January 25, 2020

Free Flow

Colorado river representing how a team can evolve on its own

By: Rich P., Sr Systems Analyst

Sometime after publishing my last article, Evolution via model-driven development, Doug M. (SVP, Chief Architect, Cengage) suggested I create a follow-up article to address how systems evolve. This is a topic of great interest to me.

When I met with Doug, along with Jason S. (SVP, Software Engineering, Cengage), I was surprised that the conversation did not head in the direction of software extensions or good shortcuts, instead, our meeting focused on teams.

Path of least resistance

During the meeting Doug and Jason were refreshingly informal, using easy to follow analogies to make their points. It was clear that their roles and teams have many interaction marks which was reflected in their thinking.

Jason: “When you try to fight the natural flow of how an organization functions, you run into problems, you create friction. Management tends to try to control everything rather than understanding how things flow and then try to create as much freedom for throughput.

A river follows the path of least resistance. The water trickles down; it goes around the rocks; it digs out the trenches of loose dirt; it makes a path for itself and then you end up with a river.”

Doug“And if you see that river, you may think you can put some structures around it to control it. But, all the thought you put into controlling the river, may not account for a scenario in which the river destroys that structure, such as a major storm or earthquake.

We’re not capable of intelligent design when we don’t know everything. There’s got to be a way to evolve by experimentation. Some experiments will fail and you should be able to recover; some experiments will succeed. The successes will increase over time.”

The familiar story of putting in walkways on a campus with the thought that a planned approach would look symmetrical was cited. Jason reflected on this, thinking back during his college days. There, the students never used any of the planned walkways; instead they created their own dirt paths. In my mind, I extended the analogy to include paths students take in forming their career journeys that are aligned with their interests and passions.

In all cases, removing the friction in fighting human nature represents a more efficient way.

Not all teams are created equal

The discussion moved back to the river where Jason translated the analogy into the organization. He indicated that a rigid interpretation of formal roles and responsibilities is aligned more with the industry than with the needs of the team.

Not all teams are created equal nor do they have to be created equal. Gaps in formal roles can be filled by others on the team or by adding someone with those skills (e.g., principal engineer for highly technical issues that emerge, project leader for delivery leadership needs) without necessarily creating a formal role.

Complementary relationships form to advance knowledge.

Doug“With that complementary relationship, you (Jason) are teaching me a lot about how you do things, and I’m teaching you a lot about how I do things. Not so that we can necessarily switch roles, but to understand the other side so that we can become a better team.”

Solve a challenge, seize an opportunity, innovate, I thought.

At this point in writing, I paused to attend an event at a local art gallery. On our way to the gallery, my wife mentioned how she and a colleague had collaborated in conveying art instruction to 8th grade students. My wife showed her colleague how to use a palette to mix tempera colors; her colleague explained the progression in critiquing student artwork and exhibiting exemplars. The joint effort was well received by the students. My wife later explained to me that there is no right answer, that art teachers are always finding solutions on content, interpretation, and meaning making. It’s never ending.

Allowing teams to evolve

Continuing evolution is an idea that should be applied to teams.  We should be constantly looking for ways to use their collective talents in achieving goals – sharing knowledge, trading tasks or helping to complete them, exhibiting flexibility to resolve bottlenecks, and bringing different perspectives together.

You can think of a team as an organism, Jason continued.

It made me think of Aspen trees and their gold color at the end of summer. They are the first trees to emerge after a fire, manifesting how this organism has adapted to ensure its survival.

landscape autumn aspen tree yellow

Doug reframed the analogy, expressing how difficult it is to intelligently design the right blend of the team, its strengths and weaknesses, versus allowing the team time to evolve on its own. Like an organism, a team can evolve if it recognizes what it needs and how to get those needs.

At about the time I was nearly done with the first draft of this article, I participated in a collective activity with colleagues who offered insight into what it means to be a high-performing team. Among the themes that emerged, “emotional intelligence” resonated most for me.

Emotional Intelligence is awareness of your emotions; how you express them and their impact on others; understanding your interpersonal relationships, particularly the viewpoints of others; how to use this information and other strategies to make decisions; and managing stress.

In my view, these aspects of emotional intelligence are aligned with the idea of removing friction, encouraging complementary relationships, and perhaps most important, providing a healthy environment (also see: Delizonna, L. (2017, August 24) High-Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety. Here’s How to Create It. Harvard Business Review).

Teams informing the technology roadmap

I was still curious why this was so different from the initial discussion we had about evolving systems. Doug agreed that it was totally different, and went on to say how we want to pull it back together and blend evolving systems with teams.

Doug: “How do you have teams that can operate more independently, and also have an overall technology roadmap. So that the teams can evolve within the roadmap, and actually help formulate and manipulate the roadmap, while still being independent.”

This blending represents a kind of three-dimensional chess, which makes me more curious about where we are heading. More to come.