Mike MacDonagh's Blog

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

Tag Archives: communication

#Devops – A sticking plaster for a bigger problem

Why not StratDev, BusOps, etc.?

Holistic Communication

The term “DevOps” refers to tight integration between the Software Development and Operations parts of an organization. As I mentioned in my article on Conway’s Law the reinforcement of there being two separate parts “Dev” and “Ops” causes a separation in the way we think about these problems and then how we interact within an organisation. If the industry truly believed in DevOps then “dev” and “ops” would no longer exist. I realise that some people intend “DevOps” to be a verb, but it sounds like a noun.

Of course the idea behind of DevOps, of bringing together stakeholders involved in creating, hosting, running and maintaining is a great idea – focussing on these things can make it easier to deploy products and get user feedback. However we might just end up building the wrong products quickly. We must make sure that the things we build are aligned to strategy and deliver business value. To do that we need a holistic approach, that involves all stakeholders (not just the dev and ops folks).

Operations stakeholders should be involved in the Portfolio Build/Selection practice to ensure that the impact of new product development or maintenance decisions on current Operational positions are understood. Significant changes to current Operational positions are raised as Portfolio Requests so they can be properly costed and scoped.

Work that is approached holistically must by definition include addressing the needs of all stakeholders from any part of the business. If a divide exists between parts of the business then the dysfunctional relationship needs addressing rather than process and tooling being introduced. Processes and Tools are helpful to gain agreement on a common approach and automate ways of working but not to solve dysfunctional relationships.

HSE promotes regular builds and releases in either iterative/agile or continuous flow models Operations stakeholders must be involved early and often in software development product delivery as a product is likely to be delivered frequently, or even continuously, and so will need transitioning activities performed repeatedly.

So, I like the idea of joining up dev and ops stakeholders and work. But I only like it in the context of also joining up business strategy, requirements, architecture and quality with dev and ops – all flowing business value to customers. On it’s own, DevOps isn’t enough and worse could just be a management fad.

Zen and the art of Enlightened Software Development

When I started doing software I was a simple developer interested in elegant code and shiny things. I worked in a small software house that taught me many bad practices in terms of configuration management, change control, estimation, management etc. It was an incredibly valuable experience for me in learning how not to do things and led me to strive for something better even though at the time I didn’t really know what it might be.

That led me through a path of process definition and documentation (RUP) and a rather limited following of an iterative lifecycle. I remember a conversation I once had with one of my project managers (when I was an architect) asking if we were going to do “Use Case Analysis” on a particular project or just skip straight into “Use Case Design”. The question puzzled me then because it felt like a trap and I didn’t really understand what I was being asked.

It puzzles me even more now as I know understand “analysis” to be a stop-and-think-for-a-moment activity and I’d always do a bit of analysis of my requirements, however these days it’s extremely unlikely that it’d be an analysis UML model, instead it might be a sketch, a conversation and a bit of thinking before another conversation.

So I moved from process prescription to process understanding, applying the spirit of doing things well rather than the letter of whatever current process law was in fashion. Following on from that I’m not really interested now in the details of what a book says someone’s role should be or how people should interact instead I think the real challenges in software development are social, not collections of technical practices (although there is  value in evolving better practices and tooling).

A colleague of mine commented recently that 20 years ago when he was doing software it was possible to understand everything from the metal all the way to the blinking lights on his bit of hardware. Software development in just 20 years has progressed incredibly and it’s just not that simple any more. We can understand the basics all the way through the stack but not all of the details. There are so many bits interacting that it’s just too complex. As a result the problems, technology and team working are all abstracting away from the tangible mechanistic past.

Developers are on a path from technical skill to mastery, as they begin to understand the kung fu of software engineering they can apply experience and deep understanding to solving the technical problems, doing away with formal process and just using the practices that they intuitively need, happily breaking the “rules” to get the job done in an efficient high quality way. I’m not entirely sure where brogrammers are on this evolutionary path, I’ll leave that up to you.

