Strange card games and methodology discussions

Posted by Chris on February 09, 2007

One of the most demoralizing and improductive things that can happen to a project and team are endless discussions about methodology.

Do not get me wrong here, how we work should definitely not be a once-and-for-all decision that we can never change. Quite the contrary, we must reflect regularly on the process and how we work, make changes as necessary and then follow up on those changes. But the point here is that we make these changes from some known base and we make them based on experiencing that something does not work for us. Most importantly changes are introduced at regular points in time (after an iteration), and we try them for some period of time long enough to be able to measure and decide whether they help us or not. What I am referring to with endless discussions about methodology is when a team starts out without having a process that they collectively agree upon and understand.

*Executive summary*: Before the start of a project, gather all the team members and collectively discuss and decide upon the process that the team will follow.

This reminds me of a card game we played in school at a class in Organizational/Group Theory (or something similar). The teacher started by telling us that starting now, *we were not allowed to talk to each other*. No oral communication whatsoever was allowed.

We were then divided into groups, I think there were five groups of five people each (but it’s not important). Each group were placed at a table that had a sheet of paper and a deck of cards. On the paper she had written down the rules for the card game we were going to play. Silently the paper was passed around between the five people at the table so that everyone knew the rules. I do not remember the rules exactly, but it was a very basic kind of “trick-taking game”: The person who took the highest number of tricks was the winner.

When everyone at the table had read the rules she collected all the papers and told us to start playing. There were no “official” scoring (we had nothing to write on) so it was mostly for fun, but as always the winning instinct in people set in and we had a good time playing. Sometimes you would win a trick and throw your hands in the air in triumph, but noone was allowed to say anything or make any noise. After playing for a while we were stopped and *one person from each table were instructed to move counter-clockwise to the next table*.

Play then commenced again and everyone was happy. Until it happened for the first time that this new person and someone else reached for the trick to collect it at the same time. Confusion arose, the two “winners” looked at each other in anger (maybe not that much anger), and everyone wondered what was going one. Was this new guy trying to cheat? No talking was allowed, so after a while of looking and gesturing someone more or less just grabbed the trick and play continued. This problem was intensified when another person from each table was moved to a new one, this time clockwise. Now it was suddenly a very chaotic game of trick-taking with a lot of silent arguing going on. I think we switched one more time before we finished and discussed what had happened.

What did happen was of course that *each table started out with slightly different variations of the same rules*. When we were not allowed to discuss them then everyone, especially the “stronger” ones, just did things their way. Some “weaker” individuals just did not care and gave up their wins, even though they knew they had won, when someone else reached for the cards. I seem to remember that there were even someone who after figuring it out just started faking a win by reaching for the cards, bullying the others away from them.

The reason we did this exercise was to understand and experience the dynamics of team membership and disagreement. The strong natural leaders often came out winners while others did not win anything. But the reason I compare this with methodology discussions is the fact that we had different sets of base processes (rules) that we tried to follow. Sure, if we would have been allowed to talk about it I think we would eventually have decided upon some common rules that we could all follow. But the person that had to give up a trick that he thought he had won would not be happy, and the discussions would most likely be lengthy and tiresome. *What we should have done was of course to make sure that before we started the game everyone agreed upon the same rules*.

This is how it needs to be done in our projects as well. Before starting a new project a team should sit down and decide how they want to work, and make sure everyone commits to following the process decided upon. This might be as simple as saying “we will follow XP by the book” or you can go the Crystal way of deciding which practices to use. The important thing is that it is perfectly clear what is decided upon and that everyone commits to following it. Even if someone does not agree that a certain practice is a good one they should commit to following it if the team collectively decides to include it. After a couple of iterations the practice can be evaluated and changed if it did not work out. And this process of pinning down the methodology needs to be done *before the project starts*. Just like in the card game, having these discussions when everyone is busy doing Real Work^(TM)^ unfortunately guarantees that they will be lengthy and tiresome, and some people will get run over and feel bad about it.

*To sum up*: Before starting a project, make sure that everyone in the team understands and commits to the process the team is going to follow. But do not forget to reflect regularly and change the process as the team sees necessary.


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