Overly Self-interested Behavior Is Bad For Teams!

Overly Self-interested Behavior Is Bad For Teams!

Hand Drawn Chart Saturday

Teams are an important concept in most IT organizations, regardless of their development philosophy. Philosophies like Agile may put more emphasis on teams, but even in organizations that do not embrace Agile philosophies, teams are important. Dan Ariely in his Ted Talk, “What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work” suggested that overly self-interested, cynical behavior can negatively impact organizations by reducing their ability to communicate and innovate. The same problem can occur, albeit on a small scale, at the team level. In a recent presentation, a fellow Agile coach described a team engaged in overly self-interested behavior. He described a scenario in an organization that cuts the bottom 10% of all groups annually and stated vision that IT should maximize the value it deliverers to its customers. After losing a popular team member the previous year, the team had decided to make sure that his replacement was given the worst assignments in order to ensure he stayed on the low end of the performance scale in the coming year. Their goal was to ensure that the core team stayed intact during the next review cycle. In their mind, keeping the core team together ensured that they would deliver more value to their internal customers. The behavior of the team attempted to circumvent the idea that adding new and more highly qualified personnel would lead to improved performance. Viewed from the point of view of organizational policy, the whole team was acting in an overly self-interested behavior manner, but from the point of view of core team they are acting rationally and within their interpretation of the rules as seen through IT’s vision of value delivery. The team did not believe that their behavior was at odds with the behavior the organization wanted to incent.

What we perceive as overly self-interested at a team level is based on collective cognitive biases. Biases are powerful psychological filters that affect how both individuals and teams perceive the world around themselves and then guide how they behave. Biases reflect shortcuts in how we interpret and react to stimulus. In many cases, these reactions are valuable, however they can also cause problems (as many shortcuts occasionally can). Understanding how biases impact how individuals and teams perceive the world around them can help teams make better decisions and therefore deliver value more effectively. In the example, the core team had decided to protect itself by defining the new person as an outsider, which allowed them to hold them at arm’s length. In-group favoritism is a typical team level bias that causes teams to favor those inside the team’s boundaries over those perceived to be on the outside. This type of bias negatively affect how outsiders are perceived to perform. Negative perceptions of outsiders will effect whether we listen to their ideas and whether we trust them to deliver value.

Teams need to break overly self-interested patterns of behavior by striving ensure that they are pursuing a goal that is greater than team’s own self-interest. At a project level, product owners need to clearly identify and communicate the overall value proposition, so the team has something greater than themselves to pursue. When behavior goes off track coaching can help to identify issues that the team can’t see and diagnosis themselves. However, in many cases overly self-interested behavior at the team level can be a reflection of poor philosophies at the organization level. Organizational philosophies, like decimation or objectives that foster individual competition rarely support intergroup communication and innovation.

Crowds are susceptible to groupthink.

Crowds are susceptible to groupthink.

Brainstorming has been a staple in the business world since its creation in the mid-1940s.  Other forces have combined to reinforce the technique such as the mania over crowd sourcing and consensus management styles.  The problem is that the data shows that the technique is not as effective as we all believe, and in some cases can actually be unproductive – such as when groupthink occurs.  There are better ways to generate innovative ideas.

Brainstorming is a process that through free association generates ideas to find a solution or conclusion for a specific problem.  There are a core set of tenants that define brainstorming.  It is generally a group activity that includes a focus on generating as many ideas as possible (quantity), which includes welcoming unusual ideas, combining and improving ideas and the avoidance of criticism.  Great stuff!   However, research[1] has recently questioned whether the process is as effective and efficient as the popularity of the method would suggest.  The research suggests that the reliance on groups and a lack of debate and criticism causes the technique to be less effective at generating creative ideas than other techniques.

Why do you and I care about this topic?  Developing new ideas and innovative solutions is an integral part of software development, enhancement and maintenance.  Using the most effective techniques, or at least knowing what the most effective techniques, is of more just of academic interest.

