December 11, 2014

Team dynamics naturally

I spent a considerable part of this morning watching a team of fisherman haul in last nights catch, spread their nets out on the beach, examine them, repair them and then fold them back into their boat on the shore.

This happens every day.

Why is this interesting, other than that is something I don’t normally do?

When the fishermen came in to shore, they started chanting and singing. All of them together. The song was basic, more like shouts and hollers than poetry. All together they chanted in celebration of their return from the sea. It reminded me of the bit in The Last Samurai when the villagers all stood still to feel the wind on their faces. I was witnessing something special.

As the fishermen set about to work on their daily tasks, I thought that I could tell which one was the boss. One chap seemed to shout orders at the others. Just when I was sure that he was the big cheese, a different chap started up shouting orders. Pretty soon, I realised that the fishermen shouted orders whenever it was appropriate and no one person was in charge. Then later I realised they were not orders as such, but that they were just in constant communication on what they were doing. They had to shout over the sound of the crashing sea.

Why all this communication? Surely the task of bringing in fish and repairing ropes is not a complex one. Perhas they were just chatting in loud voices? These rough and ready traditional fisherman could not be called knowledge workers. There was something to learn here, I just knew it. I carried on watching.

As I watched them pull out the ropes and nets, I was amazed at how long they were. We are taking miles of netting out of a single hand made wooden boat. Literally miles of it. All hand made.

As they worked together spreading out the nets on the sand, (taking up nearly the whole beach) I realised how hard it must be to keep several kilometers of wet netting untangled. These guys had it down to an art form.

Once the nets were spread out on the shore, the fishermen let them dry in the sun. Then they went over them, reparing any holes. Some of the fishermen were sitting together making the ropes from twine and coconut husks.

Sometimes one of them would find a hole and go and fix it, other times they would be doing some other task, like getting weights (stones) and tieing them to the sides of the nets.
Finally just after lunch, they all got together and started the process of folding, reeling and stacking the ropes and netting up in a very specific and complex piles inside the boat. I assume this is so that it is all ready for the next night. You cant manage that much rope in a boat out at sea unless it is perfectly stacked with no tangles.

All day the fishermen laughed and joked and shouted instructions at each other in the complicated process they were in charge of.

By the end of the day the fishermen had all worked on pretty much all the tasks, a true T shaped team. The folding of this rope and netting had required all of them, working together, constently shouting to each other in co-ordination. No one was in charge as such, and they all just did what ever was necessary, as a self motivated, happy, self-organising team.

I am pretty sure these guys never had any Scrum training or counselling on how to work together to be sucessful. These guys just did it all naturally. So why does it take so much for teams in our corporate settings to work on basic stuff together. Why is it so hard for an individual to work on testing AND coding in the same day?

It struck me how far we have come along the mass industrialisation of our society. We did this through mass production of similar objects. Specialisation became efficient. The art of the production line was taken away from the individual and the work of art was the entire line. Individuals became fungible with other individuals of a similar skill.

From the production line, through LEAN, we found that making the entire process more efficient meant maximising flow and sometimes de-optimising parts of the flow. The whole mattered more than the individual parts.

From Scrum, Kanban and XP we find self-organinsing teams work best, were the team optimising around whatever needs to be done. Tester, coder, database administrator, who cares, you are there to get the job done.

These fishmen would not last long if one of them refused to mend a hole because his job was to create the rope.

So, if we are naturally T shaped, why is it so hard to work in this way?

Specalisation allows us to get paid more in the contract world. We become an expert in Code or Architecture or DBA. Then we get paid more. If you know a bit of everything, you’re a jack of all trades..
Yet, we achieve more when we are T shaped.

As aways a balance must be found, we need experts on specific technologies or complex algoryths. However, I am willing to bet this is actually a small part of the software that gets built.

When we recruit, we need to think of what we really want and reward those people that can fulfil it. Having an expert Java Dev with 15 years experience is great, but will he do some testing if its needed? How do you want your teams to be structured? Make sure you get the right people, who can do what is required.

Simon Powers
Simon Powers is an Agile Coach specialising in large scale transformations and agile adoption. He has a background in very large enterprise architecture which has led on to organisational design and agile process refinement. Simon is the founder of Adventures with Agile.