Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Tyranny of teams & collaboration

Ok I admit it - I'm a closet introvert.  I live in a world where working collaboratively in teams, and all that it means, really turns me off.  It's not that I don't like people - it's just that I'd rather have a bit of piece and quiet rather than chats around a table (or so called "meetings"), desk to desk flirting or attending suspect "fun team building" events.

As an introvert of course I blamed myself.  I'd thought that this was just me - a sort of social psychopath - who was simply destined to be left out of the fun & comfort of group thinking. Now I'm pleased to see that I've a group of my own who believe that solitude produces the best results.

Susan Cain is the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.  She is passionate about the role of the introvert in creativity, innovation and original thinking.  Through impressive research she demonstrates how much we undervalue the role of the introvert and how much we lose out in doing so.  In doing so she notes Babbage, Dawin, Piccasso and others as prime examples of great thinkers who'd rather think alone.

So apart from making me feel less of a social misfit what does Cain's philosophy   teach us?  It's best to take Cain's own words from a recent interview in Scientific American...

When you’re working in a group, it’s hard to know what you truly think. We’re such social animals  that we instinctively mimic others’ opinions, often without realising we’re doing it. And when we do disagree consciously, we pay a psychic price.
The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the "pain of independence.
Take the example of brainstorming sessions, which have been wildly popular in corporate America since the 1950s, when they were pioneered by a charismatic ad executive named Alex Osborn. Forty years of research shows that brainstorming in groups is a terrible way to produce creative ideas. The organisational psychologist Adrian Furnham puts it pretty bluntly: The "evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."
This is not to say that we should abolish group work. But we should use it a lot more judiciously than we do today

From an Agile perspective she makes an important point.  Much of the wisdom of Agile is the importance of teams, getting teams working together, establishing collaboration, team bonding and collective responsibility.  However, in doing that we're also in danger of suppressing innovation & creativity through group think or hive mentalities.

We often think of anything that doesn't foster "team work" as anti-agile but Cain's book reminds us that individuals are just as important as the team.  Of course, introverts have annoying qualities.  They don't speak up when they see problems, they're terrified of speaking in a public forum, they let sleeping dogs lie rather than challenge and they're often seen as unambitious.  It takes a different sort of leadership to get the best out of these people.  

So ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Do you value group think over individual contribution?
  2. Do you believe that Agile and Projects are "all about team work"?
  3. Have you determined who in your team is an introvert, extrovert or in-between?
  4. Have you considered the best way to manage each team member to get the best out of them? - enforced "collaboration & fun" is often counter productive
  5. Are you providing the one to one environments where these people can express their views?
  6. Do you provide quiet areas where introverts can get on with their work in relative peace?

Terence Blacker in The Independent recently highlighted a survey of companies citing:
In a survey of 600 computer programmers at 92 companies, it was found that, while people within the same firm performed to similar levels, there was a huge gap in effectiveness between one company and another. It was those which offered staff a degree of privacy which produced the best results.
He also went on to note that:
A more convincing explanation is the unquestioned and wrong-headed assumption that, if one person can produce a good idea, several together can only achieve more. Our culture may be self-obsessed but, weirdly, it is also one in which the noise of crowds and groups drowns out the unconventional and individual.
I strongly recommend that you look through the links I've provided in this blog.  It's a new way of thinking that can enable you to get even more out of your Agile teams and the individuals within them.  As a member of the undervalued society of introverts I hope that you'll take my advice - if you don't mind of course and if you can hear me above all of this team building NOISE!