The problem, if it even is a problem, is that each person in an organisation is somewhere different along this path and even if they’re at the same point in the same dimension they might not be aligned in their interests and motivations. This makes team working amongst inherently complex social creatures a tricky proposition. The sweet spot is a team of fully enlightened software kung fu masters but that’s a really hard target to meet for a number of reasons. Consider the flower of team working evolution weirdness, which area is your team in?

One reason that this sweet spot is difficult to hit is because in any organisation half of the developers are below average in technical and social skills. Sounds horrible but is obviously true and the larger the organisation the more likely it is to be the industry average, not the organisational average.

This means that the centre of skill gravity for any team is unlikely to be on the w00t side of the scale.

In most large organisations the teams are more likely to be flattened pancakes across this bell curve taking in a reasonable representation of the organisation as a whole (especially as the highest skilled are often distributed amongst an organisation to attempt to bring up other teams.

This isn’t necessarily a problem though as there is value in diversity and individuals will each have different ways of thinking about things that can bring value to teams and organisations.

I’m beginning to think that the purpose of classic software process, and classic software process improvement is to try and move people along this scale from basic developer to software ninja, helping them to gain mastery through experience and feeding in the experience of others. When a team moves along this scale they begin to not need their process mentors any more and will seize their autonomy.

Technology is increasingly commoditised by innovation, as is software development and software process. I used to spend a lot of time teaching people Object Orientation but these days everyone just seems to know it, it’s nothing special or new, it’s just what people do. Similarly people are increasingly aware of the value of iteration, limiting work in progress, continuous integration and delivery. They need less process and less instruction as this stuff is becoming business as usual at least in more mature organisations.

As these problems are being solved I think that bigger problems are coming to the fore as they’re less hidden by low level development issues. The questions I see a lot of clients wrestling with are things like:

  • How can we foster the right kind of organisational culture?
  • How do we deal with requirements, architecture, releases, resources etc. in a complex system of systems environment?
  • How do we bring together multiple divergent interpretations of “agile”?
  • How do we manage outsourcing contracts in high speed agile projects?
  • How do we motivate and engage the business and technical communities?
  • etc. etc.

For me doing these things in a social collaborative way, that values individuals and teams, is Enlightened Software Engineering and encompasses the buzzphrase of the moment: Agile at Scale.

Solving these problems is less about technical skills and technical process content and more about social skills, psychology and understanding. Both from a coaching and business perspective.

So what’s my point?

My point is that software process improvement needs to focus less on individuals and more on teams, and teams of teams. That we should avoid ideology and take the best bits of knowledge and experience wherever we find them, growing our teams and individuals.

Also that we should apply more psychology to software process and business change finding socially resonant patterns for how we do things. True mastery involves not worrying about “breaking the rules” and from the outside can easily be confused with ineptitude.

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.

Scaled Agility: The Project Forum

This blog is an extract from the Project Forum practice: Holistic Software EngineeringThe Project Forum

When it might be appropriate

  • In situations where multiple competing stakeholder groups with different agendas are required to work together
  • In situations where multiple product groups need to collaborate on a bigger outcome
  • Where there is a conflict in direction, resource management/ownership or scope between collaborating groups
  • System of systems development

What is it?

The Project Forum is an application of agile philosophy to large project structures. Rather than impose a hierarchy of decision making from the Project Manager downwards the Project Forum is a virtual team in the middle of all stakeholders.

The Project Forum is a self-organising democratic group that balances competing voices and concerns, owns high level scope and architecture, runs the high level release train and performs integration activities for the product.

Use of the Project Forum practice does not prevent any communication directly between contributing groups it only provides a vehicle for that conversation when it’s relevant for the wider project.

From Traditional to Agile at ScaleThe Project Forum practice is an example of Agile at Scale combining social business practices, technical software practices and ways of working to make a simple way of doing big complicated bits of work.

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What does a self-organising team really mean? Organisation!

