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Building Trust

The Equation for Successful Agile Teams

by Rachel Davies

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  Trust Rachel to spell out exactly how to build trust in Agile teams.  

When you’re coaching Agile teams, it’s essential to work on building trust from the get-go. Without trust, Agile simply doesn’t work. Low-trust organizations that rely on heavyweight processes pin work on individuals so they know whom to blame if things go wrong. Agile methods allow us to cut down on project bureaucracy by depending on team collaboration and short feedback cycles to establish a steady stream of deliveries. However, when I don’t trust my teammates to get stuff done towards a shared goal, then Agile practices fall down flat.

So how can we build trust on our teams so that Agile practices can take root?

Create a Safe Place

The first step is to create a safe container for the individuals working on the team. To take on new working practices, your team needs to have space to make mistakes and recover from them. You can make a start by installing basic Scrum. (Other Agile approaches such as Kanban or XP create the same effect, as they all have standup meetings and mechanisms to limit work-in-progress.)

Scrum is all about creating the conditions for a team to focus on one stream of valuable items that can be delivered incrementally. Both the Product Owner and ScrumMaster roles help buffer the team from constant interruptions and changing priorities. The sprint time-box gives the team a clear run towards delivering a product increment that they feel is a realistic commitment. Each person on the team makes small commitments to each other at their daily stand-up meetings. They either deliver on those commitments or must face up to asking for help. Through this shared experience, trust starts to build between team members. They also get to know each other a whole lot better by sitting together and participating in the regular meetings that drive the Scrum delivery cycle.

Accelerate the Process

In my experience, relying on these basic Agile practices to build trust takes time. I’ve found that you can spot ways to accelerate trust building by considering this Trust Equation (The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, Charles Green, and Robert Galford):

T = (C + R + I) / S

The letters in this equation represent, Trustworthiness = Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy divided by Self-orientation, where:

  • Credibility relates to expertise. I need confidence that the person I am placing my trust in has the skills and knowledge to meet their commitments.

  • Reliability relates to being organized enough to actually get work done. I want to be able to depend on a person to meet their commitments.

  • Intimacy represents the degree to which another person cares about the needs of their team mates.

  • Self-orientation reduces trust because we’re more cautious about people who put themselves forward first. We worry that they may have a hidden agenda.

Put the Theory to Work

As we already saw, Agile practices work on the R and I factors by establishing a way for small commitments to be met and also increasing opportunities for team interactions in the team room and in team meetings. You can bolster this by running a workshop to create team working agreements that make your team’s current norms and values explicit. Now everyone feels more comfortable about working together within this shared understanding. If these working agreements get broken, work with the team to understand why and adjust their practice or the working agreements accordingly.

The trust equation also shows us that there are more areas that you can focus on to boost trust in your team. You can help your team raise its credibility by creating opportunities for team members to improve their technical skills. For instance, you can set up a Coding Dojo to encourage learning from each other and broadening skills on the team. The consequent increase in skill should increase trust amongst team members. Help the team get started on improving their learning by setting an example, show them books that you’re reading, and leave them around at work. Tell your team mates about conferences and user groups that you’ve been to and offer to take them along.

You can also work to reduce self-orientation (the ‘S’ in the equation) by removing incentives targeted on individual performance and instead rewarding work toward achieving team goals. Invest in shared facilities where the team can socialize, such as a foosball table, and organize team outings to boost intimacy (the I in the equation) between team members. Intimacy between team members can also be enhanced by workshops, where the team share personal histories or compare personality profiles (such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). Even simpler, create more opportunities for team members to get to know each other more naturally through regular social time, such as team lunch on Wednesdays.

Work from the Inside Out

Last but not least, building trust starts from the inside out. There are many ways for you to build trust on your team in the way you interact with team members. Be the first to ask the dumb questions. In acting as a role model, you demonstrate that it is safe to expose your ignorance in order to learn. Act with integrity, keep your promises, and live up to your espoused Agile values. Most powerful of all, radiate your trust in others by placing confidence in them to meet their commitments without interference from you.

The co-author of Agile Coaching, Rachel Davies works as an Agile coach helping teams adopt and improve their Agile delivery capability. She has a wealth of experience in a range of Agile methods, including XP, Scrum, Lean/Kanban, and DSDM. Rachel is a keen supporter of the agile community, she served 7 years on board of Agile Alliance and continues to apply her organizational skills to Agile conferences including XPDays, Agile Coach Gathering, and XP2011. Find out more at

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