Team members should swarm to a problem like tourists to a photo opp

Team members should swarm to a problem like tourists to a photo opp

Swarming is common behavior in an Agile team. Swarming occurs when a group of team members work together on a single story or impediment to break a log jam. It helps to overcome problems and bottlenecks so the team can deliver functionality quickly and often. Swarming provides a team with a mechanism focus on impediments and remove them immediately. Studies support that the act of swarming, as an act of kindness, generates further acts of kindness (within limits).

In an article titled The Science of ‘Paying It Forward’ in the New York Times on Sunday, March 16, 2014, Melena Tsvetkova and Michael Macy describe an article they published in the journal PLoS One.  Their research found that receiving and observing generosity can increase the likelihood of being generous, however in some cases, if the level generosity is too high it can shift have the opposite effect. When the level of observed generosity is perceived to be too high the observer is less likely to pay it forward and be comes a bystander rather than helping some someone else. The findings suggest that the act of helping a fellow team member out makes it more likely that the recipient of the behavior will also help his/her fellow team members out when they have a problem.

The findings carry a cautionary note for teams, Scrum Masters and coaches. If one person always is there to save the day it is possible to turn others in the team into bystanders. Also it is possible for the other team members to expect help before they exhausted all options.  The ability to ask for help and expect the team to swarm to the problem too easily is a form of moral hazard that can cause other team members to feel that they are being taken advantage.  If this perception takes root, it  will reduce the possibility that the team will swarm to problems.

Scrum Masters or coaches need to be aware that swarming, like any act of kindness, is apt to ripple thought the team. Team members helping each other out in order to overcome impediments is an important activity in effective Agile teams. Coaches need to ensure that swarming is not limited to an individual (or small group), but is balanced across the team to reduce the risk that team members won’t respond when all hands are needed on deck.