The idea of a self-organising team is pretty established in agile software development, as a (post-)agile coach/mentor I sometimes find myself working with teams who are trying to self-organise. Here’s my approach for transitioning a team from being externally organised to becoming autonomous and self-organising.

The first thing to point out is that I believe that the result of a self-organising team practice is an organisation. I don’t know what the the organisation will be ahead of time, that’s what the team work out. What I do (and I think others should do) as an agile mentor/coach is:

  • Bring to the team methods and techniques they can use to self-organise
  • Information of self-organising and how to interact with other teams in an organisation
  • Experience of different structures and behaviours
  • Facilitation and support of the organisation

It’s not my job to organise a team, it’s my job to help them organise themselves.

Being an architect/designer at heart I take a simple approach to this kind of thing and think about it in terms of mission, structure and behaviour.

Mission

Team’s need to have a purpose. I believe in team’s seizing autonomy and declaring their purpose, even in a complex bureaucratic organisation. So long as senior management are willing to let people they employ to do a complex technical job actually do a complex technical job then there tends not to be a problem. Unfortunately it sometimes takes enlightened leaders to do this but I’ve seen more and more of them in both the private and public sector. A team needs to know it’s purpose and agree on it.

Structure

Structurally there are some nice ways of working out who should be in a team and what their role is. I recommend using competencies rather than roles. Competencies are a description of the skills required to deliver the mission of the team and come in levels ranging from the most basic to the most advanced form of e.g. Tester. Either grab some from a suitable process.

Get the team together and get them to score themselves on the range of competencies required. This achieves a couple of things:

  • Builds mutual understanding between team members of where the various skills lie and what level they’re at leading to mutual respect and avoiding misunderstandings around what people are “meant” to do
  • Establishes whether the team has enough coverage of the required skills for the job, without this knowledge how can a team commit to anything?
Competencies don’t need to be met my an individual, a combination of the individuals involved might meet the required competencies overall and that’s great when they, and the rest of the team, understand how they fit together.
An externally imposed organisation chart does not meet these goals.

Behaviour

Team’s need to know how they’re going to work so they need to understand their functions. As a starter I’d suggest that software development teams have the following functions:

  • Production (delivery of working product)
  • Communication (both internally with customers and with external stakeholders)
  • Decision making
    • Way of Working
    • Buy-in to the mission and direction
    • High level scope
    • Changes to agreed scope

A true agile team does all of these things as it includes all of the people and skills necessary (from devs, testers, users, customers, ops people etc.) to achieve them. The team is the vehicle for doing these things.

Each of these things is the tip of a fairly large iceberg. But the team need to work on understanding their Way of Working to do the production job. The team need to agree how they’ll communicate with each other and externally. Both of these are Ways of Working decisions. All function in a team comes down to decision making. Ways of working, communication techniques, scope management etc. need to be constantly refined which means you need constant decision making within a team.

Even buy-in to the team mission and direction (planning and/or technical) is a decision making process. It often happens implicitly with someone charismatic selling a vision and everyone kind-of nodding but that’s not the only way of doing it.

Different decision types deserve different methods

Just because a team is groovy and agile doesn’t mean that every decision should be fully democratic. For example when doing a customer demo to see if the product is on track it’s not normally open to a general vote on whether the product meets the customer’s needs or not. Usually the customer tells you and you have to put up with it.

I’ve written some blogs before on methods of decision making, methods for selecting a decision making model and some case studies applying all of this. The basic process is:

– identify the different categories of decisions the team needs to make
– identify (using a variation of the Vroom-Jago model) the mechanisms the team will use to make each decision type
– facilitate the decison making process reminding the team of their chosen mechanisms

Output

The output of a self-organising practice is an organisation. Since I believe in honesty and transparency I think that the best way to define and communicate this stuff is in a Team Charter. A Team Charter can simply be:

Mission

Some blurb about what the team does – Mission statement

Assertion of rights the team assumes – Autonomy

Who the team is

Who’s in the team, what’s their ability, how do they contribute to the required competencies – Structure

How the team works

A little bit about the practices the team uses. Such as using a continuous flow model, an iterative approach etc. Including the decisions the team makes and how they make them – Decision Making

If you’d like me to help your team self-organise get in touch. Do you have any other ideas on self-organising? Do you use a different approach?