Groupthink happens when the desire for harmony in a group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives.  The after effects of a groupthink gone wrong might include the passive aggressive comment: “I knew this wouldn’t work but did not say anything.”  “Idea gravity wells” and the forbearance of criticism help to create the problem.

Brainstorming and other group techniques for generating ideas leverage the diversity of thought a well-defined group[2] can create. Groups that allow a single powerful individual to dominate can create an idea gravity well that curtails innovation or green-field thinking as new ideas can’t escape the status quo. The problem is that conclusions that have been influenced by groupthink may not hold up in the bright light of the marketplace.

The second criticism is the lack of immediate feedback.  Forbearing debating and criticizing ideas, like a critique in art school, avoids exploring the depths of an idea and deciding quickly what is relevant.  Critiquing ideas makes sure the good parts are honed and built upon and the bad stuff either refined or sloughed off.   Debate, discussion and criticism create a platform to provide immediate feedback, allowing a group to reshape the idea being examined rather than building on a poor base.

I have been experimenting with and honing a process that attacks two of the major criticisms of brainstorming.  The process begins by making sure you have the right team (see the well-formed team footnote).  I strongly suggest using video if you have remote participants.  Make sure you have someone that will act as the scribe and someone that will also act as the moderator for the session.  Second, provide the “team” with the topic being explored and all background information before the planned session.   Each team member is responsible for reviewing the data and developing a list of their best ideas . . . individually.  Generating the initial set of ideas helps to avoid the possibility of groupthink or idea gravity well occurring directly out of the box.  Note: The list of ideas from each person is the price of admission; lack of preparation should bar a potential participant from the session.

The ideation session begins with a round-robin presentation of ideas from each participant with discussion, debate, criticism and refinement (no fisticuffs or off-topic criticisms).  The round-robin presentation generally continues until everyone has put at least one idea on the table or until the initial set of ideas are used up.  I allow and encourage participants to switch to more of free-for-all for laying out and discussing ideas as soon as everyone has completed laying out at least one idea.  Get one idea on the table from each person makes sure all of the participants understand that they have permission to participate.

I allow the process to continue until team members’ lose the will to live, run out of ideas or reach a consensus on an idea or idea set.  I believe that the facilitator or moderator should push a team at least slightly past what is comfortable in order to generate potentially extraordinary results.  Pushing past what is comfortable is one of the reasons I ask interviewees on my podcast for two ideas to solve the problem presented at the end of the interview rather than just one, which would be far more comfortable (note off the record: many interviewees have indicated that one response to the “two things” question would be far easier).

My wife suggests that after the session is complete, give everyone twenty four hours to chew on the topic and then reconvene to make sure that reflection has not provided tweaks to make the solution or solution set better.  Remember that not everyone thinks at the same rate as everyone else.

Why do we think brainstorming works?  We all have experience with the process.  It is comfortable, it is safe and in many cases it generates good ideas . . . just not the best ideas possible.  To brainstorm or not to brainstorm, that is the question, perhaps not exactly Shakespeare, but relevant nevertheless.  As we gain a better understanding of what works and why, when it comes to generating innovative ideas isn’t it time to put aside preconceived notions based on hearsay?  The data from academia suggests that what we know is based on just that — hearsay.  Don’t let data get in the way, you might say; we believe what we believe.  This week I announced to a group that brainstorming was not as effective as other techniques in terms of generating innovative ideas.  You would have thought that I had insulted their children.  Everyone has a story about successes using brainstorming.  Those successes may well have helped us get out of tight situations, but because of those successes it is hard to acknowledge that there are better ways to generate solutions and new ideas.  This is true whether we are discussing idea generation, software development or Marigolds and Moonflowers (something absolutely unrelated). Brainstorming may still have a place at the innovation table, but it should no longer sit at the head of the table.  There are better ways to generate creative solutions and now is not the time to leave creative ideas on the table . . . maybe it is never time to leave creative ideas on the table!


[2] Well-formed means that only the minimum number of people should participate and that those that participate include a range of experience and backgrounds.

Mind maps can be useful for note taking.

Mind maps can be useful for note taking.

