Thursday, January 19, 2012

Corporate Psychopathy

The Oxford Dictionary of English on my Kindle defines:

Psychopathy n. mental illness or disorder.

Psychopathic is more interesting:

Psychopathic adj. suffering from or constituting a chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behaviour

There is a reoccurring pattern of behaviour I have observed in corporate environments which I have taken to calling Corporate Psychopathy, maybe you’ll recognise it if I describe it.

  • A company brings together a team to do some work. At some date they decide the work is “done” and disband the team. They often call this work “a project” - projects by their definition have a start date and an end date, and involve a temporary organisation unit; i.e. a team is brought together at the start, they do some work, then the team is disbanded.
I think this state of affairs is crazy. So crazy I believe it is abnormal social behaviour.

A team is a social unit. When was the last time you dumped all your friends and started to forma a new group?

Think of the high performing teams you know: sports teams or successful political parties. They may change players from time to time, even key players, but the winning team usually stays together from one victory to the next.

By contrast think of the teams who are less successful. How often to do they change personnel How often do they work together?

Anyone who has studies team dynamics will probably have come across Buckman’s “Storming, Forming, Norming and Performing” model. The idea is that when you bring a team together they pass through each phase as they learn to work effectively together.

If you have an effective team - one that has passed through storming, forming and norming and is now performing - why would you break them up? Let alone break up one team and create a new team which has to pass through three phases to get to the productive fourth?

It doesn’t make sense.

Just to make it worse when corporations break up teams many of the people leave for ever. Companies which use contract staff release the contractors who will go and work somewhere else. Even permanent staff may well find themselves release to a pool, or to previous roles and the same people are unlikely to work together again. Knowledge evaporates in the process.

If that isn’t enough think of the admin overhead in managing all this.

It also makes the start of a work incredibly difficult because you don’t know how effective a team will be or when they will break through into Performing. And if you are following a development method where you measure capacity (velocity) and benchmark against past performance you can’t use this method for the first few weeks.

Its psychopathic: anti-social, performance reducing, expensive, undermines forecasting and increases risk.

Put it another way: It is plain stupid.

My solution is keep the performing team together as much as possible and bring the work to the team. Have the team move from one piece of work to another together.

This parallels the way we timebox work. In timeboxing we fit the work to the time allowed - a two week sprint or a quarterly release. Similarly we should bring the work to the team.

Of course teams might not have very clear cut switch over dates. Perhaps they have to ramp-down one stream of work while ramping up another. More complex to manage.

Or perhaps a performing team splits into two - like cell division. One part continues working on the first piece of work while the second part starts something new. This way the team can carry the culture from one piece of work to another.

To do this is might be necessary to let the team grow organically, split the team, then grow both sides organically.

The point is: there are ways of managing this. You don’t have to split teams up and form them all anew.

1 comment:

  1. This is great. There's a documentary that is trying to get funding on Kickstarter about corporate psychopaths.