Avoiding groupthink on long-lived teams

Long-lived teams are often presented as being superior to their temporary counterparts. The benefits of longevity include the avoidance of wasteful forming-storming-norming cycles, higher levels of trust and psychological safety within the team and a more accurate understanding of what someone means when they communicate with us.

But there is a potential downside to persistent teams which can erode many of these benefits: groupthink.

Groupthink usually refers to a situation where team members prioritize consensus over the quality of a given decision or outcome. We might all disagree with Bob’s recommendation on how to address a project issue, but we value the harmony of the group over the mediocrity of his approach and hence we don’t challenge it. According to Irving Janis, the social psychologist who is credited with introducing the term, groupthink tends to occur most often where there are high degrees of cohesiveness, external threats, difficult decisions or isolation of the team from others. These factors are often found on long-lived teams.

So how can we avoid groupthink on long-lived teams?

One countermeasure might be to use Delphi or a similar method of anonymously or simultaneously gathering input from the team. This will reduce the likelihood of any one team member winning a “first to speak” advantage and will provide a structured approach to surface and discuss differing viewpoints.

Another option is to have the group nominate one team member to act as a devil’s advocate. This selection should be made on a per decision basis. Since everyone knows that this team member is responsible for finding weaknesses within a decision it eliminates their fear of being perceived as disruptive. Care needs to be taken in selecting the right team member to play this role. Someone who is likely to have significant interest in the outcomes of a decision might not be the best candidate as they might consciously or unconsciously disqualify the group’s approach to further their own path of action.

Have the foresight to bring someone in from the outside who has no stake in the outcome. This approach can replace the previous suggestion if team members feel that none of them can impartially play the role of devil’s advocate. This method has its own challenges as it might take some effort for the outsider to gain sufficient context to be an effective contributor to the decision.

Finally, breaking the team into two independent groups and having each group develop a recommendation is a very explicit method of eliminating groupthink. Of course, this requires a team which is large enough that such a sub-division is possible. If this approach is used more than once, it is a good idea to have different people in each group for each distinct decision.

When all think alike, the no one is thinking – Walter Lippman



Categories: Agile, Project Management | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Shuffle up and deal with qualitative risk analysis!

While it is frequently used by agile teams to size work items (e.g. user stories), Planning Poker® can also be used to facilitate other types of decision making so why not use it for qualitative risk analysis?

A common approach to this process is to utilize a scale from very low to very high or even just low, medium and high to assess the probability and impact of identified risks. One concern with this is that at the end of the risk analysis workshop the team likely ends up with a significant volume of high probability or impact risks. This forces them to do a second pass to prioritize the risks so that risk owner capacity can be focused on the valuable few.

In many cases, determination of probability or impact is done through a group discussion. This means that the same biases which affect sizing when techniques like Delphi aren’t used will be realized. Whoever speaks first or speaks loudest anchors the remaining team members to their perception of probability or impact.

Finally, I’ve seen some teams analyze risks as part of the identification process. Not doing the analysis in a batch manner might seem to be better, but it also means that the team won’t benefit from the perspective which comes after they have had the chance to review all risks. Again, this might force a second normalization pass to ensure evaluations are consistent across the risk register.

So how can Planning Poker® address these challenges?

  • By using a numerical basis for qualitative risk analysis (yes, I know that sounds like an oxymoron!) we provide greater levels of granularity which should simplify the risk prioritization process.
  • Planning Poker® uses a non-linear (usually Fibonacci-like) sequence. This is important because risk impacts and probability do not scale linearly. When we use low, medium or high to analyze risks, we don’t account for non-linearity.
  • It removes bias from the initial individual assessment and provides a structured approach to surface and discuss differences in perception.
  • It requires us to normalize our sizing at the very beginning based on the complete list of risks to be assessed. Once the team has identified all risks, they will review each and determine which risk they believe has the smallest probability and which one has the smallest impact and use those as their basis for relative assessment against all others.
  • Finally, Planning Poker® can be a lot of fun – it gets people actively engaged in what can sometimes be a very dry discussion.

Scaling this technique with larger teams might be challenging, but for risk analysis sessions with up to a dozen participants it can work well.

The beautiful thing about poker (and risk analysis!) is that everybody thinks they can play – Chris Moneymaker



Categories: Agile, Project Management | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Lessons in agility from wine tasting…

One of the benefits of living in the Greater Toronto Area is being less than an hour away from a large number of good wineries in the Niagara region. A few past colleagues of mine got together for a morning round of golf and followed that up with a wine tasting and a hearty lunch at Ridgepoint Wines (thanks for the recommendation, Brendan!). After enjoying a glass of their 2010 Reserve Meritage I came to the conclusion that wine tasting and agile have more in common than you might think.

It helps to have a guide

You could certainly partake in a flight of wine with friends without the benefit of a sommelier, but you won’t enjoy the experience as much and you might learn some bad habits such as not giving your wine a chance to breathe or drinking without sniffing the bouquet. Similarly a coach can help steer a team past anti-patterns so that they have a chance to appreciate what agility truly is.

Start small and grow from there

For novices, visiting more than one winery in a day could be a recipe for disaster. Without having developed the discipline to pace themselves they run the risk of getting tipsy too quickly and might get turned off by the experience. Starting with a large project is inadvisable for novice teams – they won’t possess the discipline to scale their behavior and practices and might blame agile rather than their immaturity.

There is no one right way

While there are good principles for enjoying wine, don’t let anyone try to convince you that you must follow pairing guidelines. While a robust red wine might be a good match for a meat dish, if you enjoy its flavour there is no reason you can’t have it with any other type of cuisine or even on its own. User stories are a good approach to starting a conversation about functional requirements, but don’t be bullied by agile wannabes who insist that all requirements must be captured as stories. Like with any practice, context and culture count.

Teams doing agile might make you want to drink but I prefer to have the perspective of the (wine) glass being half-full.

Categories: Agile, Project Management | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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