Mind mapping is a technique for mapping information. A basic mind map typically emanates from a central topic with subdivisions branching out from that topic. The process for mind mapping has few basic rules and suggestions for constructing and formatting mind maps, which makes them highly flexible. Mind maps have a wide variety of uses based on one central theme: learning. The uses of mind maps include:

  1. Note taking: Most lectures tend to follow a more linear outline with relationships and linkages between topics inferred. Standard note taking is generally a reflection of how the lecturer thinks rather than how the note taker thinks. Mind mapping helps the note taker to capture the branches of the topic and then to visualize the linkages. Structuring notes based on how the note taker thinks makes memory recollection easier. Note: I occasionally use this technique to restructure standard notes as a means reinforce my memory.
  2. Planning: Few plans are linear. Mind maps are useful tools for planning and visualizing program-level backlogs. The branching attributes of the map provide a tool to show how functionality breaks down and then visualize the linkages (dependencies) between the entries. While every story should be independent, story and task independence is generally a goal rather than a fait accompli in many organizations. A second use for mind maps in the planning category is as a tool to capture sprint planning results. The sprint goal serves as the central theme with stories radiating from the theme. Activities and task branch from stories. Relationships can be added to show predecessors and successors (or as a trigger for re-planning).
  3. Research: Using a mind map a tool in research is very similar to how mind mapping is used in note taking, with a few subtle differences.  The first is that the mind mapper is generally gathering data from multiple sources while looking for gaps or unnoticed relationships as data is acquired. I often use mind maps as tools for gathering and reorganizing information that I collect (the ability to reorganize data is a strength for most tool-based mind mapping solutions). Many tools support clipping URLs and information for bibliographical entries.       The real power of using mind maps as a research tool is the ability to visualize the data collected, which generally makes gaps obvious and can be useful when looking for relationships between branches of the research.
  4. Presentation Tool: In the entry Mind Mapping: An Introduction, I recounted the story of Ed Yourdon using a mind map to direct his presentation. I have developed mind maps as a precursor to building a classic PowerPoint presentation. When developing or giving a presentation from a mind map, the flow of information reflects how you have visualized and reflected it on the map.
  5. Organizing thoughts: This is my favorite use for a mind map. I begin the organization process by generating my central theme and then using the theme as a hub add each separate item I can think of based on that theme. I generally do this on paper without worrying about spelling or whether one or two items are duplicates. The goal is get everything that is known around the central theme. A starburst pattern will be generated. A simple example:

1Untitled

Once the starburst is created the map can be mined to establish major subdivisions and to indicate area where more research is needed. Walk through each entry and gather related items together. From the items you gather together, the name of the subdivision will emerge. For example, in our mind mapping mind map, when I gathered note taking, planning, research and other together the major subdivision titled “Uses” emerged.

2Untitled

Every Daily Process Thought essay begins using this type of mind map. Many people use the term brainstorming for this type of mind mapping activity.

Mind maps are tools for visualizing data. Seeing your thoughts put into patterns that represent how you think makes it easier to remember the ideas and concepts being mapped. Mind maps also help the mapper see gaps in the data or to jog creative thoughts by exposing relationships that do not jump out when processed linearly. Mind mapping is an extremely flexible tool, therefore there are an enormous number of uses. There is a saying that “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail.” Given the varied number of uses for mind maps, perhaps they might be an information-visualization Swiss Army knife.

 

These are suggestions, not law.

These are suggestions, not law.

Mind mapping is a technique for mapping information using color, pictures, symbols and, most importantly, a branching structure emanating from a central concept. Tony Buzan in his book, The Mind Map Book, adds four characteristics to the definition that further define mind maps. They are:

  • The topic is the central image
  • Main themes radiate from the center
  • Branches are represented by a key image or word
  • Branches are connected

I would add a fifth characteristic. Topics that are less important tend to be placed farther from the center image.

These five characteristics can be mined for rules to draw a mind map.

