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The Roar on the Other Side of Silence

May 2nd, 2010 7 comments

I love to watch television shows about the natural universe.  The content of these television programs simply fascinates me at a visceral level I don’t experience with other subjects.  I wonder at the possibilities of the cosmos, the history of the universe, the beginnings of consciousness in pre-historic humanoid brains, and the other organisms we share this planet with.  I think about how humans may be connected with animals, how our culture and community may be connected with our past, and how each of us may have more in common with each other through a shared historical experience than we allow ourselves to believe.  I love to ponder about the nature of simply being.  I think about this topic because on a regular basis I get to see a wide variety of people and get to see how they relate to job and their team, how they choose to exist professionally.

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I frequently work with teams of people from a range of companies, industries, and backgrounds, and its during these sessions that I think back to those larger thoughts about how we experience our lives as individuals and as members of teams.  What makes some teams click, thrive, and deliver?  How do some groups of people truly share a common goal and work creatively to achieve it?  Why do some groups of people seem to only suffer through projects and then deliver dismal results, consistently?  What is the definable difference between the experiences of these different groups?  Why are some people happy with their job, their company, their project, their healthcare, their family, their car, their house, their spouse, their life, while others would seemingly choose to be dissatisfied no matter what they may be blessed with?  Where are the connection of neurons responsible for our ability to be happy and productive on a team?  And does this ability to choose happiness relate to better relationships and results at work?  How do I grant the gift of effortless success and indomitable growth to teams that struggle endlessly to achieve even modestly positive results?

To help me answer these questions, I turned to an insightful book The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. In the book authors Katzenback and Smith define a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and a common approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”  Although I agree wholeheartedly with their definition, the book did not satisfy the curiosity I had about what components make certain teams tick and others tock.  I needed an understanding at a deeper level, I needed to examine the DNA of teams.  So instead of reading more about teams from a business perspective, I instead looked into those double helixes that seem to determine everything about us, our very own DNA, to see if any insight could be found.

The human genome project promised to finally unlock the secret recipe for what makes us who we are.  And like so many other great scientific promises of the past, it failed to yield an answer to everything, but rather provided a perfect foundation for even greater questions.  Although our DNA provides the building blocks for our physical being, it cannot alone explain the curiosities of individuals, from our personalities, to our attitudes, to our propensity for success, or our ability to trudge inexorably to failure.  This mysterious exclusion is expressed effectively in the observation of identical twins, where the DNA encoding remains identical, but where nearly all else is unique, especially when the brain is examined.

Like our DNA, we often cannot choose the members that make up our team, but equally similar to DNA, it is not simply the members of our team that pre-determine our possibilities.  Too often I hear individuals complain that consistent success would be possible if only they were assigned to the right team or if the right team were assigned to them.  This superficial failure of perspective can often become a self-fullfilling prophecy, yielding the expected negative results as a consequence of subconscious actions driven in support of the consciously expected outcome.  As with many mysteries of life, perspective and belief are more powerful than we allow ourselves to consider.  We seem to be more content to apply unreasoned reasons to our perceived consequences rather than seeking to drive meaning from those things for which we could have affected the outcome.

Recent discoveries in the world of science confirm the notion that we are more than our parts, both on the individual and team levels.  These scientific revelations point to a beautiful aspect of life that affirms that we are not limited by our structure, but are allowed infinite possibilities through the wonder of chaos; an inability and impossibility of perfectly predicting results based solely on observing conditions, thus free will is born and an infinite number of possible minds follows.  Author Jonah Lehrer states “that [this] is the triumph of DNA; it makes us without determining us.  The invention of neural plasticity, which is encoded by the genome, lets each of us transcend our genome.  We emerge, character-like, from the vague alphabet of our text.”  And as is true for individuals, it is equally true for how effectives teams can be, regardless of their own DNA, regardless of the individual components of the team.

Supporting these ideas, in a 2002 Science paper entitled “Stochastic Gene Expression in a Single Cell” Michael Elowitz of Caltech demonstrated that biological “noise” (a scientific synonym for chaos) is inherent in gene expression.  His results further solidified the unfolding scientific belief that it was this “noise” that held most of the possibilities for emergence in design for organisms, which contradicted the earlier collective belief that natural selection alone held this potential.  These discoveries, by extension, illuminated the idea that without this inclusion of chaos, then every cell that was created by the same DNA would operate, behave, and produce the same results, but we know that this is not the case.  In fact, without this beautiful inclusion to our evolution, we would not experience the diversity of life that we do.

Digging more deeply into what constitutes success in these complex adaptive systems (organized as teams), yields the result that diversity in experience, knowledge, personality, and drive is what allow them to truly excel.  The equivalent in nature was captured by Darwin when he wrote that ”the more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution, and habits, by so much will they be better enabled to seize on many and widely diversified places in the polity of nature.”  A team’s diversity is one its greatest strengths, so long as the diversity is expressed and exercised regularly.

