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.
Four weeks after Max presented his plans, the team is well underway refactoring parts of the app and implementing new features. It seems everyone is really committed to this way forward, or are they?
Not my cup of tea
Bob walks out of the pantry back towards his desk with a cup of fresh mint tea. His favorite. He runs into Sally in the hallway. She covers her nose with her elbow.
“Yuck, mint tea.”
After a short awkward silence, she continues.
“… anyway, how’s it going?”
“I am okay, I guess.” Bob shrugs. “Sally, I have been meaning to ask: how will we handle the back-end refactor of the code?”
“As in? We’re handling it, right?”
“Yes, but it was sort of a secret thing, and now that it’s nearly finished, we should probably share it with the rest?”
“I’ll handle that, no worries.”
Bob winces, then nods.
“Okay, sounds good, I guess.”
“Look, don’t worry. I am talking with Paul in a minute, okay?” Sally says. “I’ll raise Max as issue. I have seen nothing but incompetence. This project deserves a better product owner.”
“What about Joseph, our new coder, can we share the back-end refactor with him?”
“Nah, I am not very happy with the quality of his code so far, also something I want to discuss with Paul. He’s supposed to be a senior you know, I’d expect more from someone his level.”
Why don’t you raise it with Joseph himself first? Bob thinks.
Several hours pass. Bob is at his computer. Sally sits at her desk behind him, headphones on, hunched over her screen. It is almost the end of the workday. Most team members already left. However, Alice is still here and walks up to Bob.
“So, will there be a cross today?”
Bob realizes Alice refers to the insight whiteboard. They marked each day without performance problems with an X.
“Unfortunately not, we had an outage late this morning.”
“Ouch, that’s a letdown. Hopefully, we can improve stability soon.”
Bob tilts his head. “Maybe Tim is right, you know. Maybe we should do something radical like switching to a different cloud setup.”
“I think Max already decided against that.”
“I know, but Sally and Tim say he isn’t really doing his job well,” Bob responds. “Also, when I ask Max what feature is most important he does not have a clear answer, and when he does he changes his mind the next day. It’s not clear to me what should be finished when.”
Alice lets out a sigh.
“I have worries about this too, we are working on building many features with unclear business value on an unstable foundation.” She points to the whiteboard.
Bob leans forward. Perhaps she can change things.
“So, you agree? Max should go, right? Maybe Sally can take the lead. I know she wants to.”
Sally, sitting behind them, is fully in the zone and does not seem to hear them.
“I share your worries, Bob. However, I think we should support Max. He is better aligned with the commercial interests.” Alice shrugs. “I have to leave now for yoga. You know what, let me try to talk to Max tomorrow, okay?”
“Thanks. See you tomorrow!”
Bob smiles. It’s always nice to chat with Alice.
Sitting at his desk, Bob takes a moment to reflect. Maybe, he shouldn’t be so eager to jump on the Max-should-leave bandwagon. On the other hand, the project is not going very well under his leadership.
Bob, like Sally and Tim, had agreed to Max’s plans. Though, no less than the others, Bob had second thoughts about the priorities. I have to deal with the fall out every day together with Tim, this constant plumbing is not what I signed up for, Bob thinks. This is going nowhere. Yet, during the planning meetings thus far he had kept to himself.
Bob is having second thoughts, especially about working on the back-end refactor with Sally. After the conversation with Alice, Bob thinks they should really have involved Max. It’s too late for that now. Bob re-opens the back-end code and continues to work feverishly. Maybe if we get it perfect he will be happy we picked it up.
After Alice leaves, Bob and Sally remain alone in the office. Until now. Max arrives. He seems in a rush.
Max crashes into his office chair, right across Bob. Please leave me alone.
“Phew, I just had the worst ever stakeholder meeting.”
Max rubs his cheeks with his hands. Please stay seated.
“I could use a diversion. What are you working on?”
Max gets up and walks around to look at Bob’s screen. Please don’t.
“Is this part of the front-end refactor?”, Max asks.
“No, ehm … it’s the back-end.”
“You are refactoring the back-end? That’s not what we planned together! Who is in on this?”
Bob shrinks in his chair and start to stammer.
“Just me … and Sally,” and Alice and likely Tim, but let’s not drag the entire team into this, Bob thinks.
Sally turns around on her chair and takes off her headphones. So, you were listening! Max now starts to talk to her directly.
“You’ve rewritten the entire back-end without involving anyone?”
“I involved Bob.”
“You know what I mean …” Max says.
Max turns around, fist clenched and chest expanding. Then he turns back to face Sally.
“Goddammit Sally,” Max shouts. “We’re on the same team here!”
“It sure doesn’t feel that way!” Sally shouts back.
Bob’s hands start to tremble. Unsure of what to do he remains pinned to his chair and shrinks even further. I knew this was coming, but I don’t want to be here right now.
“You can’t just go behind everyone’s back and waste precious time! We already missed a deadline. I am working my ass off trying to appease the stakeholders. I am out there e-ve-ry single day, defending what we’re doing here, begging for more time.” Max shouts.
