Saturday, September 12, 2015

Question for self-organizing teams

Try this thought experiment.

You are a software development manager. You learn about agile and you think it is good. You adopt agile and you make all your teams into self-organizing teams. (Leave aside the question of whether you then quit in a fit of “no managers needed” - we can talk about that later.)

Most of your teams work well. Productivity goes up, people are happier. They organise their own work. Occasionally teams come to you and say they would like extra people on the team. Provided they can back this up with evidence that they are productive and add value, and that adding more members will increase the value they deliver then they are allowed to expand.

But, one team doesn’t perform as expected. They don’t achieve the productivity of the other teams, they don’t demonstrate the value other teams do.

Question: Do you intervene?

If you intervene you are not allowing them to self-organise, you are playing big bad manager.

If you intervene in one team what will the other teams think?

Perhaps its not as clear as that. Perhaps the team are performing but it becomes clear they have achieved a local optimum and are not improving like other teams.

Question: How do you nudge the team to move to a higher performance level?

And what if when you challenge them about things like pair programming, honouring deadlines, maybe predictable velocity, etc. etc. they tell you they have tried these things, or at least talked about them, and they have decided that these are not good for them.

Question: What do you do if they self-orgianise to not do the things you hoped they would? Things you think might improve performance?

(Potentially if you allow a team to self-organize they might even start requesting complete requirements documents up front, they may resist change requests.)

Now suppose that rather than play big bad manager you play facilitator, Uber-Scrum-Master, you go to the team and say: “I think this team could perform better, I’d like to help you improve.”

And someone on the team says back: “Could you please give us an example of when you think we could have performed better?”

Now you have a specific instance in your mind where the other teams (the performing teams) think this one messed up. Do you tell them? To tell them is negative, to tell them may make them defensive, to tell them really make you seem like a big bad manager.

You could hire an agile coach, scrum master or such and ask them to do pose these questions and make these changes. But isn’t that just delegating? You are still the power behind the action.

You could go to the other teams and ask them to challenge the under performing team and raise concerns with them directly but that might be seen as manipulative, and now you are interfering in multiple teams. Are you allowing them to self-organise?

Now suppose things take a turn for the worse. The company looses money and the shareholders ask for redundancies.

Do you communicate this to the teams and ask for volunteers? - you may hit employment law problems here.

Do you ask everyone (yourself included) to take a pay-cut?

What is someone crunched the figures and found it was the underperforming team that was dragging everyone down, and cutting the whole team could return you to profit. Should you ask the teams to do this themselves? Or do you do it?

If the team crunched the figures would the underperforming team decide to offer themselves up for redundancy? Would it be fair it you - or the teams themselves - decided to cut one person from each team instead?

In short: if you have an team where the performance isn’t satisfactory what do you do?

I suppose the ideal is that someone on the team, probably a product owner/analyst type person, is regularly analysing the benefit delivered by the team and the cost of the team. If the benefits fall below the cost and the team can’t come up with a plan to change it then the team members request dissolution. But has anyone ever seen that?

I pose these questions because I don’t know the answers. It is questions like this that add to my scepticism over self-organizing teams, or rather, cause me to see limits in the model.

I find it hard to image any team offering to dissolve themselves. O, there might be the odd story of teams doing it but I find it hard to image this is the norm. I find it easier to image teams getting more defensive and seeking to explain away their failings by reference to others (I’m avoiding the word blame.)

Arie de Geus in The Living Company says that companies, and by extension teams, are living beings, they exist to continue their own existence. In capitalist coiuntries markets will eventually force poor performing companies out of business. In the closed ecosystem inside a company how do we replicate that mechanism?

I see limits in self-organzing teams: One of manager’s roles is to determine these limits and act at the limits.

One more thing, run this thought experiment again, but this time imagine that you (the enlightened manager) chose to dismiss yourself once you have set up the teams. The questions still stand, the problems still exist, but removing the manager removes the last person who might take action.

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