Teams are not doomed to failure as an inevitable consequence of the composition of it’s members.  Similarly, individuals are not merely limited to the sum of their specific DNA coded sequences.  And if these statements are true, how do we then affect better outcomes from both teams and individuals?  Just as individuals are formed by their experiences that shape their neurons, bringing temporary neural order to chaos, so too can teams also allow their experience to help bring consistency in results to their previously unpredictable outcomes.  But in order to make this happen, teams need two very important components in place: 1. An ability to clearly define their current state set against their preferred results (this allows the team to define the state of dissonance between reality and possibility, thus developing creative tension in the structure).  2. A mechanism that allows the team to utilize experience to shape future team decisions.

I am a firm believer that:

- Given the opportunity, most people would rather succeed than fail.
- People are very well aware of organizational constraints that limit their ability to achieve and succeed.
- Most people feel limited in their ability to affect change in their job.

So what is the answer?  How do we elicit better results from our teams?

If you are still with me this far, then it is only fair that I provide you an answer, right?  Unfortunately, as much as I would like to, I cannot provide an answer, only a direction.

The potential source for your organization’s power lies in the unexplored richness of experience and understanding held by your people.  You may believe that your organization actively solicits input and feedback, but if your organization is like most, you don’t, at least not well enough.  You will know when you have breached the barrier that separates average teams and corporate culture from their extraordinary equivalents.  You will know because you will discover the roar that exists on the other side of silence.  Do not dig unprepared for what you may find, the roar is often deafening.

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The Secret Sauce to a Hyper-Productive Team

April 4th, 2010 No comments

As I travel from city to city working with various teams from a wide range of industries, I have noticed some commonalities in the dynamics present in these teams.  Some of these teams represent those that I feel a deep sense of compassion for…ones that are lacking inspired direction, lacking enthusiasm, lacking a sincere desire to produce a product above and beyond the gathered specs, teams drowning amidst a sea of corporate culture that does not seek to produce the best product, but rather satisfy the demands of its own structure.  Then there are those teams that seem to possess a magical quality where they can accomplish anything, overcome any obstacle, and are adept at creating the right amount and type of team culture that supports their objectives.

Seeing this huge gap between team types begs the obvious question, what is the difference between the teams?  Is it company size? No. Is it the industry?  Nope, seen great teams in every industry including DoD, government, tech, and finance. Is it the goodies provided for free in the kitchen?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.

So what is the secret sauce of these hyper-productive teams?

As you might guess, it is not any one thing, but a combination of many different factors that all support the single-headed direction to support the creation and continued operation of a highly productive team.  So what are the ingredients?  Here is my unscientific, and definitely un-exhaustive list:

  1. Great people.
    We cannot pretend that only process matters.  Spend any amount of time digging into great teams and you are likely to find a fair number of great people, people that would be great on any team.  Get enough of them together and you have a good shot at a great team.
  2. Organizational culture supportive of making mistakes in pursuit of greater return results.
    Teams that are comfortable at making mistakes often find that they also produce extraordinary results.  True success is often comprised of multiple failed efforts that did not sink the team, but rather allowed the team to learn things they could not have learned otherwise.  Working within a corporate culture that recognizes this is a key component to super teams.
  3. True team based delivery culture (which means this is also taken into account during things like individual’s annual reviews.)
    Teams that recognize that we are not simply individuals working in close proximity, but a team where we must all be engaged with one another’s work.  I tell teams looking to achieve amazing results that each member of the team must care as much about their neighbor’s work as they do their own.
  4. Team members that share a sense of purpose, vision, and passion for their work.
    If team members believe that they are contributing to something greater than their individual part, then they will care at a much greater level than their individual contribution.  Work to ensure that a team can share this vision and goals begin to shape themselves.  Better yet, teams begin to manage their own incremental improvement, otherwise know as the team holy grail.
  5. A company that cares as much (if not more) about their employees as they do about their customers.
    At the base of it all, we must feel appreciated at our place of work, or we may not be able to cobble together the above components.  Companies that treat their employees as commodities will likely only experience amazing, hyper-productive teams sporadically, rather than as a expected result of a team-based product development environment.

[Let me state clearly, this list could likely be much, much longer, so please feel free to add to it in the comments. Whole books can, and have, been written on the subject.]

A the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states “any system development activity inevitably changes the environment  out of which the need for the system arose” so true is it that any team activity will likely change the culture out of which it was born.  Corporate culture, although seemingly unchangeable when our teams operate seemingly at its mercy, is always in flux, as this cultural effect evolved not from proclaimed edict, but the work done by teams and the resulting response from the company in which they operate.  Changing this culture to enable and encourage hyper-productive teams is a joint effort from the great team that seeks to produce extraordinary results and the company that chooses to support the behavior that these teams exhibit.  Although it sounds like an easy choice for companies to make, you would be surprised just how often I encounter organizations that seem to want to thwart these great teams.

Have you had the pleasure of working on a team that was hyper-productive?  One that truly exemplified the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts?  What was the secret that you found to be the linchpin to success?  Did you notice that happy teams produce better results?  Did you notice that teams that have fun together are able to more easily maneuver around obstacles that might otherwise sink an average team?  I hope so, because it is these experiences that will continue to push me to better define what those magical, secret ingredients are for those teams that define what it truly means to get work done.  And as my friend Rod Behbood says, “Do Work Son.”

