Agile Teams: When Collaboration becomes Groupthink

Does your agile team overestimate its velocity and capacity? Is the team consistently in agreement, with little debate or discussion during daily standups, iteration planning or review meetings? Is silence perceived as acceptance? If so, the collaboration that you believed you had may have become groupthink, and that could be a bad thing for the team, and for the project as a whole. Some aspects of the agile team that are meant to foster collaboration including self-organization and physical insulation may also set the stage for groupthink.
Groupthink is a group dynamics concept developed by Irving Janus in 1971. Janus described it as the tendency of some groups to try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without sufficiently testing, analyzing, and evaluating their ideas. Janus’s research suggested that the development of a group’s norms tends to place limits around the independent and creative thinking of the group members. As a result, group analysis may be biased leading to poor decisions.
Groupthink begins in the storming phase of group development as team members vie for leadership roles and team values are established. Symptoms of groupthink that are especially noticeable in agile teams include illusion of invulnerability which may show in unrealistic time estimates and collective rationalization and self-censorship during meetings and team discussions. Stereotyped views of out-groups may show in groups where testing or usability professionals’ views are not valued.

Dealing with Groupthink
One way to mitigate groupthink is by using an approach known as Container Difference and Exchange or CDE. The agile team is a perfect example of a specialized task group. In group dynamics theory, a task group comes together for the purpose of accomplishing a narrow range of goals within a short period of time. Agile teams have the additional aspect of self-organization which is both beneficial and challenging for both the team and its managers.
Since the agile self-organized teams are cohesive units usually physically insulated from the mainstream, they learn agile processes, learn to work together and work to accomplish their sprint goals all at the same time. As much as an agile team is managed by servant leadership, leaders emerge with different personalities, leadership styles and types of influence. All these factors set the stage for Groupthink and can be managed using Container Differences Exchange theory.
Self-organizing agile teams can manage by specifically asking each member of the team to be a critical evaluator and find reasons why a decision is not a good idea or appointing a “devil’s advocate” and discussing decisions with stakeholders outside the team. However, managers need a way to subtly influence agile team dynamics and that tool can be CDE.
Glenda Eoyang developed the CDE theory from her research on organizational behavior. CDE, or Container Difference and Exchange, are factors that influence how a team self-organizes, thinks and acts as a group. The container is creates the bounds which the system forms. For the agile team this is the physically collocated space. The difference is the ways which the team deals with the divergent backgrounds of its individual members; the various technical backgrounds and specializations of the developers. The exchange is how the group interacts among itself and with its stakeholders.
Managers can influence group dynamics by changing one or more of the factors. For example, a manager can change difference factor by adding a team member with a different point of view or personality or the exchange factor can be changed by increasing or decreasing the budget for the sprint.
It’s easy for collaboration to become groupthink in close-knit agile teams. However, both team members and managers can recognize the symptoms, and use team dynamics theory to make adjustments guide the teams back to high performance.

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