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Managing Software Teams for Results: Patterns and Protocols

Jim and Michele McCarthy explain some of the key protocols and patterns to their unique software team management approach. The protocols, such as Check In, Check Out, and Passer, can help your team achieve more finely tuned collaboration, and therefore better results.
This article is excerpted from Jim and Michele's book, Software for Your Head: Core Protocols for Creating and Maintaing Shared Vision.
This chapter is from the book



Your results are unsatisfying.

By definition, good results get you what you want. Satisfaction comes from the fulfillment of wants. So, if you are putting your time and effort toward getting the results you want, but keep getting results you don't want, you can either change the results or change what you want. You are probably misspending time and effort. What will really come in handy if you decide to stop wasting yourself this way is increased awareness; specifically, increased awareness of the ins and outs of how you generate undesired results. Increased awareness is the biggest danger to your whole system of developing unsatisfying results. Among other things, increased awareness reveals many more choices to you than does the old steady-as-she-goes awareness.

Increased awareness can even be sort of magical. Take now, for example. This very moment. Accept as true—just for the moment—that you can choose whether or not to persist with your "unsatisfactory results strategy." Now things have changed for you. Perhaps the biggest change is this: If you now decide not to stop generating unsatisfying results, you're in a bit of a pickle. You can no longer really have results that are unsatisfying, because you are pursuing them by choice. They are what you want, and therefore they satisfy your wants. To continue generating more of what you don't want under these new conditions, you either will have to cook up a completely new story or decrease your awareness.

Assuming you prefer to hold onto new awareness (or at least a pretense of awareness, which smells the same), you have changed, and your results must too. To intentionally eliminate unsatisfying results is straightforward but challenging, because you must first know what you want. Many people struggle with letting go of false beliefs, conceptual bookmarks that explain unsatisfying results. Examples include

  • Feeling that other people, or conflicting commitments, or unyielding conditions, or foolish institutional policies, or some prohibitive set of obstacles, block you from getting what you want. To progress, any false beliefs must be set aside (they can always be exhumed, if needed).

  • Pursuing things that may be desirable to have, but you believe you can't have them. What you can't have is of no interest, and energy spent on it must cease. Chasing something you believe you can't catch is a great generator/maintainer of unsatisfactory results.

  • Wanting something that is less than what you already have. This is, in effect, a subset of your already satisfied wants, which possess their own set of awareness-related problems.

More ideas and practices are outlined in Part III, "Aligning," to help you deal with these sorts of issues. Once you are aware of what you want, you will pour fewer resources into acquiring something else. Instead, your resources will flow into getting what you want. Moreover, because you actually want these results, you will be increasingly engaged and more generally results-oriented. One additional benefit coming from this: Because caring about something is basically equivalent to being passionate about it, you will experience more passion. You will be passionate again.

CheckIn's job in all this is to provide a persistent, robust, self-correcting structure that does the following:

  • Helps you continuously increase your awareness, your presence, and engagement levels;

  • Helps you to efficiently seek help from and offer help to others pursuing wants the same as or aligned with yours.

Others will want to help you, especially if they share your passion for the results you want. More than just wanting to help, the people on your team actually can help you. They—like you—have enormous unused potential that becomes much more available as awareness and engagement levels climb. Here lie the untapped resources. Your colleagues will also help you sustain your awareness of just what it was you wanted; they will inspire you to want it even more, now that you want it for them, too. Together you will fill in the details as you go about getting it. CheckIn makes it easier to increase the amount, the frequency, and the depth of your interpersonal connection, and thereby the exchange of help, ideas, and other forms of support.

Continuously increasing your degree of personal presence requires increasingly efficient behavior. Your degree of presence correlates with your degree of efficiency. Regardless of their level of personal presence, however, people still squander their time. Adding more people to the mix compounds the problem. The number and intensity of temptations to waste time seem to grow with the number of people involved.