Happy Easter everyone!

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Simple Rules For Success: Show Up. Be Like Delaware.

March 17th, 2010 1 comment

US ConstitutionI write this post on a flight to Philadelphia, the city that hosted a special session of the Continental Congress, charged with the monumental task of drafting the Constitution of the United States.  It got me thinking about the historical significance of this effort, at least as we reflect on it today.  But during the summer of 1787, when this precious document was drafted, there was not the focus or import placed on the task that we might imagine there had been.  In fact several states failed to send representatives to assist in the creation of this document, a document that would be the foundation for the creation of the greatest nation on the planet.  Let me repeat that, several states failed to send delegates to help craft the document.

The approach to writing the Constitution was not orderly, nor was representation of responsibility divided among states based on their size or population.  It was based on one single fact: those who showed up were allowed/requested to assist in penning the effort.  Those who showed up were able to vote on inclusions and omissions.  Those who showed up ultimately made a greater impact than any other opportunity in history.

During that stifling hot summer of 1787 when the Continental Congress held their special session in Philadelphia, the very small state of Delaware showed up.  They didn’t send 1 delegate or 2, they sent 5.  That might not sound like much, but the average number of delegates on the floor of the Continental Congress that summer numbered at just 30.  The delegates from Delaware showed up.  Day after day these delegates showed up.  After the session concluded for the day they continued the conversation and work outside of the Congress walls.  Delaware.  In contrast, New York attempted to send delegates but never had enough together at one time to achieve a quorum and were subsequently left out of every single vote.  Delaware’s impact on the final version of our Constitution was “stratospheric”. [The Little Big Things. Tom Peters. 2010]

For the next two days I will be delivering a class on the topic of Agile Project Management.  And being in the city where our Constitution was penned, I will be including this notion that showing up can often amount to half the battle.  I rarely write to the least common denominator (read my other posts if you doubt), in fact I write about those qualities and traits required for consistent excellence, but in this case let me clear…Excellence is not possible if we fail to show up in the first place.  Our ability to influence change and produce excellence in our personal and professional lives requires that we show up.  Consistently.  As the adage goes, we may not be able to perfectly predict when opportunity will avail itself to us, but showing up on a consistent basis greatly increases the likelihood that we will be present when that bells rings.

Delaware showed up.  Not because they were told that the Constitution would hold more importance than any other single document in the history of the country, they showed up because it was their duty and they were seeking any possible opportunity.  Why didn’t other states show up?  Why didn’t other states organize and participate at the intense level of Delaware?  Well it was a stifling hot summer, remember?  There was no air conditioning of course, and the thought of spending long days arguing fine details of a document that may not amount of much just did not rise to the level of importance for several of the states to make the journey.  I’m talking about you New York.

Be a Delaware.  Rather than trying to time your efforts, simply apply your excellent efforts on a consistent basis and you will be blessed when reviewing your work with the benefit of hindsight.  Show up and be ready.  Without this first step nothing else much matters.  As my dad used to tell me, all the potential in the world doesn’t amount to much.

Well, my in-flight internet is about to be turned off.  Until next time, think about the simple things that make all the difference.

Bill Gaiennie

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When We Need to Slaughter Our Sacred Cows. Agile Companies Are Slaughterhouses.

July 17th, 2009 4 comments

sacredcowIn some medieval cultures, cows were sacred, never to be killed for food or even used to assist in the plowing of fields.  These sacred cows enjoyed a serene life, having free run of the space within the community’s gates in which they resided.  These cows suffered no enemies and were generally able to lead long lives, ultimately dying simply of old age.  They were never challenged, except in very rare circumstances, as was the case one spring in medieval Europe…

To all of the residents of this particular community, it was like any other spring day, tending to their gardens just outside the fortress walls, readying their fields to provide the food that would supply the needs of everyone for the year.  But this was no ordinary day.

It started as a low rumbling, and as each minute passed, the rumbling got louder, signifying to the town’s residents that there was something unknown approaching, and approaching fast.  In those times, precaution was the measure of the day, so all of the residents outside the city walls quickly moved behind the protective barriers, ensuring that they would be able to weather the force of whatever was on its way.  After everyone was safely within the garrison, they closed the fortress gates, manned lookout positions on the upper walls, and armed themselves in preparation for the unknown.

It wasn’t more than a few minutes after they were fully readied that they spied the first wave of attackers on the far ridge, and it wasn’t but a few minutes longer that hundreds of attackers were now fully positioned along the walls, readying their attack.  And attack they did.  The initial attack was followed by an even more brutal, elongated barrage of arrows, battering rams, and intimidation.  But the town held their own, holding off the attack, and keeping the community safe.  But the barbarians at the gate were not to be driven off.

BarbariansOne day of this siege turned into two, and then two into three, until the town found itself fighting for survival for a number of weeks.  The townspeople knew they would not be able to survive forever, they only hoped to last longer than their attackers.  But food supplies were running low, and the men responsible for thwarting the attack were getting weak.  They had no access to additional supplies, and were cut off from the outside world.  They did, however, have an abundant supply of sacred cows within the township’s walls.  Unfortunately, not only was the idea of killing a sacred cow taboo, it was also a horrible crime.

