Solving Problems and Seeking Solutions on an Agile Team
Some organizations’ cultures seem to ignore that the team can be more valuable than any individual. Though reviews, bonuses and compensation practices, and personal recognition in various forms, there is a tendency to reward individual contributions—especially by those who appear most decisive. This isn’t a bad thing; individuals do work, and recognition is important to building morale. But when it comes to solving problems, a focus on individuals erodes the productivity of an organization.
Two books I’ve read recently have lessons to share on this topic and advice for how to find the right balance.
In Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, Steven Johnson discusses how people make long-term, consequential decisions, both personal and professional, and shares a number of important insights relevant to those of us who work on agile teams.
Johnson explains that the process that goes into a decision is more important than the result. While we tend to focus on results, we can get good results by luck. It is by having a process that we can explore options and evaluate our decisions—good and bad—so that we can make good choices now and improve our decisions later. Evaluating our processes is also a key part of making better decisions. It’s essential to explore options so that we don’t solve the seemingly obvious but ultimately wrong problem.
Whenever we are dealing with unknowns, as we often do in software development, coming quickly to good decisions that we can “tinker with,” in Johnson’s words—or “iterate on,” in agile terminology—in the context of the project is best. Some of the techniques Johnson mentions to improve the decision-making process would be quite at home in an agile retrospective, including storytelling and various structured postmortem and premortem techniques.
But before starting the decision-making process, it might be good to examine your motives for problem-solving. The New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World—and How to Make It Work for You, by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, focuses on how connection is more important than status in modern groups and organizations. Much of the book seemed consistent with what agile, self-organizing teams strive for, but the part that resonated most with me was the distinction between “problem solvers” and “solution seekers.”
The authors characterize the difference in that problem solvers base their identity in their expertise, whereas solution seekers are happy to facilitate a solution even if they don’t get credit. While this seems obvious, I suspect that many of us have been in discussions where the focus was on advocating for ideas rather than understanding the best solution.
While teams are composed of individuals, all of whom solve problems and make decisions, people on consistently successful teams understand that they can be even more effective if they work as a team. Making the best decisions collectively delivers the most value to customers in the long run.