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December 14, 2021

Shift Happens: 4 Ways Team Leaders Can Stay Agile When Team Composition Changes

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Written by

Nicole Spence-Goon

Agile Xpert

Team stability is a key factor in successful Agile teams. However, maintaining stability isn’t always possible. People come and go for different reasons, but no matter what, your project needs to stay on track. So, how do you manage a successful Agile project when you work on transient teams and team members are shifting? Let’s explore some strategies to keep your transient team on track and improve your project outcomes.


What Are Transient Teams?

Before defining transient teams, let’s start with the importance of “stability.” Stability is a desired attribute for agile teams. Having the same people on the same team for the duration of a project is more productive, work tends to be more predictive, and people are generally happier.

However, this consistency in team composition is not always possible, resulting in transient teams. It is common for people to move in and out of project teams or split their time between several projects at once. Occasionally, the project owner will have team members matrixed across projects on purpose.

Is it better for your teams to be stable as opposed to being transient? Absolutely. However, if that is an unavoidable situation, with proper planning and established team norms, you can mitigate that instability.


What Causes a Team to be Transient?

There are different reasons why teams become transient. Sometimes they start out that way and other times it happens due to unforeseen circumstances.

Teams can become transient at any time due to:

  • An organizational shift outside the boundaries of the project
  • A client dictating the dynamics of the staffing
  • Team members being matrixed across many different projects (could be a normal practice if that is how the client structures his/her teams)
  • Individuals leaving the organization and their positions must be backfilled
  • Dynamics between team members change


Impacts of a Transient Team

Team stability is critical for promoting efficiency, accuracy, and timely project completion. Negative impacts that stem from more transient teams include:

  • A lack of predictability in the team’s work product
  • Disruption to the flow of work
  • A lack of trust within the team – existing, well-established relationships vs. building relationships with new team members
  • Loss of technical or domain knowledge, especially if the person who leaves is a senior team member
  • Time lost context switching between Project A and Project B (if team members are matrixed)

With today’s evolving technology and business landscape, staffing has become more unpredictable and transient teams are here to stay.


Tips for Project Success When You Have a Transient Team

So, what can you do to ensure your software development projects stay on track with as little disruption and instability as possible? Even though you can’t eliminate staffing issues, you can minimize the impact and keep team collaboration high using these strategies.


#1 “Yes, We Kanban!” – Utilizing Kanban More Effectively for Transient Teams

A women is showing a kanban board on her laptop screen to two male coworkers.

The best way to manage transient team issues for Agile projects is to use a Kanban board to make all work (not just development work) as visible as possible. Start by visualizing work to onboard new team members.

Compile Onboarding Tasks into Template: Create an onboarding card template with a checklist of things for the new team member to do to get started. When a new team member joins, use the template to create an onboarding card for them. If they need to coordinate with different people to get access to tools, those instructions should be included in the card. This allows the new team members to be as self-sufficient as possible, requiring less time and effort from existing team members to get new team members acclimated.

Give New Team Members a Kanban Board Tour: Walk through how the board is set up, the workflow, any links to references and discuss any ways to improve it for the next person.

Have the Student Become the Teacher: When the next new person joins the team, have the previous new person who joined the team give the next Board tour. This will reinforce the information and empower the newer members of the team.


#2 Establish and Maintain Team Norms

Establishing and maintaining team norms is valuable for all team members. When new team members join, it is particularly important to understand how the team operates so that the whole team can be in alignment.

Define Process Policies

Defining policies such as “Definition of Ready” and “Definition of Done” are important for new team members to understand.

  • Definition of Ready: Criteria to know when a Backlog item is refined enough to start working on it
  • Definition of Done: Criteria to know when a Backlog item is completed

It is important that all members know when to start working on a Backlog item. Additionally, every member should be clear when a Backlog item is ready to move to the next stage in the Kanban workflow. For easy access, you can create reference cards on the Kanban Board with these definitions.

Limit WIP (Work-In-Progress)

Maintain a small WIP (work-in-progress) limit to minimize any work that might be left incomplete by a team member transitioning off the project. Predefining a small WIP limit on the board is essential. Limiting the project team’s WIP ensures that when any person leaves, there’s not a lot of work that becomes the burden of the remaining team members.