  • Use images.  Images engage visual and linguistic learning styles which encourage memory. Buzan suggests that the central image should be an image. When hand drawn, the use of an image provides a strong anchor for the mind map. Drawing the image adds another layer of involvement in the map through physical drawing.
  • Use single words or a short phrase when you can’t use images. When using phrases make them as short as possible.
  • Color can provide added meaning to the images and words.  For example, use of the color red conveys danger or urgency (depending on context) while green tend to portray growth.  Frankly, I am colorblind (pretty close to total), so I use color sparingly as combinations I find pleasing, but others find befuddling (that is why plaid is my favorite color – think about it). Use color to draw attention, show linkage between items or highlight items that are helpful to you. While some think of mind maps as art, I think they are a tool that just happens to look cool.
  • Weighting can be used to show the relative importance of each topic. Two types of weighting can be used.  Varying font or image size is one way to convey importance. The larger the font the more important the entry. Second, the mind mapper can vary the width of the branch. This form of weighting can be difficult or unavailable if you are using a computer-based tool for mind mapping.  The goal of weighting is to draw attention to specific features to increase memory retention or to increase readability.  Remember not all entries or subdivisions are created equal.

Here is an example of the use of images, words, colors and weighting.

1Untitled

  • Crosslinking is a way to show relationships between items that are not within the same branch.  For example in the figure below, a relationship is shown between the categories of processes and common problems.2Untitled

Linkages allow the mind mapper to layer in nuances that might not be observable without repeating entries.

I consider these rules to be important, but not absolute.  I have created many mind maps whose branches include links to websites or whole paragraphs of notes.  I broke the “rules” because breaking them provided more value to me than not breaking them.  The only two hard and fast rules are:

  1. The core topic and branch structure.
  2. All the other rules are guidelines.

The rules and guidelines for mind mapping exist to help the mind mapper get the most value from the map possible.  The map should engage as many senses and learning styles as possible to get the job done.  Tomorrow we tackle different uses of mind maps.

A mind map can follow a tree or a starburst pattern.

A mind map can follow a tree or a starburst pattern.

Mind mapping is a technique for mapping information using color, pictures, symbols and, most importantly, a branching structure emanating from a central concept. Mind maps are built using a fairly standard set of practices.  I will walk through two of the basic patterns used to construct mind maps.

The basic process flow for all mind maps is:

  1. Draw a circle in the middle of a piece of paper and with the theme in the bubble.  The theme is generally a word or phrase that will be used to guide building the mind map.  For example, the central them for this week’s essays is “mind mapping” and for last week was “Agile success factors.”
  2. Add branches beginning from central theme. Depending on the type of mind map most are either developed down the major branches or in more of a starburst pattern, if you area using brainstorming techniques. Developing mind maps is generally an iterative process.
  3. Refine the mind map. After completing the initial mind map walk through the major and minor subdivisions (the breakdown of major to minor subdivisions gives mind maps their classic tree structure) to determine whether topics should be rearranged or whether there are gaps that need to be filled.  Refining a mind map is also typically an iterative process.

The basic process can be leveraged with minor tweaking for many different types of mind maps. Here is an example of a topic driven mind map:

  1. Draw the topic circle in the middle of the paper (tools generally automatically do this for you). Before you commit to a topic for the mind map think carefully about where the topic might drive you.  For example, if I choose the topic of “mind maps” rather than “mind mapping” the subtle difference in wording could have cause the focus to shift from how to mind map to what is mind mapping.Untitled1
  2. Based on the central theme identify the major subdivisions or subcategories.  For example:Untitled2

In many cases the person building the mind map will have a general understanding of the major subdivisions, therefore listing the subdivisions makes sense. Where you are less sure I would let the subdivisions emerge using the starburst or shotgun method of developing a mind map (I will cover this on Wednesday). Regardless of technique, do not be afraid to add, change or delete subdivisions as you learn more or a better structure suggests itself.

  1. Break down the major subdivisions to the relevant level of detail.  For example:Untitled3

Brainstorming is a good process to jumpstart breaking subdivisions down. When using this process for mind mapping, I generally begin with a bit of research to prime the pump and focus, followed by brainstorming to drive out details and then more research to fill in the gaps.

