For the public good…

I am continually fascinated by the notion of self-organising teams, how they motivate themselves and how you can create an environment that is conducive to self-motivation.

Unfortunately my experience is that self-management works for the minority and is highly rewarding and highly effective, but it does not work for all. Bystander Syndrome is prevalent and too often the plants do not get watered. Why don’t developers water the plants?

So, recently I ran an experiment and discussion on the general low involvement and engagement of extra-curricular activities. In particular events that are considered to be core to the effective working of the company but are not explicitly part of your core objectives.

The premise of the experiment is that we have become more focused on benefit to ourselves or benefit to our local teams, rather than the benefit to the wider organisation.

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For those out there ready to point out that an experiment requiring voluntary attendance already excludes those that are more focused on themselves – you got me!
I stacked the deck in favour of the more social minded of the organisation.

Some examples:

Our organisation is very much built around self-organisation and we are expected to manage our own time and priorities.  However, we have a number of activities that are ‘global’ in scope: some where the time spent is voluntary and expected to be worked above and around billable time.  Or facilitating other team’s retrospectives which is billable time but can conflict with your primary team priorities. Even our Guilds, which are groups of people based around a single focus or competency have an implied ongoing commitment to attend regularly.  Finally, “Lunch and Learns” or bookclubs where there is opportunity to share ideas and learn from colleagues, which is a core cultural goal of the organisation but is done as part of your personal development and on your own time.

All of these activities could be considered to be valuable to the organisation and in most cases to you personally (directly or indirectly), but all require an investment of time and effort. My observation is that in many cases the involvement is diminishing either proportionally or absolutely as we grow. Attendance at lunchtime events seems to be diminishing, involvement in volunteer groups like guilds is a challenge to the organisers and maintaining membership is probably the number one challenge.

The goal of the discussion was to identify ideas for how we maintain or stimulate these activities and how to involve a wider audience, preferably without putting a greater burden on a few (and often the same few people), and without directing people to attend, which is counter to our culture.

The Game….

We played a game loosely based on the ‘Public Good Game’ We set up two relatively large groups. All participants were given $10 each and the game is played in rounds.
Each round players can contribute as much or as little as they like to ‘a pot’ but the total contributions will be combined and then a pre-determined bonus would be added to it. One team got a 30% bonus the other team a 40% bonus.

Round 1

All players were asked to choose how much to contribute, in the 30% team the contributions were visible, in the 40% team the contributions were secret.

If you apply pure logic, the maximum gain is obtained by everyone contributing fully, that way everyone gains a lot.  But an individual can work out that by opting out and reducing their individual contribution they can benefit at the expense of others.

Subsequent rounds…

Over the course of a number of rounds as more and more people realise that others are not contributing fully, they will either call the others out for not contributing, OR they too opt out and eventually those that are still contributing receive back less than they contribute and at that point system fails as everyone eventually opts out.

End Game

What we found was that the transparent team reminded each other and kept the focus on the public benefit and maintained a better contribution level, the secret contributions team had two or three participants who were able to benefit considerably at the expense of others  by not contributing (leeching from the pot). There was sufficient reward to keep the others motivated although that was diminishing each round.  Overall it was the transparent team that benefitted more, but both teams missed out on a huge amount of potential benefit by a focus on personal gain.

Conclusion

In the recap there was a suggestion that it was unclear whether the goal of the game was for collective gain or individual gain – e.g. How did we measure the winner?

But the reality is that this is the same quandary that we face in our day to day life,  are we working for the benefit of ourselves or our team or our company?  All our choices for extra-curricular activities are an investment of our own time and effort and we are motivated either for personal gain (what is in it for me?) or collective gain (How would me attending benefit my team/company?)

Discussion

Many of the arguments we heard were around billing, and utilisation. There seems to be a reluctance to use personal time for ‘extra-curricular’ learning, which implies that there is a perceived lack of sufficient personal benefit from involvement in these activities.

In other cases such as facilitation and helping other teams people are balancing time spent with their local team against involvement in activities that benefit a wider group.  The question is… Which is more important?

