“An important success factor for bands are rehearsals and sound checks to deliver a good performance. How do agile project teams “rehearse”?”

This was a wonderful question from the audience at my talk “Music & Agility”. I want to reply with this article.

When comparing music and agility, you can find a few examples to transfer the concept of “rehearsing” to the world of agile project teams. From the top of my head I can think of individual practice, pilot projects and hackathons. Let’s dive into all three one after the other.

Individual practice

Practicing your own instrument on a daily basis is natural for musicians. They practice every day to keep their existing skills fresh and develop new ones. “I learn something new every day.” said the saxophone legend Stan Getz.

This desire for expertise in your own field should also be common among agile project teams. Sadly, many team members don’t see themselves as experts in their field and they let their skills and knowledge rust. A mutual respect in a team and holding each other responsible as experts can foster a culture of excellence and expertise. If everybody finds the fun in playing their own instrument, practicing and becoming better individually will follow naturally.

Pilot projects

Probably the most well known ways an agile team can “rehearse” are pilot projects. They often happen at the beginning of an agile transformation to gain experience and learn. Important for such pilot projects is to make them safe to fail: delays or failure shouldn’t have a big impact on the company itself. Pilot projects are low risk and thus create fear-free environments to practice.

Hackathons

The closest thing to regular band rehearsals (uhem) would be so called hackathons. Agile times set aside time on a regular basis to explore new technologies, new methods or simply have fun and sharpen their existing skills. The “Google Firdays” are widely known, in which employees set aside the Friday each week to work on projects unrelated to their current project work. But even if you don’t go with Google’s 20% of work time and only set aside 10% (like a day every two weeks or a 2-day hackathon per month) you allow teams enough time to practice and rehearse. And these rehearsals will quickly show in increased team productivity and quality.

Besides sharpening their skills and being able to explore new technologies or methods, we also shouldn’t underestimate the motivational factor (aka fun). Further benefits of these regular rehearsals are employee satisfaction and increased innovation. Google expressly uses this hack time to keep employee churn down (employees fulfill their personal projects within the company instead of founding their own startups) and as a source of innovation (many of Google’s biggest products originated from this “rehearsal” time).

What to do

Hackathons, pilot projects and individual practice are three ways to transfer the successful practice of rehearsing from the world of music into the world of agile project teams. An important pre-condition to make them work is to acknowledge the value of rehearsal time for a successful business! Those managers who ask their teams to rehearse more without giving them the time and room to do so, will never see the positive benefits on business value. So give your teams the time and space to rehearse – and prepare yourself to be rewarded with motivated, loyal, skilled, innovative and business value creating employees.

“You practice and you get better. It’s very simple.” – Philip Glass