Bob clutches the handles of his chair as he observes the spectacle unfold. Sally continues: “I sure as hell can decide what I can and can’t do! Especially when it’s in the interest of the project. Let’s face it: I am not the one wasting time here.” She points at herself. “Besides I checked it with Paul,” she adds vindictively.
“You went over my head?”
“I tried to find someone who would actually listen to me. I don’t agree with what we do! Our priorities seem to shift daily.”
They sure do.
Max closes his eyes, locks his jaws, breathes in, out, then continues.
“Do I have your word that from now on, you’ll first come to me before you start a complete back-end refactor?”
Sally crosses her arms.
“Not if it’s not in the interest of the project.”
Max starts gesturing dramatically.
“Sally, come on, give me a fucking break here. I am not the enemy.”
“Look, you did not involve me in the actual decision making, ever.”
“I asked you explicitly for your input, we spent an hour together refining our plans.”
Sally gets up from her chair and starts to shout very loudly.
“Your plans, Max. Your plans! You ambushed me. I am just trying to do what is in the best interest of the project!”
“I heard you the first time!” Max fumes.
Please make it stop.
“You know what,” Max continues. “You’re haven’t been committed to this from day one. Stop second guessing me Sally. What I need from you is to just sit down and do your job!”
“This is my job. Besides, I wouldn’t have to second guess if you’d just share what you were doing.”
“Fuck that. I have better things to do than hold your hand. Yes, I am accountable, but certainly not to you.”
Why do people keep saying fine, when they really aren’t?
Both of them stop speaking. Sally sits back down and puts her headphones on, Max starts aggressively packing his bag. Bob continues to type as silently as he can.
After Max leaves, Bob takes out his phone and texts Alice.
“You never believe what just happened.” he writes. When she does not respond, Bob texts Joseph. Instead of getting a text message back, he receives an incoming call from Joseph. He is greeted by his booming and warm voice.
“I am still in the car and saw your message, what’s going on?”
“Give me a minute.”
Bob closes his laptop, takes his bag and walks down the stairwell into the parking lot. I need a place where I can speak freely.
Bob’s voice shakes and hands tremble as he tells what just happened, but he finds he becomes more calm as the conversation goes on. He is relieved to experience that Joseph takes the time to hear him out. Fifteen minutes later Joseph is almost home.
“I understand this must have been a very upsetting experience for you.” Joseph says. “It’s probably best if you go home now, let’s talk more about it tomorrow.”
What we see in Bob’s conversation with Alice is second guessing previously made decisions, like the cloud setup. Bob, like everyone in the team, suffers from a lack of clarity from leadership. Max is perceived as having problems making decisions. He does not ask the team for help either. As a result team members become both suspicious and uncertain. Thus, it feels like no-one is really steering the ship. In the ambiguous vacuum everyone tries to anxiously grab the wheel and simultaneously get rid of the captain.
After a conversation with Alice, Bob does have a moment of reflection. Perhaps he should help Max. Although, after realizing this, he immediately pulls back into a fear of failure. He still is more committed to Sally than to Max, even though Sally treats him poorly consistently.
What happens next though, is something Bob has feared even more. The full on clash between Max and Sally further breaks down Bob’s brittle feeling of safety. Although, some things are finally in the open, it sets a very poor example of how to handle differences. While both Sally and Max make several good observations, they repeatedly attack each other personally. Both of them hold grudges, and seem unable to put their personal differences aside. Instead of de-escalating their conflict, they both walk away resentful.
In previous chapters we saw that low trust and safety lead to a lack of productive conflict. Everyone turns inwards. As we see here this leads to a lack of commitment which usually manifests itself as feigned buy in. This means people say that they are fine with decisions and how things are going, but really they are not. The roots form when team members don’t openly share their concerns and ‘commit’ to a plan they do not really believe in. This leads to constantly revisiting previous agreements, and a feeling of ambiguity with respect to where the team is going.
Furthermore, when things are not discussed in the open: the lid blows when the pressure becomes high enough. The opportunity for a candid discussion has long gone and instead is replaced by vindictive, mean-spirited arguments. Meanwhile, the team starts to miss crucial deadlines. Everybody loses.
Indication of a lack of commitment in a team are:
- Ambiguity about priorities and the overall direction (Bob, Sally and Alice).
- Feigned Buy In (Bob, Sally and Tim in the previous chapter).
- Revisiting Previous Agreement (Bob, Tim the previous chapter).
What could the team do to improve?
- The entire team should ensure there are clear deadlines for accomplishing specific milestones, discuss them, and commit to them. For example: reviewing key decisions at the end of a meeting can help reduce ambiguity about what to do and when to do it.
- Making a decision is better than no decision, even if it turns out to be wrong. It is better to make a decision and then later pivot if it was not the right one.
- While neither absolute certainty or complete consensus are necessary. It is good to listen to perspectives, and make appropriate contingency plans, so everyone is heard and fears are reduced.