The challenge for us then is how to change priorities such that activities that benefit the company as a whole are perceived as valuable (not necessarily more valuable but valuable enough to make that effort), or to highlight the benefits to us as individuals resulting from a greater involvement in company wide activities.

The conversation that followed created some great ideas, as well as highlighting some of the concerns.


The Dunbar number

Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.

Dunbar’s number on Wikipedia

Dunbar has a theory that as groups exceed a certain number approximately 150 people their sense of community diminishes and the group becomes less effective, less cohesive and it is more difficult to self-organise.

Many of the issues raised could be interpreted to have their root in the Dunbar number.  As we grow we don’t personally know the other people that are presenting at LnLs or the others that are attending the guild meetings. This lack of personal attachment results in a diminished sense of interest, ownership and responsibility, skipping is downplayed as it is only letting down people you don’t know, or an assumption that others will attend.

Ideas for increased engagement

  • Offer food
  • Educate people on calendar etiquette, e.g. show up if you accept
  • Increase advertising/promotion of events and activities
  • Write up a “What you missed” summary for those that didn’t attend
  • Leaders show support by attending,
  • Reward directly or indirectly those that present and/or attend
  • Make clear the purpose or learning goals of events
  • Introduce compulsory lunch breaks, or compulsory attendance
  • Highlight the understanding/visibility of what happens when you don’t step up
  • Identify Champions to help organise and promote these activities
  • Have fixed times/days for lunchtime activities to regulate number and ensure quality.
  • Invite only those from a sub-group (accept Dunbar’s Number and work with it).

Our goal with this experiment was to gain ideas and gain a better understanding of the problem and to share these concerns with a wider audience, we were not aiming for a solution to the problem just a start to the conversation.

Feedback?

Any more thoughts or ideas on this would be greatly appreciated

 

 

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Scrum at Home – Agile for kids

There was a discussion recently that I participated in where someone asked if you could run Scrum at home for your children. There were a lot of interesting comments and a lot of good observations, generally the consensus was that Scrum was not suitable because most of the tasks for a child are specific to that child. But I shall explore in a bit more detail because I felt that the discussion missed the most crucial question that a coach should always ask.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Now I cannot speak for the people in that discussion so I shall speak based on my own observations and experiences.

Generally in agile we are about finding better ways to give your customer what they really want.  But in the case of Agile for kids the goal isn’t what they produce it is far more about the learning on the journey. I want my children to learn to be self-organising, pro-active, quality conscious, results focused (not done until it is done), to learn to prioritise, to learn to communicate, in some cases cooperation and teamwork.  The tasks/stories are merely tools for that learning.

This is a  variation on the traditional expectation of mastery purpose and autonomy.  If the tasks are household chores then it may be a stretch to hope a teenager will have an implicit desire to master the skill of mowing a lawn, purpose too, may be a hard one to cover on a week to week basis.  Autonomy on the other hand may well be a motivator. There was no real shared vision.

How to motivate?

So if we accept that the motivators that we generally promote don’t apply then we need an alternative.  In my case I chose a reward based system, it feels a little like an easy out, but for my example it worked and this is one area that I would be very keen to hear other ideas.  Kids are difficult to organise, they have a very specific and well honed sense of what is fair – and often it is irrational, this was most definitely an experiment that could go badly wrong.

The constraints and selected framework

I chose a combination of Scrum and KanBan, partly because I know Scrum well but mainly because I felt that the problem lent itself to that solution. The stories would be a combination of household chores and homework tasks.

We chose a 2 week sprint model because most chores have expiry dates and were repetitive, and if I’m honest I took a few liberties with the KanBan board and the tasks.

Mom took on the role of Product Owner, Dad as Scrum Master, and the kids as the team.

We began with a kickoff meeting where we discussed which stories we wanted to be done, this conversation was a mix of the jobs we wanted help with, what we felt the children were capable of and some suggestions from them as to what they felt that they could contribute.  We produced a list of tasks, setting table for dinner, clearing the table and stacking the dishwasher, making beds on a morning, cleaning bedrooms, cleaning other rooms, mowing the lawn etc etc.  Not glamouros but you get the idea. 

