The Dysfunctional Team II: Safety & Trust

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series The Dysfunctional Team

This series of posts covers a fictional struggling software development team. Use the navigation on the right to jump between the various chapters of the story.

Two weeks have passed since the kick-off and team Phoenix has really started. Let’s take a look one of the first planning sessions of Max, Sally, Alice, Bob and Tim.

Follow the Leader

Alice knows she is late. Briskly she walks up the stairs, her heart racing and her hands clasped. Praying that everybody else is late too, she cuts a corner into the hallway. When she finally reaches the meeting room, she glimpses her watch. Fuck, ten past ten. She opens the door and tries to silently sneak in at the back. Clearly the meeting is in full progress. She looks at Max in the front. Did she just see his eyes rolling or did she just imagine it? He does not seem to pay attention to her and continues speaking.

“I really think that you guys should do stand-ups in front of the scrum board and walk through all the tasks on the board.”
“Why?”, Sally replies. “We have been doing it by just telling what we did yesterday and what we are going to do today, and it’s been working fine. This is a team decision right?”
“I am also part of the team, and I am saying that we should walk through the tasks,” Max responds.
“Are you saying that as a product owner? I mean the process needs to work for all of us, not just for the product owner.”

Excluded

Alice, now firmly seated at the far end of the table, scratches her throat in preparation to speak up. Everyone’s eyes turn to her. Her hands tremble as she puts down the glass of water she just poured herself.
“Look guys, I am not comfortable with you discussing processes like this without me. This is the first meeting to reshape our processes, why didn’t you wait for me to start?”
“Maybe because you have been late for every meeting over the past week?” Tim snaps back, briefly looking away from his laptop screen.
“Yes well, I was talking to a designer, he is giving me a really hard time, and without him finishing his work we can’t start to structurally improve the front-end of the app, can we?”
Tim doesn’t look up from his screen, even though Alice is clearly speaking to him. Who does he think he is? Alice wonders. He’s always buried with his head in his laptop, nobody believes he’s actually mentally attending the meeting. Meanwhile, Alice works her ass of to get this team off the ground and incorporate some actual novel features in the app.

The meeting continues. Alice thinks she may as well have spent some additional time with the designer instead, as she is rarely, if ever, addressed during the discussion. As she mentally disengages, she sits back and starts biting her lip. Didn’t she prepare over half the ideas that Max just presented? Is she not the scrum master tasked with the role of guarding processes. Why is no one asking her anything? Does she need to elbow herself into the discussion? Where is the respect?

Stalemate

Alice takes another look at her watch. The meeting has run well over time. Max and Sally are fretting over details, Tim is typing code on his laptop, Bob spent the last five minutes just looking out of the window.
“Shall we just continue this discussion later?”, Alice proposes. “I will plan a new session.”
“We haven’t even reached an agreement on the most basic processes”, Max protests.
“I know, but I don’t think we will get there if we keep going either.”
“Yeah, you lost me a while ago”, Tim adds. Bob remains silent.
“Okay, let’s continue this Thursday afternoon”, Alice adds.
Tim and Max walk out of the room with white faces, their heads hanging, their feet slumping.

Alice feels tenseness in her neck and shoulders. She remains in the meeting room with Sally and Bob.
“This really doesn’t give me energy at all”, Bob says. “I’d much rather actually do stuff. You know, move things forward.”
“If we just all wrote decent code, documentation and log messages in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t need to have all these detailed discussions, and things would just … work”, Sally snaps back. Alice gives her an angry look. Who does Sally think she is, taking it out on poor Bob like that?
“Sorry, I mean this feels so frustrating”, Sally continues. “Well, at least Bob and me are rewriting the back-end code. Please don’t tell Max, I am afraid he’ll freak out. He just doesn’t realize how much this rewrite is badly needed.”
They are doing a rewrite without sharing it with the rest of the team openly? Alice suppresses the impulse to shout, and just gently nods, while squeezing the edges of her chair. The walls seem to be enclosing her, she needs to get out of this room.

Emerging Grudges

Alice walks out and darts down the hallway. She overhears a conversation between Max and Paul in the pantry and slows down.
“She’s constantly blocking my proposals. I hate it, she’s trying to take over, maybe we should get Sally off the team, Paul”, Max argues. “I have enough on my plate as it is and I am not sure where to take this, I think other team members should speak up, they can’t be all on her side …”

Alice feels her tenseness turn into an oncoming headache. She goes for a quick stroll to clear her mind.

