Turning up the heat – techniques for self-organizing teams – Joseph Pelrine
Joseph reminded us that teams always organize themselves, if we want it or not. Those social forces are pretty strong which is why agile methods have given up to fight with them. Instead, they try to prevent the worst and/or alert you early of problems.
The most important three words of the talk: “Leave them alone.”
But the result is probably not going to be the way you want. Also, team building this way can take a long time. Or it can be surprisingly quick. It can take as little as 2 seconds for a group of strangers to clap in unison (as he demonstrated in the presentation using the audience). One reason why this works is because we wanted it to happen. If part of the team refuses to be part of it, you’re in trouble.
When we say “self-organizing,” who or what is this “self” really? It’s a “system” composed of a group of people and their environment. This simple fact is an often overlooked. Renovating a shabby workplace can be better for quality than a raise or bonus. Listening to people and acting on their input is more effective than bringing in external consultant. Usually, they are brought in to make the “act upon” part more easy.
Every such system defines its own rules and responsibilities. Without any regard to what people want or what happens to them. Martyr anyone? The problem: We want people to do what we want without us telling them. Only if you ignore (part of) the system, you will fail because the forces in the system can be tremendous. Again, agile lists methods that often work but you should still be aware that there are reasons why changes to the system fail.
For example, Art Kleiner came up with the Core Group Theory: For every system, there will be a small group of people who control the system. Dictator in a dictatorship. If the boss doesn’t take control, the system still enforces that the “underlings” follow – they will make fun of the boss but they will still follow orders. Most often to the letter. Financial crisis: Small group of greedy people almost ruined the world’s economy.
One important point is that you need energy from the outside if the system’s equilibrium isn’t what you want it to be. Say your developers aren’t testing enough. You need some incentive for them. This external energy is consumed but it doesn’t necessarily alter the system permanently. For that to happen, you must look at the system (people + environment) and find a way to make sure it’s in the system’s best interest to change (and not only in the people’s best interest!)
How can you do that? You turn up the “stress” or “heat.” Note that too little heat and nothing will happen. The resistance of the system will simply swallow your efforts. Too much heat and the system will retaliate or overreact. So it need to be applied with care.
One way is to use the physical formula PV = nRT which means pressure * volume = temperature. You can increase the temperature (the heat) by increasing the pressure (add more tasks) or by reducing the time to complete the tasks.
Another is to look at the system as a star with five tips: Attractors (like bonuses), boundaries (who is on the team, who isn’t), identities (who was which role/responsibility), diversity (homogeneous systems tend to inbreed) and environment.
Which means you can try these things:
- Offer a price like a holiday or free pizza for all (attractor)
- Add/remove people to/from the team like mixing the testers with the development team.
- Move a difficult customer to a different support guy
- Bring in new blood and ideas
- Get them new computers, remove the telephones so they don’t get interrupted every 11 minutes.
Remember: Changes are like really long hikes; one step at a time.