But these were not ordinary times.  Should the soldiers defending the attack fail, the town’s sacred cows would almost certainly be slaughtered by the barbarians.  But, if the town’s soldiers were to kill some of the cows to provide food, they would likely be stronger and better able to continue the fight and perhaps prevail.  There really was no other alternative, the soldiers knew that in order to have any chance at saving the town, the people, and their way of life, they would have to re-evaluate the sacred nature of their cows, even if just a month ago this thought would have been abhorrent.

So in a bold attempt to save their community, these brave men evolved and re-defined the place of the cow in their society, ultimately to the townspeople’s benefit, and to the cow’s obvious demise.  But the town survived.

So what does a town and it’s sacred cows have to do with Agile teams?

Plenty.

Sacred cows roam free in many of today’s companies, never being questioned, never being examined objectively, simply they are revered by those that are forced to live with them.  Sacred cows can take many forms, but are easy to spot with the simple question “why are we doing this?”  If the answer that returns is “because we have always done this” or “this is the way it is done here,” you likely have yourself a sacred cow.  And as most companies that have moved to an Agile approach know, sacred cows most often times need to be slaughtered.

Choosing to slaughter sacred cows is a much different exercise when the decision is made while there are barbarians at the gate.  This type of decision springs from necessity, or more often, desperation, and ultimately results in something far short of a true changing of culture, a step that is required for most companies looking to move from waterfall to Agile.  Choosing to slaughter a sacred cow when there are no barbarians at the gate results in a decision made in an effort to improve rather than a decision in an effort to simply survive.

Now, don’t get me wrong, in the grand scheme of things, it is still a better situation to be able to dispatch with sacred cows, regardless of the impetus.  At times, being forced to remove sacred cows can result in a greater comfort level in identifying additional cows that should be asked to leave.  It is a muscle that needs to be stretched from time to time so that it does not atrophy.  But as many of you are likely aware, most larger companies simply do not encourage, let alone allow, the examination of these stale relics of the past, but instead have misplaced pride in the history of policies and actions that brought their company to their current position.

Learn to evolve, or plan on starving to death.

In today’s business climate, with its rapidly changing competitive landscape, those companies that choose to not examine their own sacred cows will likely find themselves in the unenviable position of needing to make these decisions while barbarians are banging at the gate.  The recording industry is a great example of a large organization that was unwilling to examine their own cow.

The compact disc.  A golden example of how sacred cows detrimentally influenced the recording industry.

The compact disc was a boon to the recording industry.  It was cheap to produce, had superior sound quality, and were selling phenomenally well, in spite of a price point that was often complained about by their customers.  The recording industry was able to enjoy this situation for more than two decades.  They enjoyed this hugely beneficial climate for so long that is effectively created a sacred cow, one that would only be challenged after they were forced to, but ultimately much too long after the point in time they could have slaughtered the sacred cow for their advantage, rather than simply survival.  A college student named Shawn Fanning created a simple piece of software that allowed users to trade copies of their music across the internet.  Napster created a shockwave across the industry, but it was only the first in a long time of technologies that would allow customers to find their music quickly and at reduced cost.  There was a window of opportunity for the recording industry to see the changing tides, but instead they had tunnel vision, only seeing the glory days of the CD, and the money that went along with it, and chose to fight reality in their effort to bring the past to the present.

And they failed miserably.  And they continue to fail even today to some extent.

Steve Jobs was the first to successfully challenge the sacred CD cow with the advent of iTunes, and after a short period of time was able to prove that it does not make sense to leave your sacred cow sacred.  Often times it is important to wield the cleaver and put down the cow that has an organization following beliefs of the past during times which require an evolution in approach.  Sacred cows are rarely sacred forever.

But in light of all of this, it is not easy to bring our own sacred cows to light.  They are often sacred for a reason (although rarely a really good reason mind you), and those individuals that do choose to point the finger at the cow in the room will likely be met with scorn or dismissal by those other individual’s intent on protecting the institutions of the past.  Clearing these cows from our hallways and boardrooms takes courage.  And in reality, there is safety in numbers in these types of endeavors.

Become a Sacred Cow Hunter.

It often takes nothing more than keeping a vigilant eye.  Encouraging (or requiring at first) some type of ‘inspect and adapt’ mechanism within your organization, where a safe environment is created and allows for anyone to call out a sacred cow sighting.  Companies must believe that if any value, belief, process, policy, or corporate mantra is valuable enough to be kept, it should also be strong enough to be challenged.  It is cancerous in any company to allow a festering sentiment about ‘why something is done’ to grow without address the why behind the what of the policy.  Transparency in communication from the top down and the bottom up is most often sufficient to flush out cows hiding in the dark corners of your organization.  And if you think your company has none, they are much better at hiding than you are at finding, so keep looking.