Failure

When Alice reenters the work floor, she finds Sally and Bob hovering over Tim’s desk. They look at the performance graphs for the current version of the app again. Alice’s heart sinks. She glances at the nearby whiteboard. Bob marked every day without performance problems with an X. Over the last two weeks there were only two X’s.

Alice locks her jaws. She knew this going in: the app was unstable, it was intended as a proof-of-concept, yada yada. Alice estimated this would not really be a problem. She expected the team would get actual time and mental space to fix the underlying structural issues. However, Max so far continually pushed everyone to roll out new features and deliver ‘customer value’ as soon as possible. Like customers in their right mind would use a bloated app that crashes half the time …

It seems to Alice that now the team is not delivering, Max’s concern shifts to the team not structuring their processes in line with his expectations. Because over the past week he left no opportunity unused to point out the team’s lack of organization as the sole source of slow progress. If he’d only stop with that and actually acknowledge the technical problems they were facing. It seems like everyone is eager to speak, but nobody really listens.

Being the Hero

Alice breaks out of her reflective pondering by Sally and Bob who let out a small cheer.
“Yes, you saved the day again Tim!”, Sally exclaims. A reserved smile appears on Tim’s face. He notices Alice and gestures her to come closer.
“You see this dip here?” Tim points to his screen. “That shouldn’t happen, but it was easy to fix so I made some changes and pushed them to production immediately.”
“Did anyone check your code?”, Alice asks frowning.
“Why? You don’t trust me?”
Alice looks at Sally.
“Look, I don’t know anything about this part of the code”, Sally says. “Tim is the only one who can fix this type of issue.”
Alice sighs and slumps her shoulders. She makes a halfhearted attempt to convince Tim and Sally about the need to review and actually understand each other’s code and prevent team members from overspecializing on parts of the code, but it falls on deaf ears.

Covering Up Mistakes

After the discussion, Sally walks away to grab coffee and Alice approaches Bob sitting behind his desk.
“So, what have you been working on?”
“Just rewriting some code.”
Alice looks at his screen.
“Isn’t this the same code you were working on three days ago?”
“Yes, sort of, I am just going over it again to make sure its perfect.”
He is seemingly on the other side of the spectrum than Tim.
“Perfect is the enemy of good. If you feel it’s good enough, you should let someone review it.” Alice says.
“Yeah, no worries, Sally reviews every line of code I write, but I am just afraid …”,
Bob bites his lip.
“What are you afraid of?”
“Well, maybe Sally won’t like it, you know”, he says softly.

When Alice is back at her desk, she opens up the logs for the code Bob is working on. There she can see every change made since the start of the project with annotations. She notices that Bob is contributing very little code. Reviews of the larger blocks of code Bob does contribute are littered with comments from Sally, some of them not very subtle.

Tracing back further, Alice notices that Bob made small fixes to his own code which he seemingly published without review. Reading through the logs, she concludes he surely is not making an effort to explain both the mistake and the fix in there.

No wonder Bob does not share anything, with Sally constantly looking over his shoulder, criticizing every contribution he tries to make, Alice thinks. He would rather work quietly on his own, instead of being berated by his fellow team members. Alice can’t blame him for that.

Managing Behaviors

Alice lets out a sigh and sits back in her chair. It’s late, and most of her colleagues have gone home. She wonders what she should do or say to get the team to operate more effectively. Should she share what she overheard Max saying to Paul about Sally? Maybe address the lack of reviewing and knowledge sharing in the team by Tim? Or share her findings about Bob’s fear to contribute and hiding of his mistakes? What’s the best next move?

Just as Alice is processing her thoughts, Max walks up to her.
“Can I talk with you?”
“Sure, what’s on your mind?”
“What did you think about Sally today?” Max asks.
“You mean during the discussion about the stand-ups?”
“Yes.”
“I think she had a point, but I also think more than one approach can work.”
“Nice, I was thinking that perhaps next time you can share your point of view in the meeting, so that Sally is not the only one with an opinion, you know. It’s good if everyone sees there are people who think … differently.”
As in people that think differently, but just like you, Max? Alice is not brave enough to say that to Max’s face, so instead she lies.
“Uhm, I did not feel strongly about the stand-ups, but I’ll consider it for next time.”
“Okay great, don’t stay too late now,” Max replies.
He grabs his bag and walks towards the stairs.

