Agile Teams: Unequal and Opposite Reactions

Newton’s Third law of motion, “To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction…” is a powerful standard in analyzing team dynamics.  I have been leading agile teams for over five years.  When I am asked to lead a new team I begin by looking for reactions that are disproportionate.  While this may seem like a strange place to focus this is a simple way to identify significant areas of improvement.

Time and time again, I have uncovered issues that have been ignored and/or hidden by exploring “over reactions”.  They are indicators that there is more to the story.  For example, one of teams that I was leading was very frustrated with how much time we were spending estimating stories.  Their frustration eventually culminated in some of the team members refusing to participate in team estimation meetings.  As you can imagine this created significant tension between the developers and the business team.

While some teams do take too long to estimate, this team generally spent less than 1 percent of their month estimating cards.  With this unequal and opposite reaction focusing my attention I began to interview team members one-on-one.  These conversations confirmed that there was a problem, but failed to adequately explain why.

At this point I approached the Project Lead and requested that we all sit down and discuss the estimation process.  At the conclusion of this meeting two things were clear.  First, the development team did not trust the business team’s motivations for gathering estimates.  Second, they did not feel like decision makers were adjusting their expectations based on the estimates that they received.

This conversation helped both sides understand each other.  While this was not a magical cure, it did realign the action of estimating and the team’s reactions.  This may still seem like it was not worth addressing.

On the contrary, exaggerated emotional investment can be a significant source of waste.  This type of waste is often expressed through frustrations, confusion, fear, and/or apathy.  Individual opinions spread throughout teams and become a significant source of waste.  The only way to reduce this waste is to understand the root causes.  I do not have a perfect approach to efficiently identify these sources.  In my experience it takes patience and persistence to uncover the truth.

These principles also apply to under reactions.  Some teams that have lost hope will withdraw.  The under reactions that will follow are just as important to address as over reactions.  Remember to pay attention to wheels that are abnormally quiet while you are oiling squeaky wheels.

As technical people we often shy away from feelings, however like it or not our teams are made up of people.  People that have feelings that are formed by their experiences and perceptions.  Ultimately people want to be heard and understood.  Once this occurs, teams tend to realign their reactions.

One comment

  1. “To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction”.This is not Einstein’s Law.It is Newton’s Third Law.

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