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There Is No ‘I’ in Agile: How Teamwork Can Make or Break an Agile Project

July 9th, 2009 No comments

flyingformationFlying just a few feet off of the wings of the pilot in front and to the right of him, this skilled pilot was determined to keep a tight formation. And he was not alone in his efforts and highly honed flying abilities, as every single pilot in his entire squadron was similarly adept at maintaining this tight formation no matter the direction, the weather, or even the specific order in which these aviators organized. The formation would have looked impressive to anyone observing from the ground, but it wasn’t a formation used to impress observers, it was utilized because it worked. By maintaining this flying organization, each member of this flying contingent was able to benefit from the lift created by the pilot off of his wing, to the tune of a 71% improvement in fuel consumption. The exception to this economy of course was for the sole lead pilot, which did not benefit from having a lead aircraft providing a boost of lift. So to account for this, each member of the flying team would rotate to the lead position at regular intervals so that they could ensure that every member would share the burden for a portion of the total flight time.

This highly skilled team of aviators recognized that they could not possibly fly as far or as long without teamwork. But this spirit of teamwork did not end with the decision to maintain an efficient formation. They recognized that in order for each of the pilots to be safe, they would need to take care of each other, even when disaster struck, which it did one brisk autumn morning…

The morning had been uneventful, each of the team’s pilots maintaining a tight formation, and a vigilant eye on the ground, because on this particular morning, they were traversing enemy territory. And even though this was a dangerous mission, this mission was much like most of their other missions, as they often were forced to travel over possibly hostile terrain. But unlike most other mornings, a trailing member of the formation was struck, by what no one could be sure, but struck nonetheless, and within moments, his ability to continue flying was affected severely: he was going down. He didn’t have a choice to eject, but rather piloted his disabled craft safely to the ground so that he could assess the damage. But as experience would show, being on the ground where he was much less maneuverable, he was at a greater risk of attack. In order to keep a member of their team safe during emergencies such as these, two fellow pilots also descended from formation, landing near the downed team member, and provided protection while repairs were made. These guardians would stay by the side of the disabled pilot until he was ready to fly again. To this fleet of pilots, teamwork meant never leaving a fellow pilot behind. After a short while, the downed pilot was able to successfully repair his vessel and all three took back to the air, rejoining their squadron. Alone, the pilot may not have survived the ordeal.

geeseThis is a true story, although it is a story that likely first took place thousands of years ago. And it is a story that continues to play out even today. You see, the pilots in the story above were not the pilots you may have been thinking of, these pilots were geese. Geese offer an incredible example of teamwork and how teamwork enables each member of the team to achieve more, travel greater distances, and weather more intense emergencies than they would survive alone. Geese use this tool of teamwork because although it requires a commitment to something greater than each individual, it repays that commitment with many more benefits not available without this pledge of membership.

So what do geese flying in formation have to do with Agile teams?

Plenty.

I would venture to guess that no company in existence would openly say that they do not believe in teamwork.  I would further venture to say that most of these companies would state firmly that their teams are very good at demonstrating team work in the projects they undertake.  But the truth of the matter is that most teams rarely demonstrate the type of team work that produces results proving the possibility that the whole truly can be greater than the sum of the individual parts.  The word ‘teamwork’ has unfortunately been reduced to nothing more than a term on the balance sheet of requirements for a group of project associated individuals; a definition never verified, never authentically encouraged by the organization, but believed to exist nonetheless.  It is a word that has lost its power.  It is routinely applied to describe a group where the group behavior does not merit its application of meaning.  It is overused, under-realized, and misunderstood because of each of these are true.  And yet only a small percentage of ‘teams’ out there truly endeavor to seek the rewards that come from achieving a level of performance and professional satisfaction that is the byproduct of individuals that sacrifice their distinction, their difference, and their dissimilarities in their pursuit of that which is greater than any one person.  They pursue the quotient that is achieved when individuals become teams.  When individual output transforms into teamwork.

mmeadequoteAgile requires teamwork in the truest sense of the word.  Agile processes reward and recognize good team behavior in the spirit that good teams can produce great results, and as teams mature, great teams can produce extraordinary outcomes.   Don’t believe me?  Then let me pose a question to you…

Have you ever been a part of a team where everything seemed to click?  Where if you had an issue, someone on your team was there to help almost before you were able to ask?  Have you ever been on a team where the work seemed less like work and more like an expression of your and your team’s passion and energy?  If so, then you are not alone, as most people have actually had the experience of achieving this level of team maturity that results in true teamwork.  If you were not able to relate, then it is up to you to create this atmosphere with your own team, on your own project.

But before we can truly become a team, we have to also address the flip side of the coin, and that is the dysfunctions that can easily sink the most well intentioned ship of individuals who set out to discover the holy land of team performance.  Patrick Lencioni did a very good job of identifying these major areas in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of  a Team, so instead of reinventing the wheel (or the team), let’s use Lencioni’s model as our foundation.

Dysfunction One:  The absence of trust among the team members.

I think that I can safely say that if you do not have trust, you do not have anything…at least you do not have anything so far as it relates to creating a true team.  What do you have when your team members don’t trust each other or don’t trust you?  You have a group of individuals working in close proximity, but you do not have a team.  You also have a group that is not able to focus their efforts on creating a truly great product, because they must divide their attention on ensuring that they are not going to be stabbed in the back.  Even if the distrust does not rise to the levels where your resources begin to connive against one another, you still have a group that cannot truly communicate, because true, effective, healthy communication is based on a foundation of trust.

