I detect a pattern of group behavior. No doubt it is already described elsewhere and has a fancy name. Self-organization, perhaps. The pattern first revealed itself to me at Agile2008 in a workshop on release planning. It came at that closing moment when everyone is invited to offer a lesson learned. Somehow I felt a need to state something aloud as if that was a necessary element of getting my money’s worth. So I thought about it, trying to find something that no one else had already said. The pattern emerged.

 

We started the session as a room full of strangers. We were tasked with forming into two groups, each coming up with a set of requirements for a “product”. The product was a 5 minute presentation on useful agile topics to be given by the workshop facilitators. The instructions were vague. We were allowed to ask questions of the facilitators, who represented the development team, and others in the room who were “stakeholders”. We were limited by a time box, of course.

 

The pattern that I observed was that we started out as a group of strangers with vague ideas about our common goal and interacted in a fairly chaotic manner for quite a while before order began to appear. By the end we spoke with one voice, having filtered and distilled our interpretations of the problem and our individual solutions to it into a consensus result.

 

 

 

I offered that this group dynamic is a repeating, fractal pattern. On a larger scale it happened at the conference as a whole. Strangers and acquaintances gather in one place with differing expectations and agendas, skitter about chaotically to choose which of too many sessions to attend, and emerge with a stronger sense of community and camaraderie than they may have anticipated. I saw it happen a comedy improv workshop. Beginning as mostly strangers, the assembled personages created enough of an community that I felt perfectly comfortable greeted fellow participants later with a “woof” – a reference to one our in-class exercises.

 

I saw the same thing happen a couple of weeks ago during an agile team project kick-off. The team members were new to agile, so the week was largely about basic training. Some people knew each other, some were strangers at the beginning. In time the group coalesced into a workable team. It happened at a smaller scale through several exercises as well. Project planning is a specific case. Chaos at first, order eventually. Swirling clouds of partial chaos and discord along the way.

 

The swirling does not always coalesce. I trained one team that was in an R&D group. When it came time to plan the initial backlog, it became clear that the project was not well defined. All discussion tilted to the corner of the room where the product owner, project manager and technical lead sat. Everyone else was excluded. I had to call a time-out. I don’t know if that project ever did get started.

 

I never went to summer camp, but I imagine it is much the same. A bunch of strangers come together with some common purpose, some constraints or guidance to channel the chaos into something orderly. The resulting output might be a family day performance or an assemblage of figures carved from wood. I certainly saw it when I coached youth sports. There are probably many other analogues. The operative observation for me as a coach is that I can count on the dynamic as a desirable outcome. Patience is advised while the System Under Observation swirls around like a gas cloud, spiraling into a galaxy with some specific purpose in the center. There might be a need for some nudging now and again, but the expectation that something will result is a good motivator when, early on, the chaos seems insurmountable.


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Coalescence of Swirling Chaos
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2 thoughts on “Coalescence of Swirling Chaos

  • September 18, 2008 at 6:40 pm
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    Roger,

    Interesting insights into team formation. I recently trained a team new to agile and we experienced a similar team forming. I think a pivotal force in driving coalescence is a common well defined purpose – perhaps the black hold in your spiral galaxy. In my case I structured the agile training around extending a rudimentary tic-tac-toe into something more valuable. I think it was important to have something concrete to start with as well, it provided a grounding point and gave the team traction to actually do something. Finally, activities with pairs and with everyone on the team as well as mini-retrospectives provided team insights into how they worked together.

    In a nutshell, the following seem important to me:

    1.Well defined starting point – something more than a vacuum.

    2.Well defined goal – something clearly articulated that everyone understands and buys into.

    3.Structured activities that bring people together to achieve some interim success towards final goal.

    Reply
  • November 17, 2008 at 4:17 pm
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    Thanks for the comment, Declan. Sorry it took so long to approve it. I have been tied up with family matters (fun ones).

    I recognize your second two elements from my own experiences. The first one is a good insight. It definitely takes longer if the group is left to find their own starting point. Floundering ensues and persists longer. I hereby resolve to watch, while coaching, for situations that have a potential for this pattern and watch for opportunities to apply your elements for success.

    Reply

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