Reflection

Let’s reflect from Alice’s perspective.

As Alice joins the meeting, Max and Sally disagree over how to do stand-ups. Neither can know what will work best. Nevertheless, the team members, Alice included, allow them to continue to lock horns. This pattern continues throughout the meeting making it a frustrating experience. Anyone in the room had the power to notice and mention this pattern, and thereby break it. This way, the underlying tension could surface and be discussed.

Alice openly shares her feeling of being excluded, but no one acknowledges this. Instead she is attacked for (repeatedly) being too late, a frustration Tim bottled up. His reaction makes Alice turn her attention inwards and feel even more excluded. Alice could have regained herself and share that she feels underappreciated. Additionally, other team members could have noticed her shift in behavior and helped her open up again.

Alice learns Max wants Paul to get Sally off the team. He also tries to convince Alice to speak up against her. She could be open to Max about her concerns, but instead withholds. This choice indirectly allows the rift between Sally and Max to widen.

Tim saves the day, because only he knows certain parts of the code. Alice unsuccessfully tries to convince Sally and Tim this introduces a single point of failure in the team. Instead, she could have discussed her underlying worry of the team not really operating as a team. This worry is confirmed by Sally being overly loose with Tim and overly strict with Bob concerning code reviews.

Finally, Alice wonders how she can manage the behaviors of others by sharing or withholding information. We slowly start to see a closed culture emerge where team members begin to think in terms of tactical manipulation, instead of openly sharing concerns.

Conclusion

We have seen three telltale signs of a lack of trust, these are:

  1. Lack of vulnerability (Max’s pushing for a particular process, Sally’s confrontational stalling, Bob’s hiding of mistakes)
  2. Hero complex (Tim’s fixing, bypassing reviews)
  3. Working in isolation (Both Tim’s fixing and Bob’s hiding of mistakes)

A lack of trust means that team members do not give each other the benefit of the doubt (like both Max and Sally), whereas a lack of safety means that a team member does not believe another team member will give him or her the benefit of the doubt (like both Bob, Tim to some extent and Alice later on in this chapter).

What could members of the team have done to build safety and trust? Three points: Team members should …

  1. get to know each other better, personally, but also in terms of their unique skills and needs. This can be done in settings where work is not the focal point, like during lunch or at informal outings.
  2. encourage and reward feedback, both things they appreciate and things they can improve. They should not chastise or punish each other for being open [Tim], or not meeting each other’s expectations [Sally].
  3. demonstrate vulnerability by admitting their mistakes, sharing their worries and being open when they don’t know how to approach a problem [Max, Sally, Bob, Alice].

Next

In the next post we will continue to follow Max, Sally, Alice, Bob and Tim as we will look at how team Phoenix’s conflict management skills will or won’t take shape.

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The Dysfunctional Team I: Introduction & The Kick-off

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series The Dysfunctional Team

This series of posts covers a fictional struggling software development team. The story is based on situations I have experienced, seen myself or heard about in the past two decades.

Each post covers several scenes that play out between the members of the team. In later posts we will also reflect on behaviors and what could be improved.

Let’s jump straight into the story.

The Kick-off

Sally enters the pantry as one of the last people to join. She has a brief flashback to when she first started working here five years ago. As a junior developer at the time, she was welcomed by the members of a prior team, right here in this pantry. The warm atmosphere and collaborative vibe were what attracted her to this place. All of the members of that first team since moved on to either other teams or other companies. For Sally, now grown into a senior back-end developer role, this day too marks the beginning of something new.

“I am happy that we finally have this kick-off meeting”, Max says raising his glass. “We could not have done it without our founding heroes Sally and Alice.” Sally blushes slightly, but feels conflicted about Max’s flattery. The truth is that she is deeply conflicted about Max. On the one hand: he is new, seems likeable, and is not a bad speaker. On the other hand she just feels upset: why wasn’t she offered his position? She is not sure what she can expect from him. Is this really going to work, did we really need to attract someone external to the company to lead this new team? Isn’t that something she could have done?

Sally fleetingly looks at Paul standing next to Max. Paul started here around the time she started too, some five years ago. Paul is a good guy. Sally remembers stepping into his office several months ago together with Alice to convince him that they should start a new team. He listened to the both of them and gave them ample space to make their case. All of that effort finally led to this kick-off moment.