If your presence is reliably increasing, any time wasting must come from either trouble with your goal, your efficiency, or both. Lack of clarity about your goal, and/or problems with your commitment to reaching it are the most common goal-related time eaters. These are addressed more completely in Parts II, III, and IV of this book.

With respect to efficiency, there are two fundamental sources of time erosion: (1) a lack of shared lucidity about how to develop increasingly efficient behavior, and the subsequent lackluster commitment to doing so; and (2) neglect of the vast potential of interpersonal connection.

The belief that people suffer from some unstoppable raging time famine characterizes our era. This hurtful belief comes from the generally accurate assessment that preservation of our personal resources is not even on the agenda. There will never be enough time when you aren't even working on creating any. If you want more time, you have to figure out how to create it, and then do so.

The everyday, nitty-gritty steps of actually achieving greater efficiency via connection are detailed below. They were collected at great cost, over many years of explicit experiment, trial, and error and with the forbearance and creative support of hundreds of participating team members from all over the world.


A large percentage of people believe that expressing emotion at work is inappropriate or unprofessional,1 so they maintain an emotional façade, usually presenting a diminished emotional affect. When emotions are expressed indirectly at work, the distance between people increases. Emotional self-repression reduces both team efficiency and product quality. When you hide behind any kind of façade, you are necessarily less present than you could be, and that intentional interjection of distance constrains engagement levels. It's a layer of ambiguity, made of human energy. Any awareness that you exercise is usually required to monitor the layers more completely and/or to build up the façade even more.

The CheckIn pattern undermines all that. It increases your awareness of your emotions and helps you express them directly, efficiently, and productively in a team environment. This leads to more efficient communication of more important information with less effort.

The reason you adopt the CheckIn pattern is to benefit yourself. That is, your profitable use of this pattern does not depend on the other team members doing likewise. The benefits you realize include

  • Increased self-awareness

  • Greater capacity for engagement

  • More time

The persistent self-awareness and efficient personal disclosure that CheckIn supports will also provide useful new powers and satisfactions.

Other benefits flow from CheckIn. While it is true that "you check in for you," your CheckIn practices affect other team members. Typically, some or all of them will join you in your use of the CheckIn protocol.2 As a consequence of your group checking in, you will be working with people who are experiencing increasing self-awareness, showing greater capacity for engagement, and enjoying more time. Ideally, they will be gathering these benefits more extensively even than you are, which will make your experience even easier. Group CheckIns also provide important information that you might be missing about your colleagues, or worse, that you are empathetically sensing but interpreting incorrectly. The increased flow of important information, coupled with the reduced costs of applied misinformation, will substantially surpass the modest costs of adopting CheckIn.

Initially, the adoption of CheckIn and the direct disclosure of emotion will trigger anxiety in some. This is most often due to various prejudices, mistaken beliefs, and the cultural biases of corporate life. Some of these problems are noted below:

  • A false belief that you can hide your emotions from others, and that this is good

  • Widely held bigotry about human emotions in the workplace

  • Personal commitments to the existing indirect ways repressed emotions are dealt with at work

  • General inexperience with intentional, cognitively managed emotional expression3

  • Habitual neglect of the information in emotion—information that is often relevant to the effective execution of tasks

Adopting CheckIn is the first step along a team's path to a more effective and enjoyable life. It is the first thing to learn. It is also the last thing to be mastered.


CheckIn represents a commitment to be present. A team's efficient behavior offers evidence of its presence. The CheckIn protocol4 requires that you specifically commit to waste neither the team's resources nor your own with interpersonal bandwidth consumption that is valueless or diverting. When you check in, you re-express your commitment to operate within the constraints of The Core protocols.

The Specific "In-ness" Commitments

These behaviors, when used consistently in a team context and adopted in advance via a Decider session (discussed in Part II), seem to yield the best ideas most efficiently for team action. When you say, "I'm in" (see "Group Check In"), you commit to the following behaviors:

  • You will listen and observe fully.

  • You will offer to the team and accept from the team only rational, efficient behavior.

