‘You didn’t deliver!’

‘But you, the vendor, didn’t deliver!’

‘We couldn’t deliver because your guys couldn’t give us what we needed in order to deliver our part!’

‘Rubbish! Look here—here’s the document, signed off—here, look….’

‘But it wasn’t enough.’

‘Why wasn’t it enough?’

‘It was documented in the email.’

‘Which email?’

And so the blame game continues.

It doesn’t matter if it is a client-vendor relationship, department-department relationship, head office-local office relationship or team-team relationship. It is always a person-to-person relationship and there is certainly no sense of community.

We all know that new relationships usually start well. We are fired up… ready, excited, motivated, keen, eager, driven, etc. But we also know that teams need to ‘form, storm, and norm’ before they can effectively perform.

Yet when things start to go wrong, we love to blame others. This is often included in storming, but many times, the storming never ends when two separate parties are involved. We love to point fingers. We love to create us-vs-them scenarios resulting is no sense of community.

Why? As long as it is not ‘our’ problem, as long as we can come out of this smelling of roses, then we tell ourselves everything will be ok. We retreat to protect our own ‘garden’.

But why does this happen?

It’s simple: as long as there is no common goal, no common vision, and no common desire that both parties have agreed to, when things go wrong we will fall into the us-vs-them trap.

I can hear you muttering, ‘Of course we have a common goal’.

Well, let’s look at the client-vendor relationship.

The client needs a solution to something in order to please their client, or even their client’s clients. However, the client’s clients are not the vendor’s clients! How can they share the same goal? Vendors will claim to want to delight their own clients, but they are often driven by their own needs and financial goals.

The two parties cannot have shared goals.

It is an illusion to think they can. The best that they can have is an alignment of values.

Still in any doubt? Consider the clashes that occur when an organisation outsources its IT operations to one of the big IT organisations. The development and maintenance is then outsourced to a solutions vendor. How many times does this triangle of relationships actually succeed? They will, of course, all be saying, ‘Oh yes, those relationships are no problem; we can manage them’. The reality is repeatedly different.

First, people come together at the beginning of a work cycle to discuss what the ‘next steps’ will be. This is usually a face-to-face event full of people being nice to each other. They cannot be anything else!  This is the best we can hope for in terms of a sense of community.

Then they go away and start working. They are a virtual / remote team – no co-location.  This is when that “sense of community” starts to decay.

From the very first moment, they start to detect more and more tensions, from misunderstandings to disagreements on finances or the work process, to gaps or duplicates in responsibilities, to infamous clashes of ego.

Yet there is no platform in which to discuss these apart from escalations.

This all leads to a weakening sense of trust and an us-vs-them mentality.

This degradation is what I call “community decay”.

But we also know that the sense of community will start to build again as deadlines approach or escalations arise that force the parties to come together again.

Community decay typically shows itself in traditional environments, with silos and hand-offs.  But it also happens in Agile environments.  Don’t be so naïve to think otherwise.

Yet when we know “why” Agile helps, though, we can do something about it. And I don’t just mean we can manage relationships.

But to explore further we have to go back to root of issue: The personal relationship. This is where we need to focus.

Personal relationships will not and often cannot be worked on—the people involved are often continents apart, or at least countries, counties, cities, offices or rooms apart.

Normally, personal relationship building take place best when the people involved are only a few meters apart.  Typically this means that one benefit of being co-located is naturally present: Being able to overhear a conversation, passively. Being able people how their weekend was etc, at the coffee machine.  Such conversations, which build a sense of community, are easy and take place naturally.

The following diagram shows community decay and the build-up of the us-vs-them mind-set in a traditional environment.

Community_Decay_-_Traditional

Agile’s big advantage are related to its ceremonies. We see communication happening more frequently and so the degree to which community decay occurs will be reduced. It will still be there—it always will be. But its impact will be greatly reduced.

The Agile ceremonies clearly include the stand-ups, reviews, retrospectives, and planning, but also backlog refinement. You must effectively use not only those ceremonies, but also all the other workshops needed to deliver your project.

Yet, for a real sense of community, it’s important to converse and discuss things more frequently, and I don’t just mean problems.

Don’t forget, we are also social animals.

Think about it for a moment. When we work closely together in the same building, and as mentioned earlier, we meet at the coffee machine, say ‘good morning’, and ask each other about our weekends. We are showing an interest in the other person.

But when we work remotely, the only reason that phone rings is because someone wants something. There is no real interest. That phone call is extra work, however you want to look at it.

So with distributed teams, projects, departments, etc., we need to have a platform to have conversations and get to know one other better. The retrospective can be that platform, but why not take conscious action to do it more often, if not all the time?

In other words, can you re-energise your ceremonies to reduce community decay?

We should start these with a quick check-in round and a check-out round. Get to know how people are feeling. Yes, that’s right, how they are feeling!

Constantly do mini-retrospectives at the end of every workshop: ask, ‘What could have been better in this session?’ and ‘What was the highlight of this session?’. Don’t just wait for your next retrospective, because it’s easy to forget the point over time.

Call your counterpart—ask how their day is going or how their weekend was. And this is the key:

Call without asking for something, other than how they are.

If you however, feel a tension, you clear still have to call your counterpart. But tell him you need his opinion and help. After all, everyone likes to help. Discuss what you are seeing and feeling within your area. Ask him to coach you through the process of finding a solution. It is highly likely that they will recognize their fault if the issue is with them.

So instead of increasing the intensity of the tension, you’ve resolved the problem together, and while doing so, you’ve built trust. Why? Because to have trust you need to be vulnerable by asking for help and admitting your mistakes.

By doing this consciously, we reduce community decay, as shown below. Rather than a big, seasickness-inducing swell, we just have small waves—even ripples—that we can easily navigate.

Community_Decay_Agile

Yes, you have to swallow your pride. You have to be humble.

And to really communicate successfully, use a video conferencing service such as Skype, Google Hangouts, or FaceTime. Why? You can each see the other’s facial expressions and react to body language.

And before I forget: Those lovely monthly steering committee meetings, well they are a sure-hell of an excellent way to build delay into your work.

Removing the safety net of the monthly steering committee is, however, a completely separate story, for another time.

So, take a moment to think about and reflect upon the following questions. Just may be you can improve your sense of community.

And You? Have a Think About These Questions (Book 15 minutes if you want to discuss)

  • When did you last ask your remote counterpart how their weekend was?
  • When did you last call your colleague in the other office at 4pm and wish them a great weekend, without asking for something?
  • What could have been done better in your last planning meeting?
  • When you need to discuss a tension, start by bringing the point of tension to the other person’s attention. Say, ‘I have a funny feeling about something. Could you just listen for a moment and challenge my thoughts on this? Maybe you can see something I haven’t considered.’
  • Seek to understand first—actively. Ask questions first without proposing solutions. After all, how often have people suggested solutions to you without knowing the full picture? Chances are, they only frustrated you because they made suggestions first before trying to understand.