For each story we refined it, we discussed a definition of done and we specified acceptance criteria, it was a discussion with all of us: did cleaning a room include dusting, or just tidying and vacuuming?  Taking our the recycling had a specific date, but many of the other tasks had no expiry other than the end of the sprint. 

We then agreed relative size points for the various tasks, one task was fairly easy so got low points another wastime consuming or was undesirable so got more points, we managed to reach an agreement on the relative size of all tasks but agreed that we would re-visit if we felt these were wrong later.

And then on to the reward, we agreed with the kids that we would link pocket money to the board, each story point would equate to an amount of money, pocket money would be paid at the end of the sprint but only and very clearly only for done tasks.  We later modified this to being paid when a card reached the done column, primarily as I wanted to teach the children of the importance of completing stories and of prioritising those nearer to beng done.

With the acceptance criteria agreed we created a board, that had 4 columns (and a separate backlog). Columns were:

ToDo, Doing, Verify and Done.

At the sprint planning we would discuss which tasks the children wanted to take on, and whether they felt they could achieve them all.  Some tasks were clearly specific to one child because of clear ownership or because the task was age or capability specific, but some were joint tasks e.g. cleaning the playroom, and some were for anyone. 

All tasks went in the ToDo column and the kids were encouraged to move cards to doing when they started the task and to verify when they thought they were done. We encouraged them at breakfast to indicate what they would achieve for the day. 

We also encouraged them to write new cards for homework tasks or personal initiatives, although these were not assigned points. Merely to help them visualise their work.

When a card was complete they would move it to Verify and ask the Product owner (Mom) to sign it off, mom would go with them to check against the Acceptance criteria and anything that fell short would be bounced back. I am glossing over the screams of how unfair that was, although perhaps I shouldn’t because of all the things I learnt from this experiment it was how important this particular aspect of it was. Being able to say – “but you agreed this last week” took the wind out of the sails of most of the objections, they still sulked but there was much more acceptance that the parents decision was fair because the rules were agreed with the kids in advance.

So task complete, pocket money paid, happy kids, happy parents, card could be torn up or saved for the next sprint.

At the end of the sprint we reviewed what had been done or not done, and even kept a velocity of sorts. A little competition between the kids. We also held a sort-of retrospective where we discussed what could be improved, although this was a harder concept for the children to understand especially the younger one. We discussed workload, priorities and conflicts – “I did more than my share” some cards were ignored because they felt it wasn’t worth the effort. And so on. 

But we found that the experiment was for the most part a roaring success, the kids even started asking if there were extra jobs they could do.  For joint tasks they used peer pressure to get them all contributing. Rather than having to remind them to do jobs they were reminding us to verify, as I mentioned there was less conflict over what a job entailed.

Problems with the experiment

There were two fundamental problems, the first was the reward mechanism, financial rewards don’t work very well for kids. My 8 year old would see a toy he wanted and when he had completed enough cards for that item, he would stop doing his cards, he didn’t seem to be able to get the concept of saving up for the future. This is something that I think is a reflection of his age, but it made for inconsistent results.

The second was outside interference, at first it was funny but we had a lot of negative feedback, some via the kids. I didn’t understand it, but it was enough to undermine the experiment. The objections were mainly around the reward mechanism.

The third less significant issue was there was a time overhead each sprint and it was not always easy with a busy family schedule to organise this. Although that as always is a question or priorities.

Summary

Overall, I thought it was a great idea, it certainly isn’t Scrum (and I would never claim it was) but it was Scrum-like and the routine worked well for kids. I felt that the kids learnt a lot from it and I certainly learnt a lot. But parenting is hard in general, it is difficult to know whether you are doing the right thing.

I saw them much more self-aware, motivated, it helped communication, and framed boundaries. The kids enjoyed the responsibility and the autonomy. 

But in a lot of ways it was harder for me. As it was a mix of parenting and coaching, I found I needed to overstep my normal bounds of coaching and oddly I felt uncertain of how I should behave.

Ultimately we stopped the experiment, but I still feel it was a valuable learning experience and I would like to repeat it in the future. I would need to re-think the motivation aspect as that was really the weakest part.