Daily Standup Epiphany

The purpose of a daily standup is to bring the team together to answer some questions (What did I do yesterday? What am I going to do today? Are there any blockers/impediments?). One of the client teams I work with has a daily standup every day in the business change team I’m part of. I’ve always found the first two questions rather pointless as basically the team would get together and read out their diaries for yesterday and today. It just wasn’t helpful and so in the past I’ve argued against the Daily Standup in it’s normal form in business change teams. It was too long and boring, especially the team is mostly comprised of mentors who’d spend the day working on their own patch of the organisation rather than with each other.

Recently I wasn’t working for the client on a Monday and my son was doing a school play on Tuesday morning so I arranged to go into work a bit late and missed the standup. And at this point I had an epiphany, I was at my desk and didn’t know how the team were feeling. I still wasn’t particularly interested in their diary commitments but I was interested in their mood and if anything of team level significance had happened since I’d last been in.

So it hit me, the value of the daily standup, as described in my first sentence, is the more about the former than the latter.

The purpose of a daily standup is to bring the team together to answer some questions…

Being able to look around the team and see who’s around, what their mood is and make the human connection is the important point. Even the metaphorical bringing of the team together physically (if possible) reinforces the team identity.

So now we’ve improved our standup process. The value of bringing the team together is paramount, the questions reworked for our team and it’s context. We examine new incoming work, how to resource it and raise impediments. So we’ve dropped the creeping death of  diary exposition and just kept the value 🙂

What do you get out of standups?

Get your point across using positive statements

This is a simple one but amazingly important: use positive statements.

A positive statement is something like “to sprint you must run fast”. Conversely a negative statement is something like “to sprint you must not run slowly”. The problem with using negative statements is that for them to be processed by the listener the concept being negated (in this case running slowly) has to be represented first by the listener before being negated. Here’s two examples, one about software and the other about addiction. Then I’ll cover the more devious application of the technique before finishing with the positive application.

If you tell someone not to do something first they have to think about doing it, a bit like my purple penguin example in the introduction to this blog series.

Software

Here’s an example from software process training I used to hear regarding RUP phases: “The RUP phases Inception, Elaboration, Construction and Transition are not requirements, design, implementation and deployment…” This was a well intentioned phrase aiming to dispel a common misconception when risk-value lifecycles were first being introduced to classic waterfall minded managers. Unfortunately this sentence actually reinforces the misconception one and maybe two reasons, firstly it’s a negative statement meaning the listener has to make that link in their mind between these phases and the waterfall stages and then negate it. The second reason is that it’s too easy for a tired person on a training course to miss that key “not” word and totally misunderstand the trainer’s intention.

This happened to a colleague of mine who used this sentence and the client’s training manager sitting on the course mis-heard (swore they didn’t when challenged) and never used my colleague’s training services again.

Addiction

Imagine someone who’s going to give up smoking. Friends with decent intentions may say “Just don’t think about smoking” and yet the end result is that the listener has to think about smoking (linking in all of their anchored states).  In fact there’s a whole industry of negative statements around giving up smoking that are designed to make people think it isn’t an easy thing to do.

My first sentence might sound a little odd. Normally the phrase is “trying to give up smoking” but that’s because the word “try” presupposes failure which is why marketing folks have done their best to ensure it’s the normal way of talking about giving up. Just think of all of those adverts for giving up aids that tell smokers how hard it is. Sneaky.