  • If the team or its members stray from the CheckIn commitments, you will mention the deviation as soon as you are aware of it and recommend alternative action. If disagreement about your perception arises, you will efficiently propose appropriate alternative action and resolve the conflict using Decider.

  • You will accept explicit emotional information as valuable.

  • You will be aware of the ratio of time you spent effectively speaking to the time you spent listening.

  • You will speak only and always when you

    • Have a relevant question.

    • Require more information about the current idea. In that case, you will frame requests for information succinctly and clearly.

    • You will ask no bogus questions—that is, questions that reveal your opinions rather than investigate another's thinking. An example of a good question is as follows: "Jasper, will you say more about [whatever]?"

    • Have a relevant proposal.

    • Have an official speaking role in a Decider.

    • Have immediate, relevant value to add.

    • Are responding to a request for information.

    • Are volunteering a supportive idea to the current speaker. You will ask the speaker if he wants your idea before stating it. The current speaker, of course, is free to accept, investigate, or reject your offer.

    • Are performing a CheckOut or a CheckIn.

    • Express an idea that is better than the current one (idea preamble). In exchange for the opportunity to present your idea, you commit to uphold your idea until one of the following is true: (1) your idea is shown to you to be unsuitable or inefficacious; (2) your idea is expanded in a way that includes or transcends its original value; or (3) your idea is resolved in a Decider process.

Personal Check In

Anyone on the team can check in as, when, and if he desires. No permission is required. In the case of a personal CheckIn, no participation beyond listening is required from other team members. When you want to check in, you say, "I'm going to check in." This activity takes precedence over any other Core activity except running a Decider session.

Group Check In

Although the purpose of the CheckIn protocol is to facilitate the engagement of the person who checks in, it is more efficient if a general group CheckIn takes place. This situation brings the requirement that every team member will check in or pass (see "Pattern: Passer").

Usually, a group CheckIn takes place at the beginning of a meeting or other team gathering, after a break in a long team meeting, or when the group's activities or direction is confusing or conflict-laden. Group CheckIn also occurs at the beginning of telephone meetings, in any contact between individuals, or in electronic chats. To inaugurate a group CheckIn, simply suggest, "Let's check in." You, as the invoker of a group CheckIn, must check in first.

Execution of a group CheckIn proceeds as follows:

  1. Start with the invoker. Each person takes a turn when he feels it is appropriate until everyone is "in" or has "passed."

  2. Each person says, "I pass," or "I feel [sad and/or mad, and/or glad, and/or afraid]." (Optionally, each person might give a brief explanation of emotional state.)

  3. Say, "I'm in." This statement seals your commitment as outlined in the CheckIn commitments.

  4. The group responds, "Welcome." This statement acknowledges that they heard your CheckIn and accept your commitment to be "in."5


Person checking in: "I feel afraid and glad and sad. I feel afraid that this new project won't be exciting or that it won't turn out well. But I feel glad that we are starting a new project. Also, I feel sad that I'm not with my family today. And I'm in." Group: "Welcome."


The CheckIn protocol reminds you of your commitments to efficiency-seeking behavior and gives you a means of disclosing your emotional state, both for your own benefit and for the benefit of the team. The expression of emotions is usually neglected on teams. This omission causes problems, most of which stem from the irrepressibility of emotion combined with the de facto prohibition of its straightforward verbal expression. The CheckIn protocol provides a simple, structured way for you to do the following:

  • Reveal your emotional state.

  • Receive vital information about the emotional state of other members of your team.

  • Transcend the desire to avoid direct, emotional engagement.

  • Reclaim information normally neglected or misinterpreted, and apply it to the achievement of personal and team goals.

  • Eliminate waste that results from the maintenance of illusory team information—for example, that everyone is happy or presently involved to the same extent.

