge of the team. So what happens when the next person doesn’t understand something or stumbles across a knowledge gap is they also don’t ask her question, because no one else has. This continues until the entire team is working in silos, and they’re unable to come together in a meaningful way to deliver a valuable product. 

One of the big factors that come into play here is interdependence. As a whole, our society highly values the ability to work and function independently. Because of that, many people are rightfully shy about exposing areas that they’re unfamiliar with or asking for help. This ties directly into accountability because, often, people will drag out tasks trying to learn something on their own rather than going back to that original Agile principle of collaborating with their team. Again accountability refers to not just the individual but the group. At some point, you have to move beyond keeping individual team members accountable, and keeping the group accountable so that tasks can remain on track. 

To start building accountability for the entire team, you’ll need to encapsulate them with their commitments to the project. Take the private moments of hesitancy and embarrassment regarding skill gaps out of the picture. Collaborate in public as a team and encourage people to be honest about what they don’t know so that the skill sets can be shared and collective. Assure team members that even the least experienced person on the team likely has a skill or knowledge that other members on the team don’t have. 

Keep in mind that accountability, responsibility, and trust are closely intertwined. Sometimes it may seem harsh to aggressively pursue a new value system and push people to become interdependent. But an Agile team cannot work with a collection of five independent individual developers working separately on the same project. Agile projects demand collaboration, and when collaboration doesn’t exist within an Agile Team, the result is product failure. 

How to Direct Teams Toward Collective Skill Sets 

To put a focus on building collective skill sets, you may encourage the team to not only help one another when each other needs it but to host mini-lessons or mini-meetings. Some Scrum Masters or Product Owners encouraged the team to do this in the five or 10 minutes after the daily meeting. Team members can take turns rotating and use those five or 10 minutes to share a skill that they believe would benefit the rest of the team. Even if this is a skill that other team members are already familiar with or a bit of knowledge that is not necessarily new, it can spark discussion about the use of the knowledge or skill and different perspectives on what this information means to the team. 

Additionally, you may encourage the team to build a knowledge database, adding information as they go through iterations. Or, issue a checklist and have people mark what skills they have or what segments of development knowledge their most comfortable handling. A database or a list to reference can help people identify exactly who they should talk to when they have a question. It can save your Development Team time from (??? or by?)asking each individual if they can help with something on a task. Instead, they can reference the list or database and identify that John or Brittany is most familiar with that particular skill. A final suggestion is to use one of the tools you’re already employing as part of your Agile Project for a collective skill platform. For example, in Trello, or Monday, where you can have a digital Kanban board, you may have a particular list with a set of cards for skills and knowledge sharing. While you may have an additional list for problem sharing, that way, if one of your team members runs into a challenge where they may need to pull on the help or knowledge of others within the team, they can add a card to that list stating their problem. When the teammates check the list and see the card, someone with that knowledge set can pick it up and message the person or go over to their desk to help them.