The Sneaky Side

The problem is that a negative statement sneaks in a sliver of representation that counters the stated meaning. There’s a really insidious side to this when considering negative questions. Negative questions are any question including the word “not” (even in the form of a contraction when it’s even more sneaky) and they are a clever way of embedding pre-suppositions. Here’s an example:

“Don’t you think using positive statements is a good idea?”

Expand it out and it becomes:

“Do not you think using positive statements is a good idea?”

The second form of the question sounds very odd and unnatural. In fact it’ll confuse many people for a moment (excellent pattern interrupt) and yet the first form doesn’t sound so strange, and yet rather oddly people will almost always agree to a statement using a negative contraction. Magicians and mentalists use this trick a lot “Couldn’t you have changed your mind at any point?”, “Haven’t I been reasonably honest about …?”. And of course if the entertainers are doing it you can be sure the sneaky salespeople, callous cold-readers and other such charlatans are doing the same. In fact this particular construct is used especially heavily by cold readers, the effect is multiplied based on the level of rapport at one far end of the see-saw even slight nudge is enough to direct a listener.

If you consider the basic form of the question “Do you think using positive statements is a good idea?” you’ll notice that’s it’s neutral, it doesn’t presuppose an answer in any direction. That’s the difference.

The Positive Side

I’ve written a lot on the ethics of using somewhat sneaky linguistics before so I’ll leave out that discussion again. But there are some great positive ways to use this knowledge. Here’s an example from this very post (+10 internet points if you noticed it earlier)

In the section about addiction I wrote: ” there’s a whole industry of negative statements around giving up smoking that are designed to make people think it isn’t an easy thing to do”. I deliberately used a contracted negative statement that presupposes that it is an easy thing to do. I used a negative statement to cause a positive representation.

Another simple way to use this knowledge is to simply use positive statements. Tell people what you want them to do and think. Avoid telling people what not to think. (er.. two negatives in one sentence what the…?)

This works especially well with children, instead of telling them not do something (such as “stop being noisy”) tell them what to do positively (such as “be quiet”). The first makes the kid think about being noisy, the second makes them think about being quiet. However it must be said that even the most carefully crafted sentence isn’t going to get a little kid to be quiet, but that’s ok they’re meant to be noisy.

Finally

So, aren’t you glad you read this?


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.

Decision making case studies

I’ve previously blogged on a decision making model that involves understanding the decision making process and then the different ways a group can reach agreement and how to choose which method to use in which situation. This post covers some real case studies from my own experience that apply this model and help discuss some the issues involved.

This post won’t make sense without reading How to reach agreement in a group – autocracy vs. democracy as it contains the decision tree and questions this post refers to.

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How to reach agreement in a group – autocracy vs. democracy

In the first part of this blog (A model for making group decisions) I talked about the rational decision making model and how it is the basis of making a decision. Part of that model is gaining agreement amongst a group on an option out of a set of options which becomes the decision. This part is about different ways of gaining agreement and when to use each.

This model is a variant of the Vroom-Jago (1)  contingency model in situational leadership theory first developed in 1973 and then refined in 1988. My take on it changes the language here and there to alter some of the emphasis and changes the decision tree a little.

This model defines a set of decision making models ranging from autocratic to democratic and then helps you choose which is appropriate for different situations.

Decision characteristics

This model applies to decisions involving a group that have an “owner”. The owner is the person who needs the objective decided on. The owner could be the customer, a representative, the group as a whole or the team leader. An important consideration when using this model, as discussed in part 1 is knowing who the owner is and realising that it may well be different for the different decisions the group has to make.

For each type of decision that needs to be made by a group:

  1. Identify the owner
  2. Clarify the objective
  3. Identify the team/group involved

Decision making models

The following decision making models are appropriate for group decisions:

  • Autocratic 1 (A1) – The decision owner makes the decision based on the information available.
  • Autocratic 2 (A2) – The decision owner requests information from the team (not explaining the situation or why they want information) and then makes the decision.
  • Consultative 1 (C1) – The decision owner explains the situation to individual members (socialising and pre-integrating the decision) but does not convene them as a group, then makes the decision.
  • Consultative 2 (C2) – The group discusses the situation and then offers ideas and suggestions. The decision owner then takes the decision.
  • Group 2 (G2) – The whole group makes the decision with the owner acting more as a facilitator. Reaching this discussion can be discussion leading to emergent consensus, planning poker style or explicit voting solutions.