Dysfunction Two: The fear of conflict.

Great teams fight.  Perhaps the word ‘fight’ is a bit strong, but great teams are not afraid of conflict, because out of conflict can emerge true resolution.  I say true resolution, because resolution can happen without conflict, but it is not authentic because it typically is simply a result of one party giving in to avoid the conflict, rather than remaining passionate about the best outcome.  Conflict is not beneficial simply for conflict’s sake, but when teams fear confrontation and conflict, communication suffers, knowledge sharing suffers, and ultimately the individuals begin to manage their own actions from a place of fear, which never returns great results.

Dysfunction Three: The lack of commitment.

We use the word commitment a lot in Agile, but in this context, the word commitment is more aligned with being absolutely committed to the team’s goal rather than our own individual objectives.  When a team of individuals is committed to achieving the goals of the team, no other possibility exists, and when faced with adversity or the risk of missing an objective, the committed teams gets creative to resolve their own issues.  Commitment does not have a back door through which we can escape when times get tough.  When a team embraces their commitments, there is little that they cannot not accomplish.

shindlequoteDysfunction Four: The avoidance of accountability.

The buck stops here.  Not at the desk of the project manager, but at the door of the team’s war room.  The team’s ability to remain accountable to their commitments means that creativity is likely to flow in the face of project difficulty.  I am not accidentally being vague here, I am purposely avoiding being too specific because I have seen many varied examples of how a team’s creativity in their attempts to resolve issues has surprised even them.  Keep all possibilities open, along with your mind, and allow the intelligent people you have assembled for your team to be accountable, even up until the very end.  With accountability comes the possibility of glory, don’t take this away from your team.

Dysfunction Five: The inattention to results.

In order for any team to have the possibility of making improvements, they must be able to honestly assess the effectiveness of their results.  It may be nice to sugar coat our reality, so that we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but all we are doing when we practice this soft-handed approach, is sweep under the rug the very information that is most likely to assist us in improving our future efforts.  Results are not good or bad, it is just information.  What teams do with this information will determine the character of the team.  Team’s that choose to ignore the difficult to digest results will continue to produce that same quality of results, but instead of improving their actions, they will simply develop an immunity to the effects the poor results use to inflict.  If it is painful for a team to honestly and authentically examine their results, then this is a sure sign that they need to examine them in detail.  Allow the team to feel the pain, experience any negative reaction that comes from this examination, and most importantly, use the total experience to open up the possibility of valuable conversations that will allow the team to avoid repeating it all again in the future.

antoinequoteThere is no ‘I’ in Agile.

Individuals are great, I love having superstars on my team, but when we work together to achieve a common goal, I only recognize good team behavior, not individual efforts.  The people on your team are just like people everywhere, they are going to behave in ways which reflect how they are rewarded and recognized.  So if your company does not officially reward team’s that perform, only individuals (like during annual reviews), start the conversation to address this.  In you don’t, please do not be surprised when all of your cheerleading over the important of teamwork, team play, and team building are met with cheers, but then never realized.

Agile requires many different areas that reflect the need for a true cultural paradigm shift within most companies, teamwork and team building being one of the majors, so get ready, it is now up to you.  Becase if you have made it this far in my post, you have heard the bell.  And you cannot un-ring the bell, you know.

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Why Can’t We See the Ships on the Shore? Agile Teams Can, Can Yours?

June 30th, 2009 11 comments

shippicOn a warm August day in 1768, explorer James Cook set sail from England aboard his ship, The Endeavor.  On board were 94 crewman and scientists, and their mission was to find the fabled ‘Southern Continent.’  Early map makers in 1570 claimed that there were two major continents at each of the earth’s poles, and Cook was to discover this southern continent and claim it for England.  Although Dutch explorers had unsuccessfully attempted to find this mass of land in the early 1700′s, Cook was certain that his attempt would result in landing on these undiscovered shores.

Cook and his crew arrived in Taihiti on April 11, 1769, but soon realized that this was not the undiscovered territory they sought, so they departed the island chain and headed southwest.  After a brief stay on the islands of New Zealand, Cook again set sail in search of the great southern continent.  Finally, on April 9th, 1770, a full two years after then left their home country, the crew of the Endeavor finally arrived at the continent we now refer to as Australia.  Having already experienced the native populations on several other islands, Cook was well prepared for any possible contingency, from friendly natives offering gifts (such as his experience with the Sandwich Islands off of Alaska) to those natives intent on attacking his men (as he experienced when encountering Maori native tribes on New Zealand.)  But this experience, this arrival to a new land, was different.

