Teams


If we agree that transactive memory is a common feature of teams’ institutional memory and accept the benefits, then we must address the risks. That should not be a major assumption. In many situations it makes sense. Knowledge can be stored in a single place and then accessed by the team as needed. The idea of having one version of data was one of the reasons I was taught normalization when I was working in the database realm. Transactive memory acts as a form of normalization so teams can reduce redundancy and conflicting truths. When the process works, a team will be more than the sum of its parts. While this seems very mechanistic, I would not suggest ignoring the idea in a fit of humanistic pique. I have not found a team or relationship that has been together for more than a few days that is not leveraging transactive memory. However, as described in our overview, there are two macro scenarios where transactive memory causes problems for a team adopting new approaches. They are:

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I spend a lot of time studying individuals and teams in a quest to help them learn how to deliver more value. One of the most common failure scenarios I observe is that once organizations have reached a decent level of effectiveness, someone will leave and the whole thing will come tumbling down. I am not trying to suggest that turnover and change should be stamped out (I actually think it is healthy), but rather something else is amiss. Several years ago I was able to study the implementation of an agile scaling methodology in a Fortune 100 company. The study looked at quality, productivity, and cycle time across 15 product lines. In every case, the metrics fell during implementation (this was expected) then improved spectacularly, over 80% improvement in every metric, the year after implementation. Unfortunately, things got murkier when the consultants supporting the change were withdrawn and sent elsewhere. The metrics fell by 30 to 50% from the high watermark. I am not arguing that consultants should be permanently ensconced in any organization – it is unhealthy but rather something else is amiss. Recently I forgot to call my father on his birthday. My wife remembers things like special events and then clues me in…if she is around. This time she was not. The whats amiss in all three of these scenarios is a reflection of the risks of transactive memory. 

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The Software Process and Measurement Cast 665 features our essay on the organizational aspects that impact teams. Teams don’t live in a vacuum, so when the word organization gets used it reflects the influence of all sorts of organizations. Organizations facilitate teams to a greater or lesser extent. In the workplace, the employer’s organization will have the most significant impact on how teams form and perform but it is not the totality. Other influences can affect the structure and performance of teams. 

We will also have a visit from Jon M Quigley who will bring his Alpha and Omega of Product Development column to the podcast. In this installment, Jon and I discussed the idea of making decisions at the last responsible moment. We decided on the topic just before we began recording (just kidding). 

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Teams don’t live in a vacuum. Every team is an intersection of boundaries of all sorts of organizations. Organizations facilitate teams to a greater or lesser extent. In the workplace, the employer’s organization will have the most significant impact on how teams form and perform but it is not the totality. Other influences can affect the structure and performance of teams. In the short run, many organizational factors are difficult and slow to change (not impossible).  Many of the behavior factors noted earlier in this thread might be an affectation of the organization. A few of the most critical attributes to consider are:

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The second category of attributes that are important for teams to be effective is behavioral attributes. These attributes describe how individuals and teams as a whole act. While the first category, skills is about the individual, behavior is about the team as a group. All team members’ behavior should contribute to how the team works together to meet it’s goal. The most important behavior attributes are:

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Most outcomes in software development and information technology are reflections of team activities. Whether coding a new function or provisioning a server people work together to achieve a goal. The great majority of these collaborations yield positive results; sometimes the results are even extraordinary.  The team or teams doing the work have a HUGE impact on the results.  A coach or a guide needs to be able to read the tea leaves so they can help teams improve. In Teams: The Heart And Soul Of Work, I identified three categories of attributes of good teams. They are:

  1. Skils,
  2. Behaviors, and 
  3. Organization.
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In the SPaMCAST 644, we talk teams. At the core of agile is the belief that the team is the fundamental building block of work. Because they are so important, organizations put tons of effort into helping and guiding teams. The problem is not that teams aren’t important or that we aren’t working hard to make them better, teams are still chronically messed up. We discuss a framework for guiding support for teams. 

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Teams are the most common grouping of people in agile. I do not think I have been to conferences, in-person or virtual, without being told how important teams are to the delivery of value. Because they are so important, organizations put tons of effort into helping and guiding teams. The problem is not that teams aren’t important or that we are working hard to make them better, but rather that regardless teams are chronically messed up.

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Collaboration is not easy. If we start with the premise that collaboration is important, even critical, why does it often fail to emerge or wither on the vine? This is not a rhetorical question. Knowing what can break collaboration is just as important as understanding the prerequisite. Four of the most common ways collaboration gets messed up include:

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I recently interviewed several successful technical entrepreneurs. Most have created multiple successful organizations. They have shared several common threads. One of the most basic of those threads is the need for a collaborative culture. Jacob Glenn, President of M Genio (SPaMCAST 626 posting on 17 November 2020) said that he hires people to fit in a collaborative culture. Collaboration is a powerful tool yielding results that include increasing innovation, employee energy, creativity, and productivity. Because the promise is so large, people apply the term to many scenarios where it doesn’t belong. Two of the scenarios that are often confused with collaboration are:

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