Champagne

“Two years ago, no one could have dreamed that this app, made during a three day hackathon, would become so successful. Sadly, everyone who initially worked on it has moved onto different pastures. The fools”, Max winks. A few of the attendees release some nervous laughter.
“Apps were not our core business, so this project has shifted hands at least three times as I’ve picked up in my short time being here. No longer will this be the case as finally we have a dedicated team consisting of the five of us. Today we kick-off team Phoenix!”. Like everyone else, Sally claps. She raises her glass and gulps down the bitter champagne.

Sally sees Paul step forward: “I just want to add that although apps are indeed not our core business, we do see the traffic that the app generates contributes a great deal to our baseline. I am really happy and proud to have been part of this effort to get this team off the ground, with indeed a special nod to Sally and Alice who brought this potential to my attention initially.”

That’s what she wanted to hear. Paul’s open endorsement combats the bitter taste in Sally’s mouth: his words actually mean something to her. Still, why did he hire Max for the lead position?

A Short Party

As Sally lets Paul’s words sink in, Tim walks up to her.
“Can I get you a refill?”
“Uhm, I am good … on second thought, can you swap it out for a coke?”
Tim nods and together they walk off to the nearby fridge.
“How’s your first week?”, Sally asks.
“Yeah, it’s nice here, I really like the project and some of the new technologies I will get to learn. I hope to really make a difference here.”
“If your technical interview was any indication, that should not be a problem. Happy to hear you like it so far!”
Unlike for Max, Sally had been involved in Tim’s interview process and was impressed by his solid technical skills. Even though he had a string of short-lived start-ups on his resume, his down to earth mentality jelled well with both her and Alice. Sally realized that a capable devops engineer is crucial for stabilizing an app like this. There are few of those. Hence, Tim was an easy hiring recommendation for her.

Sally is in the middle of her next question when Bob interrupts them. Without so much as acknowledging her presence, he flips open his laptop in front of Tim and starts pointing at a graph on the screen.
“Do you see this Tim?”
The awkwardness of the situation does not escape Tim as he briefly makes eye contact with Sally before walking off with Bob.
“Sorry, it looks like we are having a production problem”.

Sally let’s out a deep sigh as she twirls around the last bit of coke in her glass while she paces around the fridge. Alice approaches her.
“You look like you’re in deep thought”, Alice says. “Happy with the kick-off so far?”
“Yeah, I guess so”, Sally replies while she shrugs.

Next

In the next post we will fast forward into the future to two weeks after the kick-off meeting to see where Max, Sally, Alice, Bob and Tim, a.k.a. Team Phoenix, stand.

References

  1. Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable.
  2. Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The Fearless Organization.

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A History of Bugs and Resistance

A little over seventeen years ago around this time I started coming down with flu-like symptoms. My father already had similar symptoms, and my mother developed them shortly after. After a week our symptoms only got worse. So, we went to our doctor. He suspected a bacterial infection and prescribed an antibiotic: tetracyclin. This helped: within four days most of the infection cleared, and within two weeks all lingering symptoms disappeared.

The Ancient

Antibiotics may conjure up an image of people wearing white coats in a modern laboratory. However, traces of that same antibiotic we used, tetracyclin, were found in ancient mummies. How could this be?

We often think of medication as something made in a lab. However, antibiotics, stuff that either kills or slows the growth of bacteria, are all around us. Humans have been consuming antibiotics for a long time, though without knowing the actual mechanism behind their curing effects.

Antibiotics found in the soil are a natural byproduct of warfare at a tiny scale. As bacteria compete with other bacteria to survive, producing something that kills the competition is a highly effective survival strategy. The result of this small-scale chemical warfare can both help us and harm us.

The Great War

Anyone who went to Sam Mendes’s 1917, a film about the first World War, got at least an inkling of what it was like back then. However, while brilliantly shot, some of the trenches looked a bit too clean.

In reality the hygienic conditions in the trenches of World War I were abysmal. The spread of disease made worse by decaying corpses, poor sanitation and prolific bugs such as lice and flies. Combined with the soldiers’ own weakened immune systems and the transport of livestock near the front-lines, the environment formed the perfect breeding ground for existing diseases to flourish and new ones to emerge. While the macroscopic trench warfare was characterized by stand-offs, the microscopic germ warfare was continuous.

