Aesop and Agile: A Moral for Effective Teamwork
For those used to being a manager in a command-and-control organization, self-organizing teams can seem magical: You may not believe they are possible, but should you be part of a functioning one (and can resist command-and-control tendencies), the productivity and problem-solving ability of those teams can amaze you.
An essential element of creating an environment where a self-organizing team can form is considering how you handle situations where the team is not working effectively. There are two contrasting approaches to addressing ineffective teamwork, and they’re illustrated well in one of Aesop’s Fables.
The fable of The North Wind and the Sun tells a story where force (the Wind blowing) fails to change a traveler’s behavior (removing a cloak), but creating an environment that makes the action desirable (the warmth of the Sun) succeeds. The meteorological moral is often presented as “Kindness effects more than severity.” This might seem unrelated to a software team, but I’ve often seen a dynamic where a tendency toward force leads to the opposite of the desired behavior.
When we see something we perceive as a problem, we often want to act quickly to correct it. Advice, coaching, or other activities that help set people on a good path can be beneficial. But if you take a “fix it” mentality too far, while you might get past the initial impediment, you have done little to help the team work better in the future. You might even create a future impediment by discouraging innovation and ownership.
For example, consider a team that doesn’t participate much in sprint planning. The team may have meetings where only one or two people offer insights, and no one volunteers for work. You could “solve” the lack of volunteering by assigning work and holding people accountable for their own backlog. This may even work for a time. But it could also backfire. Once Mary is done with her assigned tasks, she may wait for you to assign more work rather than looking at the backlog or offering to help a team member. Or she may do her work in a vacuum and avoid collaborating with Joe, who worked on a similar component in a prior job, which you didn’t know about.
Or you can make it clear that the team is committing to the entire backlog and create a planning meeting dynamic where people need to discuss how the team can meet the sprint goal. Perhaps you can start by making it clear that the meeting can’t end until team members sign up for tasks, or at least until the team has done enough of a task breakdown and validation that they have the ability to get the work done. This is harder and less immediately satisfying, but it can be more effective in the long run.
Creating an environment that encourages ownership and shared knowledge is difficult and requires patience. But this method will work better than forcing action-oriented solutions when it comes to your team’s long-term effectiveness.