Core Emotional States

CheckIn requires that all feelings be expressed in terms of four and only four emotional states:

  • Mad
  • Sad
  • Glad
  • Afraid

Although myriad other emotions exist, all can be expressed with acceptable fidelity in terms of mad, sad, glad, and afraid. This limitation does the following:

  • Eliminates ambiguity about the naming of emotional states6

  • Increases mutual understanding

  • Supports the expression and acceptance of the traditionally "troublesome" emotional states like sad, afraid, and mad

  • Encourages consistent surfacing of the most information-rich and self-disclosing emotions

  • Overcomes anxiety about showing vulnerability

  • Makes the CheckIn process simple and memorable

If you are unsure which state(s) to reference in your CheckIn, simply pick one or more of the four legal states and check in as if you were in that state.7 This strategy assumes that you do have an emotional state but find it difficult to identify this state. There are at least traces of each feeling in everyone at all times. Choosing an emotional state will help you focus on your actual state.

It is not legal to check in without referencing any of the four emotional states. Also, it is not legal to introduce emotions other than the four primitives.

Check In Results

When CheckIn is applied with thoroughness and conviction, it accomplishes several things:

  • It commits the team to specific results-oriented behaviors.

  • It efficiently reveals individual emotional states in real time, reducing misunderstanding and troublesome misinterpretations.

  • It establishes a high level and accelerated rate of personal transmission.

  • It disarms participants, enhancing individual receptivity.

  • It provides a routine structure for the team to become integrated by thinking, feeling, and acting simultaneously together.

  • It minimizes neurotic team behavior by moving emotional resources directly into the game, where they can help.

  • It increases team members' attention to one another and, hence, their presence.

  • It discloses unperceived and/or unacknowledged team currents and patterns.

  • It develops team maturity by explicitly accepting human realities.

  • It invokes trust, thereby eliminating costly primary defenses.

  • It helps team members understand one another and prevents them from becoming worried about one another's inexplicit but obvious emotions, and speculating on their sources.

When to Use Check In

When should you use CheckIn?

  • Check in at the beginning of any meeting. You can check in individually or call for a general CheckIn. If you call for a general CheckIn, you cannot pass and you must be the first person to check in.

  • Check in whenever the team seems to you to be moving toward unproductive behavior.

  • Check in whenever you feel the need.

Check In Guidelines

  • CheckIn creates maximal results if you express at least two feelings when checking in.

  • Do not describe yourself as "a little mad/sad/afraid"8 or use other qualifiers that diminish the importance of your feelings.

Check in as deeply as possible (where "depth" can be thought of as the "degree of disclosure and extent of the feelings of vulnerability that result"); the depth of a team's CheckIn translates directly to the quality of the team's results.

Check In Rules

CheckIn is a time apart, and is governed by these constraints:

  • No discussion is allowed during CheckIn—only welcome at the end of each CheckIn. Simply listen to each person, speak when it is your turn, and wait until everyone is done before speaking again. Listen and observe as deeply as possible. Gauge and note the congruency of your own emotional response to the CheckIn.

  • Do not talk about your own CheckIn before or after CheckIn.

  • Do not ask about, reference, or disclose another's CheckIn.

  • Do not blame others for your emotions during CheckIn.

  • Do not use CheckIn to talk about, yell at, get "pissed off" at, or confront another team member or anyone who is not present.

Unfortunately, the possibility of addressing or confronting other teammates in a CheckIn is sometimes a seductive one. A confrontational or dramatic CheckIn distracts from results. The emotional drama is much more interesting and can seem more important than anything else. If you want to discuss or resolve something with another team member, and you want to do it publicly, something is likely askew with your intention. Instead of obliviously crashing a CheckIn, first ask for help from a trusted friend or mentor. Your urge to confront or otherwise create drama during a CheckIn probably derives from the common (albeit unconscious) desire to divert energy away from achieving results. Waste of energy is the usual effect of acting on such an urge. Acting melodramatically is hardly ever about genuinely connecting with the other person. If, after consultation and deliberation, you still want something from the other person (including, perhaps, just being heard), then by all means talk to the individual; but do so in a way that does not distract the team.

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