#3 Leave a Popcorn Trail to Retain Knowledge

As team members come and go, it is important to devise ways to pass knowledge from former members to new members.

Document Context in Cards

Within Agile projects, it’s not required to develop comprehensive documentation upfront. However, if someone is transitioning off the team, it’s a helpful mechanism to capture their thought process and create context for any of their outstanding work. Each card should have just enough information to provide an understanding of the work that’s been done or still needs to be completed.

Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.” – Agile Manifesto

Maintaining Domain Knowledge

When there is a lot of movement on the team but not a lot of domain knowledge (maybe one senior team member), you’ll need to establish an efficient way to share knowledge. For example, developing tech lead “office hours” to establish a consistent timebox for knowledge sharing.

On one of my project teams, the tech lead had extensive product knowledge, but the rest of the team consisted of several newer team members who needed guidance. The tech lead was also matrixed across a few teams and being pulled in several directions. To help close the knowledge divide, I created a dedicated timebox after the Daily Scrum where the new team members could get their questions answered by the tech lead in a more organized way.

These office hour sessions helped the tech lead avoid being peppered with questions throughout the day, so he was able to focus on his work. It also encouraged everyone who had questions to prepare ahead of time to make the best use of that time.

Off-boarding Scrum Masters

When the ScrumMaster is the person leaving the team and not one of the developers, there is team culture and practices to maintain.  For example:

  • Revisiting Team Norms and Values to ensure they are still a reflection of the team
  • Rotate facilitating Scrum Ceremonies – spread the responsibilities amongst the team so that it isn’t a burden for just one person to assume.


#4 “Everyone’s In Charge” – Empower Everyone on the Team

A woman in her home is on a zoom call with 18 other people on two screens.

Adopting an attitude of “Everyone is in charge”, empowers everyone on the team to oversee how they work best. Let the team determine how best to focus on providing continuity for the customer. Even though your team might be transient, you don’t want your customer to experience hiccups because of it.

Here are examples of activities that anyone on the team can facilitate to maintain the quality of their customer’s experience.


Have a Backlog Blitz

A Backlog Blitz is like spring cleaning your Product Backlog. This is especially important for an environment with transient teams to keep the contents of Backlog current.

As teams and priorities change, it is important to consistently determine if all the Backlog items in your Product Backlog are still relevant, such as:

  • Product features created by the Product Owner
  • Technical Debt items
  • Research items
  • Product Defects that need to be fixed

Consistently reviewing these items with the project team – on a monthly or quarterly cadence – will ensure the Backlog won’t become unmanageable.  This exercise will enable the team to get rid of duplicate Backlog items, items that have been overcome by events, allow you to eliminate the question of, “Oh, are we still doing this?”

You can do a similar exercise with the Product Owner to review Feature Backlog items to eliminate stale or out-of-date requirements.

Focus on Sprint Review Preparation

Defining the structure and preparation for the Sprint review is important for any team but especially so for transient teams. When the team takes time to prepare for the Sprint review ceremony, everyone on the team is aware of what will be presented and can handle any issues that may arise.

  • If the designated team member can’t facilitate the Sprint review, then another team member can step into that role
  • Sprint Review prep can empower anyone on the team to demonstrate the functionality of the work the team has completed in their two-week Sprint
  • If the product the team is developing involves user-centered design and you have an active and involved Product Owner, there is an opportunity for the Product Owner to execute the product demo for stakeholders


Transient Teams are Here to Stay but Your Projects Don’t Have to Suffer

As you may have already experienced, transient teams are going to exist in your projects. The good news is that your project’s momentum and quality doesn’t have to suffer. Building behaviors and strategies to address the transient nature of your teams before team members leave, will inject consistency and transparency into your team processes and improve outcomes.

Though it may seem like transient team issues are frustrating and difficult to overcome, having a solid strategy provides you with an opportunity to be better prepared and more organized.  When you can minimize the impact of when a team member transitions on or off your team, it is invaluable, not only saving a lot of time and effort but ensuring you continue to create a quality product.

Article updated January 25, 2024.

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Nicole Spence-Goon

Agile Xpert

Nicole is a certified Agile Coach with over 20 years of software development experience in Agile process management, business process reengineering, requirements management, test support and execution.

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