I don’t know why there isn’t a “Group 1″… maybe we should ask Vroom.

Which one to use

These options range from autocratic to democratic. One of the interesting things is that sometimes leaders want to be democratic but don’t really need to be or are not expected to be. This can lead to a conflict in expectation of approach. A leader may wish to be inclusive and democratic but their team may just wish they’d make a decision once in a while!

The alternative also causes conflict where a group expects their opinions to be heard and taken into account but the owner ignores their voices and makes autocratic decisions. This will create distance between the owner/leader and the group/team making the team feel undervalued.

Having understood the decision characteristics and the different decision making models you can then select one by using the following decision tree to identify the most appropriate model.

Each horizontal numerical bar indicates a question for the decision owner. Answer that question as honestly as possible, in terms of how relevant it is to making a good decision then move to the next part of the tree (sometimes skipping a question bar) and see which question you should answer next. Pretty quickly you’ll arrive at a circular blob with the short name of one of the options described above. I’ve written up some case studies to help explain by example.

  1. Are the stakeholders known, available and engaged?
    • Are the people who will be materially affected by the decision identified, are they available to join in the decision making and engaged in the team to assist in making a decision?
  2. Is a high quality decision/solution important?
    • Is this a case where lots of alternate options can be used and it doesn’t really matter which is selected? If so then answer “no”.
  3. As the owner do you have enough information available to make a gooddecision?
    • If the owner is unsure, or wants to involve other opinions then answer “no”
  4. Is the problem well understood and does it have well known standard solutions that apply in this context?
    • Is it’s a standard problem with a standard (or set of standard) solutions that will work in the current context then answer “yes”
  5. Do the members of the team or group have to accept this decision for it to work?
  6. If you (the owner) make the decision yourself will the group accept it?
    • Answer this honestly, being in an organisational structure that means the group should accept it isn’t good enough. This question is about the real, honest dynamic between the owner and the group. This is affected by rapport.
  7. Are the group members aligned with the same motives and goals as you the decision owner?
    • If the other members of the group have a different mission, agenda or motives then answer “no”
  8. Is disagreement likely among group members in reaching a decision?

What if you don’t want to do this model? What if your stakeholders object?

So if you’ve followed the decision tree and it says you should use Autocratic 2 (full autocracy) when you were hoping for Group 2 (full democracy) what should you do? This model is a bit like flipping a coin to decide something. The important thing is not which side of the coin comes up but how that decision makes you feel. If this process highlights to you what you were really hoping for then you’ve learned something. However it’s worth looking at the decision tree and seeing why you ended up where you did, and if other’s in the group would expect the same thing.

To explore this a little I’ve described three real examples here: Decision making case studies – please feel free to add your own. I’ve quickly written:

  • Agile team customer sprint demo and assessment
  • Process Improvement Team way of working decision
  • Process Improvement Team scope agreement

The important part of this process is to make you, your team and your stakeholders consider the types of decisions they need to make, and how they should make different types of decisions. I recommend that as part of a team charter a team describes the types of decision it will make and how it will make them. That gives stakeholders, customers and other teams the opportunity to get involved and question the decision making dynamics if necessary.

Decision making as a team building exercise

During the formation (or reinvention) of a team you can do the following exercise:

  1. Brainstorm the decisions the group makes. Categorise them into a few groups such as:
    • Achieving team buy-in to approach and activities
    • Timebox assessment, regular reflect and adapt
    • Balancing scope, cost, resources, time
  2. For each one establish a good definition of an example decision and it’s owner.
  3. Each team member then puts themselves in the position of the owner (this is even better if the owner is in the room and is included) and privately follows the decision tree answering truly honestly
  4. Each team member then shows the resulting decision making option they’ve chosen
  5. Consensus or conflict is then discussed. Outliers on the scale should be discussed first.

