How to select and develop individuals for successful agile teams: A practical guide


Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Wouter Aghina, Christopher Handscomb, Jesper Ludolph, Dave West, and Abby Yip for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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What personality traits and values help agile teams bloom? Discover ways to identify these when recruiting and coaching your people.
To survive and thrive, many organizations are making the effort to become more agile. Whereas traditional organizations seem mechanical, hierarchical, and linear, agile organizations feel more organic: they balance stability with dynamism and can adapt for an ever-changing, unpredictable future. In the article “The five trademarks of agile organizations,” we detailed the major differences between traditional and agile organizations. Given the distinctions, the personal characteristics that lead to success in an agile organization also differ from those in a traditional organization.
Much depends on the talent, whether developed or recruited. Broadly, people who flourish in an agile organization need to have the following three capabilities: First, they handle ambiguity without losing focus; second, they concentrate on outcomes over processes; and third, they work and contribute by being a team member.So, what does success look like in selecting or training the right people or talent (or both)? How might you approach selecting and training people for your agile organization?
Here we outline two sets of factors: the personality traits (innate and acquired, and their constituent behaviors) that make an agile team culture bloom, and the kind of values (and their constituent behaviors) that people bring to their work. We detail how you can not only identify and cultivate similar traits and values when recruiting or coaching your people but also assess and develop your own skills. We developed this perspective in collaboration with, an organization that provides training and agile assessment certifications.[Here is the first component of the complete process.]

1. What we know about the traits and behaviors of agile teams

When asked to describe the intrinsic characteristics of an agile person, the subject group identified the attributes below (Exhibit 1).1

Studies conducted with relatively small sample sizes and without numerical data can yield unreliable qualitative findings that make generalizing difficult. Therefore, we followed a quantitative approach, using the five-factor model2 (augmented by the trait ability to handle ambiguity to complement the model for the agile context), to systematically3 identify and analyze those traits associated with success in two crucial roles for agile teams: the product owner and the team member (Exhibit 2).4

Below are our principal findings followed by our suggestions for how to assess and observe them. Subsequently, we cover effective methods of further developing your team’s agility.5 Many of our findings are not unique to agile and can therefore be useful in general when hiring or developing your people.

The ability to handle ambiguity and a high level of agreeableness contribute most to success

The research makes clear that the two most important factors for a person working in an agile environment are the ability to handle ambiguity and a high level of agreeableness.

The ability to handle ambiguity is no surprise as the nature of agility requires a high degree of flexibility (Exhibit 3). Teams that handle ambiguity well mainly focus on their goals and prioritize few items to get started instead of investing a significant amount of time to completely understand every single detail and risk and attempting to embed these into the plan.

The prominence of agreeableness, more highly ranked than openness or conscientiousness, was the most surprising result (Exhibit 4). Agreeableness is the secret sauce of great agile teams. Most cultures teach and reinforce a culture of competition, but we are increasingly seeing other ways to build a high-performing, agile organization. Google reinforced this view in its study of high-performance teams. Similarly, Project Aristotle found the most important characteristic for successful teams was trust, a facet of our definition of agreeableness. Another main characteristic is straightforwardness, which means being open and frank with one’s viewpoints while still being courageous enough to politely voice opinions that conflict with the team’s. Being agreeable is not about blindly agreeing without any thinking; in fact, research has found that increased diversity at work is associated with healthy conflict that allows room for group members to test ideas and listen to various alternative perspectives, which improves task performance. Agreeableness means saying “yes, and…” instead of “yes, but.” Rather than avoiding conflict, agreeableness is about empathetic listening to the team and their ideas and being attuned to feedback from customers.

High agreeableness among product owners means that they are able to work with the team, reconcile differences, and set small attainable goals; ultimately, they better understand and design products that cater to customers’ needs. High agreeableness among team members means they respect others and their ideas, are able to work in cross-functional networks, and enable information transparency, understanding, and cohesion among group members. Often, these qualities are most realized in their absence. What would happen if team members were not agreeable? For example, at a check-in a new team member might describe something that remains challenging, only to be targeted with questions and hostile feedback. To avoid uncomfortable inquisitions, team members might refrain from sharing genuine views when future challenges arise. This not only results in an unfriendly and opaque work environment but also suppresses input and valuable suggestions.

Product owners showing extroverted behaviors may have an easier time

Building a compelling vision, communicating with stakeholders, understanding customers, and leading the agile team are some of the daily activities of a product owner. These tasks require the product owner to work and interact with a wide variety of people. Since a significant amount of the product owner’s effort is spent outside of the team, those who are extroverted may have an easier time (Exhibit 5). However, research also shows that when given a creative and proactive team, introverts can lead as well as, if not better, than extroverts. Introverts, excellent listeners by nature, put the spotlight on others and so are often better at modeling empathetic listening skills, channeling talent, and absorbing ideas than extroverts.

Both extroverts and introverts can develop into good product owners, albeit by different means. Product owners who are extroverts may find adapting to their jobs easier and function as a better leader for teams that need stimulation; introverted product owners, when assigned to a group that is self-motivated, creative, and proactive, are more capable of helping team members shine.

The warning of high neuroticism

What, then, might we need less of? The data shows that high levels of neuroticism are less useful in the agile team environment, both for team members and for product owners (Exhibit 6). Emotional stability is crucial, as agile organizations focus on rapid learning and decision cycles, frequent testing, and experimentation. Product owners should not be overwhelmed by anxiety when the product does not turn out as expected or when customers’ feedback is negative; team members need to be able to stay calm when unexpected errors and issues arise.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Wouter Aghina is a partner in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office; Christopher Handscomb is a partner in the London office, where Jesper Ludolph is an associate partner; and Abby Yip is an intern in the New York office. Dave West is the CEO and product owner of

The authors wish to thank, a mission-based organization whose training and agile assessment certifications are widely recognized. This research was developed in collaboration with, by engaging the organization’s Professional Scrum Training Community.


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