Drawing a topic-driven mind is generally where new mind mappers begin. A topic-based approach provides structure to guide building a mind map. The one downside I have experienced with beginning with topic-driven mind maps is that the assumption of major subcategories can be constraining (similar to an anchor bias). Generating a mind map in a group session that includes diversity of thought is one way to avoid constraints and to leverage mind maps to help think out the linear box.

A mind map on mind maps

A mind map on mind maps

A number of years ago I was the chair of the IFPUG Conference Committee.  Finding a keynote speaker that had the gravitas to fill seats (on a budget) and that would challenge the audience was a difficult chore. I had been pursuing Ed Yourdon for a few years, however he was too expensive. In 2002 my annual begging and the weak conference market convinced Ed to give IFPUG a break so we could afford him. A few weeks before the conference Ed announced that he would not be providing a set of PowerPoint slides, but rather would be using something called a mind map. I think I considered calling in sick to the conference I was so worried by the approach.  In retrospect Ed’s use of mind mapping represented one of those life-changing moments.

Mind mapping is a technique for mapping information using color, pictures, symbols and most importantly a branching structure emanating from a central concept. The technique and term mind mapping were popularized by a Tony Buzan in 1974. Mind mapping includes and leverages ideas and techniques from other problem-solving techniques and concepts such as radiant thinking and general semantics.

Mind mapping provides a tool to organize thought in a non-linear manner that allows the mind mapper to see the whole picture at once and the relationships between the components of the map. According to Buzan outlining, one of the most popular technique for gathering and organizing information, forces users into a top-to-bottom, left-to-right view of the data. Outlining by its nature can impart a deterministic view of the topic being studied (a form of cognitive bias). The popular psychology promoted by Buzan suggests that mind mapping by using words, color, pictures and symbols engages more parts of the mind. In Learning Styles and Teams we discussed the Seven Learning Styles model. Each style absorbs and processes information differently, but while everyone has a predominant style of learning they also are influenced by other styles. The use multiple techniques to gather, organize and convey information engages multiple learning styles therefore we would expect mind mapping to be useful to a broad range of learners.

Mind maps have a few drawbacks. I have observed that some people are (or are trained to be) very linear thinkers. The non-linear approach of a mind map does not work well for linear thinkers.  Note these types of thinkers will also generally have trouble with techniques like affinity diagramming. If you are linear thinker, feel free to experiment with mind mapping but remember that you always have the classic outlining techniques to fall back upon. A second drawback is that since when you draw a mind map the map is a reflection of how you think. In many cases this means the resulting map will be difficult for others to interpret. If a group is going to use the mind map to plan work (one use for a mind map) I strongly suggest building the map as a group effort.

The branching, tree-like structure of a mind map presents a central concept at the center of the map with major topics radiating from that topic. The map continues to branch out to the level of granularity that is important to the person drawing the map. A mind map allows the user to organize and visualize information so it can be consumed both at a big picture level and then drill down to a granular level in a manner that exposes relationships and engages the senses.

 

Listen to the Software Process and Measurement Cast 285. SPaMCAST 285 features a compilation of frequently asked questions of a consulting kind.  Working as a traveling consultant, podcaster and blogger provides me with a fabulous mix of experiences. Meeting new people and getting to participate in a wide range of real life experiences is mind expanding and invigorating. Many of the questions that I have been asked during a client engagement, on the blog or in response to a podcast have similar themes. Since most of the answers were provided in one-on-one interactions I have compiled a few of the questions to share. If these questions spark more questions I promise to circle back and add to the FAQ list!

The SPaMCAST 285 also features Kim Pries’s column, The Software Sensei. In this edition, Kim tackles the concept of failure mode and effects.

Get in touch with us anytime or leave a comment here on the blog. Help support the SPaMCAST by reviewing and rating it on iTunes. It helps people find the cast. Like us on Facebook while you’re at it.

Next week we will feature an interview with Brian Wernham author or Agile Project Management for Government. Combining Agile and government used in the same phrase does not have to be an oxymoron.

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