Posts Tagged With: project decision making

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

Applying Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions to agile teams

Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team can help agile leads guide their team building efforts.

When team members feel afraid to express vulnerability or feel that any mistakes they make will be held against them, they will be much less likely to take educated risks, to challenge the status quo or to unleash their creativity towards achieving customer goals or overcoming hurdles. Lencioni correctly places this dysfunction at the very bottom of the pyramid as without psychological safety, delivery excellence is a mirage.

For team members who have never worked together before, trust is a fragile, slow growing crop which is easily destroyed by careless comments in early sprints. This is doubly true in corrosive corporate environments where the agile lead will need to expend greater effort to ensure that external stakeholders don’t destroy nascent trust.

But as trust begins to form, an unintended consequence might be that team members hesitate to engage in healthy conflict or to hold each other accountable. An overly cautious, politically correct team dynamic means that behavioral issues don’t get addressed and minor irritations can fester causing long term damage to team morale and productivity.

A fear of conflict can also encourage mediocre decision making. For example, designs will not incorporate the collective wisdom of the group but will instead reflect the least common denominator.

Ceremonies such as daily standups and retrospectives can provide good opportunities to identify these dysfunctions, but should an agile lead directly intervene in such situations?

If the agile lead takes too direct an approach to address this, the team’s journey towards self-discipline and self-management will slow down. In such cases, it might be better for the agile lead to act as a catalyst for bringing such issues into the open. Asking leading or thought provoking questions during retrospectives might cause one or more team members to become sufficiently uneasy that they are willing to slow down the journey to Abilene.

Without conflict and trust, commitment is superficial. If the majority of a team is willing to sign up for work items for their upcoming sprint, but one team member is uncomfortable and does not feel confident in voicing their concerns because of a fear of ridicule or coercion, they might resort to the passive-aggressive approach of appearing to support the sprint goals but not really committing to them.

When team members look at themselves as individuals and give higher priority to their ambitions, egos and agendas, they will focus on completing their own tasks rather than tackling what’s best for the team as a whole. Corporate cultures which reward individual instead of team performance encourage such behavior. Standups and retrospectives can provide evidence of the inattention to team results and the agile lead will want to reinforce the importance of collective ownership.

Understanding and addressing the five dysfunctions of an agile team will help us realize the fifth principle of the Manifesto: “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.


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

Online repositories or project documents (Part Two)?

In my last article, I wrote the first half of my overview of the benefits and disadvantages of following a document-centric or repository-centric approach to managing project information. This week, I’ll conclude the assessment by covering the pros and cons of an online repository-based approach.

Whether you implement a COTS solution or build a repository in house, there are some clear advantages to this choice including:

  • Reduced oversight and reporting effort. If a PMO leader wishes to institute governance and gating over the project portfolio, having key project data captured in documents scattered across multiple folders or sites makes this objective manually intensive. If instead all key project information is consolidated into a repository then standard query capabilities can be used to build reports which can be run with minimal effort.
  • Update once, benefit immediately. When an artifact template gets updated or introduced, the effort to propagate it to all project teams can take a lot of time and effort and it is not uncommon to have teams continuing to use obsolete templates well beyond the launch date of an updated version. With a repository, changes could be pushed immediately with all instances getting updated simultaneously.
  • Enter once, use often. A document-centric approach can generate redundant information spread across multiple documents for the same project. Hosting all this information within a single repository facilitates elimination of data duplication which will both reduce project team frustration and will avoid the inconsistencies which invariably occur when a team member forgets to update all instances of a given data element.
  • Greater value realization from centralized information. Identifying common organization blockers affecting multiple projects across the portfolio or creating a knowledge base of lessons learned is simplified when a centralized repository is available.
  • Encourages collaboration. When elaborating the details of requirements, design elements, test artifacts or even code, the ability for multiple team members to work together in near real time without having to constantly check in or check out shared documents reduces collaboration effort.

But as usual there are no silver bullets when it comes to project management!

Such repositories have their own challenges including:

  • Increased difficulty in sharing information outside the company. Control partners are usually unwilling to permit project teams to open up their project repositories to all the third party delivery organizations they might be partnering with. Documents can be easily shared whereas online repositories require access to be granted and taken away once the third party’s involvement has ended.
  • Increased learning curve. No matter how intuitive, a project information system requires staff to be trained to a greater extent than if documents were used to capture the same information. Such training needs to cover not only how a tool works but also appropriate usage.
  • Higher one-time and ongoing costs. Even if a tool is developed in house, build and maintenance costs will be significantly greater than what’s required with a document-based approach.
  • Potential versioning challenges. Online repositories lend themselves to increased collaboration which means that content can evolve over time. This can make it more challenging to identify which version of a given information set has been reviewed and approved.
  • Potential inefficiencies for power users (thanks for suggesting that one, Michael!). While online repositories can be made more foolproof than document templates, this fool proofing can actually slow down advanced users. Also, the record-centric approach found in such tools can increase the effort required to perform simple search or global find & replace actions.

For some information, a document-centric approach might yield the best results whereas for others, an online repository is the way to go.

True victory is achieved by picking the right tool or practice to fulfill a given context.


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

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