I’m on the management side of the labor divide and yet I’ve never held a position my parents would consider a permanent job. To work these days is effectively to be employed at will.
I once had a senior executive tell me that my team was an experiment. To prove the value of development staff, we had to replace an outsource, maintain their legacy applications, and deliver a challenging new project. If we failed, next year’s budget would go to re-establishing the outsource.
We faced a hard date, skeptical clients and a steep learning curve but we had an honest leader, the means to succeed and a way of measuring it. All we had to do was execute.
I never felt more control over my fate.
A family friend works for Doctors Without Borders. His labor benefits society in ways that will outlive him. In the balancing act that is my life — privileged by world if not New York standards — I’ve deferred, if not entirely foregone legacy. My job is about significance and achievement. Significance comes in providing for my family, not only a biological imperative but a profound joy.
Achievement rests in approaching each year as if it were an experiment. What accomplishment justifies my continued employment? What one thing should I do to materially advance the interests of my employer, our customers and/or my team? It’s the chart of that course that makes me show up in the morning and it’s sightings along the way that allow me to sleep at night.
This is one of three patterns of collaboration that entrench status quo.
“The unpredictable nature of collaborative cultures can lead administrators towards forms of collegiality which they can control, regulate, and tame.” 1
People in leadership roles often resist honest and open exchange. They don’t want change. They want it done their way. They fear loss of influence or status. They dislike confrontation. They feel external pressure. They are proud, defensive, in denial, or simply insecure.
With a courteous, professional veneer and a stated goal of collaboration, they suppress equal participation by:
- controlling the schedule, conversation, or process,
- withholding or misrepresenting critical information,
- defining the collaborative task or roles too narrowly,
- overly constraining allowed responses or behaviors.
Within an agile context, a product owner can prescribe a solution then use the agile planning to solicit a limited range of responses:
“Is it feasible?” “How long will it take?” “How much will it cost?”
All Scrum guarantees is that these questions will consider a manageable chunk of the application. But whether it’s a user story, minimum marketable feature or a full specification these questions fail to engage the life experience and passions of the team to addressing the core problem or opportunity.
Go on to create an environment where contrary thinking is a problem, define “buy in” as a lack of visible dissent and you’ve placed the development team in a black box they cannot see out of and you cannot see into.
Contrived collegiality leaves the product owner out on a limb. You’ve limited the chances of anticipating risks, redefining the opportunity in some dynamic way, and invention at any but the tactical level. Despite agile processes and a surface of collaboration, you are relying almost solely on your own abilities to avoid, as Mike Cohn says, “the wrong thing, on time and on budget.”
1 Hargreaves A. and Fullan M., What’s Worth Fighting for in Your School?, Teacher’s College Press, New York, 1991.
Small collaborative groups often exist in isolation or in competition with other groups within an organization.
Unhealthy Competition: Balkanization1
This is the second pattern of collaboration that entrenches status quo (see Contrived Collegiality).
- : to break up (as a region or group) into smaller and often hostile units
- : divide, compartmentalize <now pop culture has been balkanized; it is full of niches, with different groups watching and playing their own things â€” Richard Corliss>
In a Balkanized environment, one team’s win is another team’s loss or, at least, one team’s loss is not every team’s loss.
A company that organizes itself by specialty and doesn’t matrix well to projects lends itself to balkanization but leadership can encourage politics under any structure if they distribute rewards based on unclear, unfair or arbitrary criteria.
Valuable learning in one group is not communicated or is disputed and not widely adopted. Managers drive to surface shows of success. Individuals are not encouraged to true joint work across organizational boundaries.
Agile is often introduced bottom up without executive sponsors in less than optimal cultures. In this context, development teams have dependencies on teams that do not buy into agile values. Developers are separated from decisions about opportunities, product portfolios, potential revenues, and product features. This is both a fragile place for agile teams and also diminishes opportunity for the company.
Healthy Competition: Bounded Cohabitation
Internal competition can be used to spur original thinking and organizational change.
Nonaka and Takeuchi describe a concept of “bounded cohabitation” where teams are set in productive competition with each team pursuing a different set of premises and value propositions all geared toward the same outcome.2
The example they use is detective work. One approach is to form autonomous teams around different premises: premeditated murder, crime of passion, accident, natural causes, etc. Let the teams self-organize assembling the appropriate numbers with relevant skills and experience for their specific premise.
The teams investigate independent of each other. Under their premise, each team may look past evidence others find relevant but also follow leads other teams wouldn’t think to pursue. Eventually, one team establishes the most plausible course of events. The shared outcome is met and the teams re-organize around the next investigation.
Japanese manufactures often form multiple engineering teams around the same design challenge; e.g., an engine meeting novel requirements of size, efficiency and performance. They adopt the best solution incorporating other good ideas into the current or future products.
In one case, Sony merged two teams pursuing different product strategies: (1) an evolution in video tape players and (2) a revolutionary digital non-linear editor.
Synthesizing those world views resulted in the digital video editor with engineer-friendly analog controls that broadcast centers could rack into their existing facilities. This new technology with a familiar form factor created a new market that Sony decks dominated.
An executive sponsoring agile adoption must strive for healthy internal competition. Carve out self-organizing teams. Encourage them to follow their own paths to a clear, common goal. Mutually agree upon performance measures. Retrospect across teams to determine what’s working and why. Allow for wrong paths, allow for variation and embrace the unexpected.
The concepts and examples in this post are drawn from:
Another New York construction accident.
The city routinely asks it’s citizens to thread by, below and through construction. Cranes fall on houses, steel falls in ball fields.
With fallible commuter logic we do our part by filing under half-assembled scaffolding or pinning ourselves between heavy equipment and heavy traffic. Why don’t we cross the street? Go around the block?
I once shared the crosswalk at 9th Ave and 15th St with a 30″ pavement cutter. A utility crew worked it’s way across the intersection in bursts, cutting with the light in front of cars and along side pedestrians.
Life is cheap compared to the city’s evolution and our urgent routines.