However, I would heartily recommend it to anyone with older children, and I’d love to discuss ideas on how better to motivate.

How not to motivate

A friend suggested I watch this YouTube video on Motivation: Worst way to motivate

I thoroughly enjoyed this video and it is well worth watching.  The outcome flies in the face of some conventional logic but supports the view that we have come to know and love in Agile.

Spoiler Alert: for those that don’t watch the video, the premise is that The Federal Reserve bank in the USA commissioned a study in how to motivate staff and get better productivity, essentially how big  a bonus do you need to give to have an impact on productivity.

The study was carried out by scientists at MIT, Carnegie Melon and University of Chicago  and the outcome will surprise some of you.

Essentially what was classed as small or moderate incentive bonuses had no noticeable impact on productivity when applied to any task that wasn’t purely mechanical.  And large bonuses (equivalent to 3 months wages) caused a measurable decrease in productivity. Yes that is right, give someone a significant incentive when working on even mildly cognitive tasks and they got worse.

In other words incentives are bad, very bad.

The key to increasing productivity according to this study is in 3 areas:

  • Autonomy

  • Mastery

  • Purpose

More on that later…

Quick tangent…

My mind immediately jumped to the financial crisis. If the Federal Reserve believe that financial incentives have a negative effect, why are financial incentives the principle method used for rewarding bankers?   Does that mean that if bankers were paid an appropriate salary would they actually be better? Or is the conclusion that banking requires no cognitive input 🙂

It is not all about money.

It should be noted that for the study to reach the conclusion ‘salary’ had to be off the table, people need to be paid enough as a base salary for that not to be a motivating factor. This is easier said than done.

What I find interesting is that this study also supports old-school psychology too. Some of you may be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Essentially once basic needs are met, security housing food etc. which have a direct correlation with income, things get more fuzzy, needs above essentials no longer have a direct monetary driver.  We get into Psychological needs: areas of personal relationships, social standing, and then on to our need for self-fulfillment, creativity, fun, personal achievement.  All of which have an element of financial impact but it is clearly it is not the primary driver. Once Basic needs have been met money becomes far less important to us.

Maslow's Triangle.pptx (2)

For example we don’t learn a musical instrument for financial benefit, or do a crossword, many of us have a hobby that takes huge amounts of effort, research, expense and often inconvenience and usually for nothing. Some participate in PTAs or Churches or social groups and clubs, or even write a blog. For most people money simply doesn’t drive us (Assuming we have enough to live), it is an enabler. So in theory if you have a reasonable base salary and you are content, then motivation needs to come from elsewhere.

Money cannot buy happiness, but being broke sure makes you miserable.

Aha, all looking good until…

A company in the USA read a similar study and concluded that if someone earned $70,000 they would have enough to be content, all essential needs would be met and so money would not be a factor and they could focus on productivity, so he raised the pay of all employees to $70,000.  Perfect! Only it wasn’t, humans are contrary soles and whilst the pay raise was great for some, we also measure our social standing by income, not because we care about income, but because it is a measurable metric of your value in society (or at least the workplace).  So when someone you felt was in a job that required less skill or less status than you was suddenly earning the same you felt disgruntled, your salary hasn’t changed, last week you were happy but today you feel you are relatively less important.  So it is about money and at the same time not at all about money.

Do you pay fair?

Paying fairly doesn’t mean pay them all the same.  Laszlo Bock from Google in his book Work Rules goes even further than this:- he says to deliberately pay unfairly, if you have a good employee pay them excessively, deliberately take money out of the equation.

My take from this is as follows:

Pay your staff well, pay them what they are worth as a base salary and review it regularly, but do not include any performance based incentives. And if you include profit share or Christmas bonuses, apply them equally (% based) and do not have them performance driven.

What you want is a secure workforce, you do not want them to be thinking they could earn more elsewhere, and you do not want high turnover of staff. Show your employees that you truly value them, pay above market rates to ensure stability, and be prepared to pay exceptional employees exceptionally.

So with a reasonable and appropriate salary (with no performance incentives) as our foundation, we can concentrate on the real issue of how to maximize productivity, and this is where it gets interesting…

more next time.