Mike MacDonagh's Blog

Somewhere in the overlap between software development, process improvement and psychology

Resonating social patterns with project processes

People are social complex agents, organising people is a bit like herding cats, however when people are working together collaborating in teams they can achieve amazing things. So why is it that some approaches and teams structures work and others seem to cause problems?

I’ve been thinking about things like nudge theory, servant-leadership, agility in software development, lean business, social business, serious gaming and agile at scale. Most people tend to think that these are all (or mostly) good things, they’re often desired bottom-up in businesses and support “faster, cheaper, better, happier” agendas. All good things that tend to be desirable at every level of a business and yet a lot of my work is about helping individuals, teams and businesses towards this simple agenda using these kind of things because although the goal is simple and the change is desirable, actually doing the change isn’t easy.

All of these things seem to “feel right” to people and are generally desirable and yet they are often at odds with traditional management techniques which tend to compartmentalise people and decompose everything into linear hierarchies.

So why is it that treating people like complex social creatures works better than treating them as simple functional unit? Er… because that’s what they are, people. I’d love to know why people think the opposite can ever work?

I think that the reason that the list of things up there is generally so successful at working towards faster, cheaper, better, happier business is that they are socially resonant. That is, ways of thinking about work such as agile software development are congruent with normal human social behaviour, that’s why they work.

Nudge theory acknowledges that people are lazy and don’t do what you tell them to. Delayed gratification doesn’t motivate most people so put things you want people to do in their way and gently nag them about it. Make it easier to do the right thing, make the wrong thing harder and more formal. The rise of the adult playground is a great example of this. People don’t want to be told what to do, they want their ability and contribution to be valued. Servant-leaders are ideally placed to nudge people, which they can do based on their personal social relationships.

One of the reasons that the agile movement has taken off as well as it has is because it treats people like people, in fact that’s in the agile manifesto! By aligning ways of working to normal human behaviour you are enabling your team to get on and do things intuitively, normally and comfortably.

Photo of east gate of Roman Forum

Photo by Mykola Swarnyk

I’ve been applying this kind of thinking to large scale project structures and that’s led to the Project Forum practice (think Roman Forum rather than phpBB!) which I’ve described as a “middle-out” management structure as it’s not bottom-up or top-down. Instead it’s more like a tribal council bringing together the leaders of other groups to an area where they can all have their voices heard. It’s democratic and social, it doesn’t pretend there isn’t any conflict instead it provides a vehicle to resolve that conflict. This structure resonates with democratic political structures from the tribal council all the way to parliamentary democracy.

In this model, the Project Manager has a pressure from the business to deliver and he gets to impress this upon the other members. Customers with a pressure for quality or short-term goals get to understand why their concerns need balancing with scope and resources. Contributing teams get to have their agendas and issues collaborated on by the wider group and can manage supply and demand of their resources. Wherever there is conflict the way to resolve it is through open honest communication, the Project Forum is that vehicle, providing a sort of open parliament. Yeah, I know it’s not a great name but I’m not good at naming things.

Most cultures have evolved away from autocratic dictators towards representative democracy in one form or another because that’s the way people want to collaborate socially. So why not apply the same model to large projects? Thousands of years of history already tells us it works.


This blog is part of a series on Holistic Communication: The linguistics of business change. Introduction, ethics and table of contents is all in the first post.

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