Sometimes, you need to act quickly—for example, if one of the teams is completely under stress, one team stops talking to another team, or two teams start continuously blaming one another and are not able to work together anymore. In such situations, you face two difficult tasks: One is to look at the problem and see exactly what kind it is, and the other is to solve the problem.
Smells . . .
The first task is more difficult, because it depends a lot on the team’s culture. Here are some typical problem signs:
- Cynicism and sarcasm: Humor is a sign that everything is right on track and that people are having fun doing their jobs. But if the humor turns into sarcasm, this is a clear sign that the team does not jell and does not believe in what it is doing.
- Blame: This sign is much more obvious and therefore easier to tackle. The teams or people blaming each other usually have problems respecting and understanding each other. Sometimes, though, blame can be a sign of difficulty in communicating.
- Lack of feedback: This is often a sign that the people have given up. They do not believe in reaching the goal and they do not believe that anybody has an interest in their opinion or in their effort.
Whatever the reason is, you can neither accept nor ignore the situation. All these circumstances will slow down the project’s progress significantly. Therefore,
If a team is under stress and complains that it cannot get its work done because there are too many meetings or its time is spent supporting other teams, protect the team for a couple of hours each day by arranging quiet times. It might be necessary to arrange an office-wide quiet time, either temporarily or permanently. For more on quiet times, see Alistair Cockburn’s Agile Software Development, in which the author suggests defining the period between 10 A.M. and 12 P.M. as quiet time, during which no phone calls or meetings are allowed.15
If instituting quiet time is not sufficient to bring the team back on track, a more rigorous approach is required: Instead of quiet hours, make sure the team will get one or two quiet weeks, with one or two hours of each day as “regular office hours,” so that team members can still process incoming requests.
The most extreme solution is to send the team to a closed meeting for a couple of days. In addition to being extreme, this solution is the most effective and probably the most expensive. Closed meetings are often used in other circumstances: for example, if the team does not jell or has to consider different kinds of solutions. They are most often used as an environment for the project kick-off (for making teams jell) and for the project postmortems.16
Quiet times have a trade-off: They can also lead to a complete lack of communication and should therefore be carefully balanced.
If two teams stop talking or working together efficiently, locate them next to each other. This way, each team will recognize why the other acts as it does, and they will start to respect one another.
Another strategy is to set up a voluntary exchange pro-gram among teams, so that each member switches place with a member of another team.17
Both strategies help to improve the understanding between the teams.
If a meeting culture evolves where people have to spend more time in meetings than they do working, and if people start complaining about unnecessary meetings, challenge the reason for holding each of the established meetings, especially all regular meetings. Furthermore, you should determine which participants are not required to attend in order for the meeting to be a success.
Generally, you should introduce the “law of the two feet,” as described by the Open Space Technology: Anybody who feels that the meeting is a waste of time is allowed to leave. This might require some sensitivity from the organizer of the meeting: If a participant does not contribute, he or she should be politely invited, outside the meeting, to contribute to the project’s success.
Introducing quiet times is another approach to over-coming the meeting culture.
- Finally, you can at the beginning of each meeting ask one of the participants to excuse himself or herself from the meeting to do something more important (this was first suggested by Tom DeMarco, in The Deadline).18 Take care that a different person is excused each time, and is not the most junior person.
- If a team is not very well integrated—for example, if it is often not well-informed or is often blamed by other teams for incidents that stemmed from a lack of information—then locate food in the team’s area. Normally, it is only a matter of hours before other teams find themselves in the food area and the communication or information flow is reestablished naturally.