Team Stability vs Personal Freedom

Background

I’ve been thinking about a project team characteristic that I’d never previously worked with before. This project had a dedicated staffing stream of work, which supported an ongoing employee rotation plan as part of normal project execution. Any given team member would have a 9 month stint, after which they’d rotate off the account and go do something else. With the size of the project team as well as some contractual constraints, that amounted to about 3-4 people a month, or nearly 1 person a week.

 

The Bad News

A basic awareness of group dynamics as considered in Sociology, Psychology and whatever other -ology you the reader is fond of, leads to a conclusion that highly effective teams take a while to emerge from a group of people. These patterns have been articulated, perhaps most famously by Bruce Tuckman (i.e. Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing) but other variations and extensions have been suggested.

Tuckman_0

Of these stages, the Storming stage is the most difficult stage, and many groups never make it past this stage. Teams that do make it through this stage, have invested in the time it takes for individuals in a group to establish some form of social structure along with compatible working patterns, relationships etc. These individuals have learnt how to build on their collective strengths, as well as offset the weaknesses that each of them, as individuals, bring.

Team Effectiveness

Each swap made within a team reduces the stability of that team’s position in the team maturity model, and significant enough disturbances can move a team from a relatively comfortable “performing” state, down a notch, to “norming” and potentially even worse, a rather torrid “storming” state. The team would need to invest further in order to rebuild and develop into a high performing team. The practical upshot of this regular rotation is that the project team will always be struggling to maintain the highest potential performance.

Domain Knowledge

A second, more insidious side effect, is that the team as a whole may only really have a relatively shallow level of knowledge and expertise in the problem domain they’re solving. Picking up the basics of any new context is easy enough. However, to really build up a nuanced understanding of a domain, a person requires a decent amount of time to carefully mull over a stack of facts, figures and data points. I’d argue that it takes at least 3-6 months of focussed learning before enough is known about a new domain for significant decisions to be made safely. With a 9 month term, that suggests that really, a person only has, at most, 3-6 months of meaningful work before it’s time to move on.

A Sense of Purpose and Belonging

One of the joys of working in a highly motivated team with a strong sense of purpose, is the feeling of accomplishment when a milestone is reached (as long as that milestone is meaningful to the team). With team membership always having a tangible end date, it’s much harder to really get a sense of belonging to that team, and (deeply) feeling that sense of purpose. There’s the danger that an individual feels like they’re a replaceable cog in a machine – largely because that’s what will happen as everyone gets replaced fairly regularly.

 

The Good News

It’s not all bad news. On the plus side, it does put the individual’s “perspective” at the centre of the project’s thinking. As an individual would only be exposed to a problem domain for a finite period, it means that there is a regularly changing supply of new things for them to think about. That can include new problem domains, new implementation technologies. This can help keep the individual fresh, enthusiastic, and in an explicit learning mode for much more time than otherwise.

Additionally, the downsides are potentially easier to deal with. In the event that the individual isn’t compatible with the project and the demands, it’s easier for the individual to just “grin and bear it” for 9 months, as there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and the individual doesn’t have to do anything drastic (e.g. resign). Worst case and an earlier exit is required, that’s also likely to be a lot easier to deal.

Another advantage is that it can make something that isn’t long term sustainable (e.g. remoteness of location) something that is more sustainably managed, as it distributes the workload across a greater number of people than if the team were fixed.

An interesting potential positive, is that this forces a few XP principles into the team (if they’re not applying them already):

KISS: If nothing else, the team have to reduce the complexity of what is being built as there will be a regular (and ongoing) instances of a new person having to learn about what is being built. There’s relatively little that can be done to reduce the inherent complexity of the problem domain but navigation aids (e.g. context maps) will help and are recognisably important investments

Automated testing and test coverage: New starters generally go through an initial period of higher-than-normal anxiety as that’s when they’re operating almost entirely in the dark. As this is a regular occurrence, it’s unfeasible for a project team to “cheat” and ride it out (which is a possible approach if you’ve got a permanent team). Automated tests and a high coverage are a safety net, making it much less scary to work on code Again, that’s explicitly recognised as valuable.

Collective ownership: As no one person will be around permanently, it’s much harder for territories to be formed beyond team level boundaries (in a multi-team project) as the only things which are “stable enough” to be able to own anything (along with the typical behaviours of defending it, curating and growing it etc.) is a team. However, this is a double edged sword, as it’s also possible that in the face of a significant enough problem, some deflection might occur (e.g. “oh that’s not my/our fault. This was <Person X, now left>, they’re to blame”). This “no-responsibility-anywhere problem” is a normal part of collective ownership, it’s just more likely in this model than in stable team environments, as it’s far easier to blame someone who isn’t around.

 

Conclusion

 

I’m treating this project execution model as just another lever to be adjusted as necessary. My current focus is on optimising for a sustainable and resilient project team – one with a high enough morale to cope with the difficult circumstances that the project needs to execute within, with the employee characteristics that are available to me. In this instance, I’ve got over-supply of graduate and apprentice developers, but a scarcity of senior and lead developers. I also have a project location that’s a little too far away from home base for comfort, and a mandated work pattern that throws the work/life balance off kilter.

My key measures are employee engagement & feedback, general mood measures and team retrospectives (shareable content only). Additional measures include sickness days (as a potential visualisation of a deeper problem), as well as the levels of enthusiasm and participation in non-core work activities – e.g. community events etc.

My key feedback mechanisms are regular 1-2-1s (I’m trying to catch up with at least one project team member every day), open Q&A once a week and more formalised “account update” sessions once a quarter.

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