This simple exercise will get the team to understand each others motivations and approaches to problem solving as well as open their eyes to some of this stuff from a different perspective. Finally unknown conflicts in terms of decision making way well emerge where people had different assumptions of group input vs. directive management allowing them to be solved practically before a real personal conflict occurs.

To see how I apply this stuff to self-organising teams see: What does a self-organising team really mean? Organisation!

Finally…

Try applying this approach to personal relationships and decision making, not all of it will apply but it’s interesting to see where you act collaboratively with a partner vs. when you make an autocratic decision (or expect them to) and what the justification is for such a perspective.  A misunderstanding between assumed decision making models is one of the underlying causes of many personal conflict situations, you can avoid these by understanding them.

Spend some time understanding how and why you make decisions both personally and professionally and you’ll reap some great rewards.


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.

References

  • Vroom, Victor H.; Yetton, Phillip W. (1973). Leadership and Decision-Making. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Vroom, Victor H.; Jago, Arthur G. (1988). The New Leadership: Managing Participation in Organizations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

A model for making group decisions

I’ve been working with some interesting group structures recently which got me thinking about decision making dynamics. I’ve been using a decision making framework for a while and intend to apply it to some different shaped groups so thought I’d share it.

There are a number of irrational ways of making decisions such as divination, looking at guts or rolling a dice but generally in business we like to make logical rational decisions. However often we don’t really think about how we make decisions, or more importantly how we should make decisions.

The techniques described in this blog are applicable to any situation where a group needs to make a decision, however the language is focussed on business groups/teams.

This blog is in two parts, the first is pretty simple and obvious and covers basic decision making, but it’ll lead on to the more interesting second part about different ways of reaching agreement and when to use each method.

How decisions are made

Rational decisions are made via a fairly simple process, at least in my mind:

Rational Decision Making

1. Objective: We start with an objective or goal, it needs to be clearly understood and have an owner/leader2. Alternative options: we create some alternate solutions.

Idea generation is an interesting topic by itself and lots has been written, but that’s not the topic of this blog.

3. Tentative Solution: We analyse the alternates against some criteria and then choose one to be our tentative solution

Again lots of ways to do this depending on your problem domain

4. Deeper Analysis: We perform deeper analysis on the tentative solution to try and ensure it’ll meet the objective

5. Agreement: We get the group to decide on the solution (see part 2)

6. Communication: We communicate the decision

There’s no point making a decision unless it’s communicated!

Person icon I used in the decision making diagram used as per attributable license from http://www.elegantthemes.com/

Different Types of decisions

The first thing to consider is that different types of decisions may need different types of decision making processes, specifically around gaining agreement and analysing options. This seems obvious to me, and is normally obvious to anyone I talk to about it, however when business change people are talking about creating/redefining a group to make some decisions they usually say how they’ll make decisions without differentiating between the types. Unfortunately common sense is often left out of planning.

A decision can’t be made unless it’s understood. To understand why a decision needs making someone, or the representative of some people, needs to have an objective which requires a decision by the group. Again, this seems rather obvious but if you consider it the other way around it means that a group can’t make a decision unless it know who wants the decision and why they want it. Apply that to many traditional management groups/boards,  CCBs, business change projects, process improvement groups etc. and you’ll find it doesn’t always hold. In these cases groups are being dishonest and self-serving.

I don’t mean that you can’t make a decision without the customer present (models for that follow next) but that you can’t make a good decision if you don’t know who the customer is and what their objective is. In the case of speculative development for a market this might seem impossible but that’s what market research is for. So, given that we know how decisions are made, and that we should consider different ways to achieve agreement for different types of decision how can we actually get agreement?

See part 2 for How to reach agreement in a group – autocracy vs. democracy


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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