The Spanish Flu

Near the end of the war a new kind of flu emerged in northern France, one with an unusually high mortality rate. To maintain the morale of the troops, the news of this novel flu was mostly kept under wraps. However, as the infection spread to Spain, not subject to this censorship, reports of its devastating death toll started to spread more widely. This owed the disease its popular name: The Spanish flu.

The Spanish flu quickly spread to Ireland through returning soldiers. Saved from the brutal war, some of them would become the carriers of death for the home front. The disease spread throughout the United States and the rest of the world and killed about two people for every ten infected. In total it would go on to claim at least fifty million lives worldwide.

No antibiotic existed yet, but none would have helped directly against this flu either, since antibiotics combat bacterial infections not viral ones. Nevertheless, antibiotics could have saved the lives of many soldiers during World War I. Especially those with infected wounds and diseases like typhoid. However, it would take another decade for the first antibiotic to be found.

Fungi Fighters

In 1928 Alexander Fleming discovered this first antibiotic more or less by accident: penicillin. During the second World War, the availability of penicillin saved many lives. However, while useful for resolving and preventing bacterial infections, it was ineffective against fungal diseases which many came down with. Hence, focus shifted from bacteria to fungi. The race was on to find something that would kill those fungi.

Elizabeth Hazen, a bacteriologist, dedicated years of her life to the search for an antifungal producing microbe. She scouted soil samples and mailed them to Rachel Brown, a chemist, for purification. The pair searched for several years and during that time discovered many molecules that proved lethal to both fungi and animals. One day Elizabeth found a promising micro organism in a soil sample of a friend’s dairy farm.

Elizabeth Hazen and Rachel Brown (1955)

Fortunately, the organism produced a molecule that killed only fungi and not animals. Hazen and Brown marketed it as Nystatin, the world’s first antifungal drug. It saved countless lives since its introduction. The patent on the drug made them millionaires. Money which they donated to a nonprofit that went on to conduct similar research.

The Modern World

In recent years we have seen outbreaks of several high-profile influenza viruses with a higher than usual mortality rate. Think of SARS (2003), MERS (2012) and recently COVID-19 (2019). Like the Spanish flu, outbreaks like these have the potential to wreak havoc. However, while public awareness concerning the emergence of novel viruses is high, the risks of infections with mutated resistant bacteria, and fungi, are understated. After all, we already have antibiotics and antifungals to combat and defeat those, right?

Unfortunately, that has not been the case for many years. The best known example is MRSA: methicilin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Dairy cows serve as a reservoir for this family of mutated strains of the common and normally harmless Staphylococcus aureus bacterium.

The overuse and misuse of penicillin in the fifties contributed to the evolution of resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus. Methicillin was then used instead to fight it, but over time resistant strains emerged: MRSA. Nowadays, the treatment for it is Vancomycin, but there are already mutations for which that treatment no longer seems to be as effective.

The circumstances that gave rise to widespread bacterial infections during World War I, still exist. There are plenty of overcrowded places with poor sanitation, proximity to animals treated with antibiotics which harbor resistant microbes, and lackluster medical facilities and dismal containment procedures. The ideal breeding ground for the next fatally resistant mutation. This risk is thus not restricted to viruses, but extends to bacteria and fungi alike.

These resistant microbes spread and thrive in places where people gather or pass through like hospitals. Their presence there can turn routine operations into risky procedures.

In conclusion

While the discovery of antibiotics is fairly recent, they have existed for many years in the soil. This continues to be a source for development of new drugs, so too for antifungals.

Poor hygienic condition provide a breeding ground for new bacteria, fungi, viruses and other pathogens to mutate into something more deadly. Finding an effective treatment can take many years, if one can be found at all.

While viral mutations are risky, so are mutations of bacteria and fungi. The treatments that we currently have for them can lull us into a false sense of security. This is why we should take care to protect our most potent antibiotics and antifungals. We should do this by using them judiciously, limiting their applications in agriculture, and incentivizing work on continuously finding new ones.

I conclude with the jarring realization that if there had not been antibiotics available, effective against the bacterial infection my family contracted, we might not have experienced the past seventeen years at all.

References

  1. McCarthy, M. (2019). Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic.
  2. Jackson, P. (2019). They shall not grow old.
  3. Jacobs, A. (2019). U.N. Issues Urgent Warning on the growing Peril of Drug-Resistant Infections.

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