When Cook’s ships anchored off-shore of this new land, it drew no reaction from the natives they could see working close to the shore.  Cook knew that they must be able to see them, but still there was no reaction, no staring by the natives out to the sea with wonder, no anxious reactions; simply nothing.  Studying more closely the accounts of James Cook and his botanist Joseph Banks, it is revealed that the natives must have been able to see them, as the ship sailed only a quarter mile off of their shores.   Other villagers must have been able to see the ships, but they too ignored these foreigners.  Cook wrote in his journal that “an old woman followed by three children came out of the woods…she turned her gaze toward our ships, but offered neither surprise nor concern.”  Then the Aborigines began to prepare dinner “to all appearance, totally unmoved by the sight of us, though we were less than a mile from their spot.”

nativeCook and his crew was not only perplexed by this curious behavior, but were now determined to make contact with these natives.  Cook writes “we set out from the ship intending to land at the place we saw these people…as soon as we approached in our small boats, from the rocks two men scrambled down to the shore, each armed with a lance, with an intent to attack us.”  For some unknown reason, these natives were unaffected and unaware of the large ship anchored just off the shore, but were hyper-aware of the smaller boats that were landing upon their shores.

After that initial contact with the native people of Australia, it was discovered that this population was simply not able to see these large ships, as they represented something completely unknown to them.  As Cook explained, his ship represented “the largest artifact ever seen, or unseen as it were, on the east coast of Australia, an object so huge, so complex, and unfamiliar as to defy the native’s understanding.”  Cook’s ship was essentially unseen by the natives because they had no experience that such an object could exist.  Once his crew transported to the shore in smaller boats, the vision of invaders arriving by small vessels being a familiar site, the natives responded by perceiving this arrival as a threat.

Or so the story goes.  And although this story has been told many times, using different explorers and other details, all of which may or may not be factually true, the message behind the mythos is still pertinent: we tend to see what we expect to see and can easily become blind, or choose to ignore, that which exists outside of our experience.  There are plenty of terms modern day psychologists give to this type of phenomenon including cognitive dissonance, perceptual blindness, habituation, inattentional blindness, etc.

So what does the story of natives not being able to see a ship off shore have to do with Agile teams?

Plenty.

Humans (and Agile teams by extension) naturally strive to reach consonance, or agreement and harmony, among the beliefs they hold to be true.  Cognitive dissonance, or a disagreement or difference of beliefs, can occur when we try to hold two contradictory beliefs about something simultaneously.  The natives believed that ships the size of Cook’s did not exist, and thus resolved this major disagreement of what they saw with what they believed to be true, by simply ‘not seeing’ his ship when it was anchored off-shore.  Although different today, it is still a common tendency to resolve this dissonance, or difference, through any number of means, including rationalization, justification, or dismissal of one of the beliefs.  The most common method for resolving cognitive dissonance is to simply dismiss the lessor known of the two beliefs, that belief which we have less experience with, while also building positive evidence and confidence in the remaining idea or belief, which was the route the Aborigines took when presented with Cook’s competing reality.   We do this so that we don’t have to experience the anxiety that comes from weighing two completing beliefs, especially when there is disparity in the amount experience or familiarity between them.  In short, people and teams tend to continue doing what they know, even when presented with a better possibility.  This behavioral pattern reduces stress, but it becomes an impediment to true growth, as the pattern regularly precludes exploring the unknown in deference to the known.

This principle was more recently put to the test in an experiment by Jack Brehm.  Brehm took 225 female study participants, and allowed them to choose one of two items to take home as a gift.  When asked later to rate the two items, a statistically significant portion of the participants rated the item that they selected much higher than the one that they didn’t.  This might sound intuitively accurate because the participants chose that item, but even when the experiment was conducted where participants were given an item at random, the participants still rated the item they took home higher than the one they did not.  Brehm concluded that in this simple experiment, cognitive dissonance was resolved by changing opinions to match the possible dissonance of “I selected X” while also feeling that “there were some things I liked about Y.”  This phenomenon of relieving any dissonance in our beliefs was confirmed by additional research and experiments, and found it to be true for children, adults, and even capuchin monkeys.  What have our efforts for resolving this cognitive dissonance problem resulted in?

We have been conditioned to become problem solving machines, while ignoring the possibility that introducing dissonance can lead to better outcomes.

Teams that have been conditioned to become proficient at problem solving tend to find themselves as habitual ‘firefighters’ constantly seeking out the next problem to resolve, the next fire to put out.  Study after study has shown that this approach to work results in employee burn out, poor work product, and a feeling that instead of being able to design our destination, our efforts are determined by factors outside of our control.  In today’s corporate parlance, we become adept at a reactive form of decision making as opposed to being proactive, or creative, in our planned path forward.  As skilled problem solvers, we carry around a huge problem solving hammer and then understandably see every situation as a nail.  And when our hammer will not effectively ‘resolve’ the nail in front of us, we mistakenly believe that “what we need here is a bigger hammer.”  For those of you who can relate to this approach and may have been nodding your head, you know better than anyone that it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle where the bigger hammer always encounters a bigger nail, which then requires a bigger hammer, etc.  When we perceive that problems being solved will result in a greater possibility for our efforts, for our product, or for our customer, we have bought into our own belief that fighting fires is the same as preventing them.

So are you saying that solving our problems is a bad thing?

No.  Problems are identified as such because they introduce a cognitive dissonance that can assist our team.  Letting a problem exist implies a simultaneous belief that “X is bad (a problem by definition)” and “X is ok to exist.”  This dissonance cannot remain, so we either resolve the problem, or modify how we identify the “problem.”  Problems do need to be resolved, but it is only half of the equation for great agile teams.  The other half of the equation represents the positive side that cognitive dissonance can represent, but unfortunately is rarely explored by most teams today.  So let’s explore this other side…

What do you have when you are done resolving a problem?

Nothing.  By definition, when a problem is resolved, it no longer exists, so nothing has been created apart from the removal of a problem.  Again, this is half of the equation.  But can anyone argue that removing a problem is the same as creating something?  It is a subtle but fundamental difference that can make all the difference…possibly the difference between being good and being great.  Interesting to note is that often times, our attempts to resolve a problem can actually make the problem worse.  Don’t believe me?

Let’s take something we are all likely familiar with:

The problem: Ethiopia experiences famine, with a large part of its population facing starvation.

The solution: With its population starving, the obvious hammer for this nail is to provide food.  And the world rallied around this solution, providing hundreds of millions of dollars of food and famine relief.

The results: The food did help, at least for awhile.  Many people that would have starved without the aid, did not starve.  But the aid only provided time, because the underlying structure of the problem did not change, it was only addressed superficially.  But after the crisis was addressed, the plight of the Ethiopians fell off of the news cycle (as many of the Ethiopians had been helped by the massive amounts of aid), and as the news fell off, subsequently so did the donations.  Problem solved, right?  Wrong.  The mechanics of the ‘solution’ did not look more deeply into the problem to see that simply taking care of a symptom would only exacerbate the problem.  Solving the problem only relieved immediate needs, but did not seek to create a better possibility for the Ethiopian people, as they still could not provide food for themselves.  And although initially helped by the donations, the people of Ethiopia had now become more dependent on this help, and fell into greater despair, requiring again for massive aid to be provided by the concerned citizens of the world.

Robert Fritz, author of the book Path of Least Resistance, refers to this pattern occurring like this:

The Problem
LEADS TO
action
to solve the problem

WHICH LEADS TO
less intensity of the problem

WHICH LEADS TO
less action
to solve the problem

WHICH LEADS TO
the problem remaining or intensifying anew

Simply put, solving the problem is akin to providing a fish to a starving man, whereas teaching him how to fish is creating a new possibility for his future.  Problem-solving-persistent paradigms focus on the near term, providing a fish for tonight, but then once that man no longer has hunger pangs, this approach simply moves onto the next problem, only to have to return again in the future to provide another fish when the man is on the brink of death.  Although we may be able to keep problems from becoming catastrophes, we do nothing to truly create a better possibility.

So tie this all together.  What does this all mean and how can this help my team?

I mentioned above the possibility of actually introducing dissonance as a tool for creation.  Not sure if any of you caught this, but this simple idea is the key to truly becoming great, as a team or even as an individual (although I am not advocating for individual greatness alone for Agile teams, as I will elucidate in my next post There is no “I” in Agile.)  The introduction of dissonance exists as a possibility on the opposite end of the spectrum from solving problems.  Rather than solely relieving tension between our problems and our current situation, we can introduce ideas and opportunities that exist between our current situation and a greater possibility.  This is the holy grail for teams that strive for continuous and incremental improvement.  Identifying issues that exist is a valuable skillset, but additionally identifying the dissonance between our current situation and our potential, provides the possibility for growth, improvement, and greatness.  Simply put, we need to identify clearly articulated goals for our team and then recognize the dissonance between our current state and that which we wish to achieve.  This is positive dissonance.  This dissonance also encourages resolution, but in a positive direction, and encourages creation of something new, rather than simply a removal of problems.  Two parts of the equation, each necessary, but only addressing one of them will never lead a team to greatness.  And the identification of areas of opportunity is an acquired skill, as it can take time to truly focus on the bird in the bush as part of our overall strategy.  We must also practice not getting stuck in the rut of tunnel vision or ‘group think’ and elicit input from  every source available to our team.

If we only ask the flashlight where the dark areas of the room are, we may be missing some valuable information.

lionWe must use our peripheral vision to see those things that we might otherwise miss, such as those that are not currently getting our full attention.  And what typically gets our full attention are the fires we are being asked to put out.  Ask a flashlight where the dark areas of the room are, and the answer you will likely get is that the room is fully lit. But of course, everywhere the flashlight points will receive light, while keeping the other areas shrouded in darkness.  Our attention is like a flashlight, and we can often miss those areas that represent opportunities or issues where our light is not focused.  And this is one beautiful aspect of Agile, as Agile acts as a very bright spotlight, showing the room as it is.  But it will only show you the things that you choose to look at, you must choose the direction in which to point your light, your focus, your attention.

In conclusion…we are either running from something or to something.  Running from a lion will keep us alive today, but will not necessarily provide shelter for tomorrow and beyond.  We must, as a team, strive to address our immediate, everyday problems for survival, but for long-term growth we must also apply our energy and attention to seeking out shelter as well.

I know this post was somewhat abstract, steeped in a some psychology, and I would guess that most of the people that started to read this post will have likely not even made to this sentence.  But for those troopers that made it this far, congratulations.  Your reward…my next post will be shorter and perhaps be a bit more fun.  Thanks for reading, I appreciate all of the amazing feedback I have received since launch this blog.  It keeps me going, so thank you again.

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