Boot Camp

Some programmers are ten times more productive than average programmers. Similarly, some teams are vastly more productive than other teams. We’ve all been on low productivity teams in our life. In fact, judging by the popularity of certain satirizations of mediocrity these low-productivity teams are more the rule than the exception.Earthrise from the Moon, taken by Apollo 11 astronauts

But there are exceptional teams. These teams tackle projects others consider impossible, have success after success, and actually seem to have fun doing their work while leaving others in the dust. But what actually makes them different from other teams? How can we create teams like this? How do we keep them together, alive, and vibrant?

These are important questions to us all. If we could be more effective at solving our problems like poverty, global warming, and war, the world would be a much happier place!

It’s important on other levels too – do you want to get more satisfaction from your family, your job, or your school? Since we humans work in groups, knowing how to create great teams is part of getting the life you want.

What’s a great team like?

Can you say these things about your workplace?

  1. My projects effortlessly complete on schedule and in budget every time.
  2. Every team I’ve ever been on has shared vision.
  3. In meetings, we only ever do what will get results.
  4. No one here blames “management”, or anyone else, if they don’t get what they want.
  5. Everybody here shares their best ideas right away.
  6. Ideas are immediately unanimously approved, improved, or rejected by the team.
  7. Action on approved ideas begins immediately.
  8. Conflict is always resolved swiftly and productively.

(adapted from the list here)

And while we’re at it, let’s not just get a merely “better” team. Let’s go for great – a team that is 10x better than the average team. What does a team like that look like? Where can we go for best practices we can follow?

The Core Protocols

These are a set of best practices for intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, designed by participants in Jim and Michele McCarthy’s teamwork laboratory called BootCamp. Two of the world’s foremost experts on teams, Jim and Michele have been running a series of simulations over the past 15 years for the purpose of asking the question, “what makes teams great?”

The Core Protocols are like recipes for good interactions – best practices that we can follow to help us get the most out of ourselves and our teams. They are hard to explain – how could following these commitments, recipes or “protocols” make my team great? Won’t they just lead to stilted, over-structured, and limited communication?

Despite being written down so clearly, practicing the Core is hard to explain in words. Like many things, there is a difference between reading about something and actually doing it. So there is a lot that I can’t convey here. But I can point to what it feels like.

Shadow Sun

In BootCamp, you immerse yourself in an environment where you use the Core Protocols all day, every day. The new skills you learn help you notice the barriers to greatness that exist in your mind, and practicing the Core with others helps you strip those barriers away. Together with your team you use your skills and your greatness to ship a product. The growth is exhilarating, awkward, and painful all at once. You feel what being part of a high-performance team is like. Because – you actually are part of a high-performance team.

Jim and Michele say:

The intense BootCamp experience includes all of the failures and triumphs that occur with normal team formation; the creation of a team-shared vision; and the design, implementation, and delivery of a product. The days in each BootCamp are packed with accelerated team dynamics; what usually takes a year or more is created in a few long days and nights of exceptionally deep engagement.

My team at Grameen Foundation wants to be one of those 10x teams, so we decided to hold a BootCamp recently, with the help of Jim and Michele McCarthy. It was an amazing and transformative experience. I highly recommend it. And the “booting” is continuing as I write this, because we’re taking that experience into our work as a team. It’s an experiment. I’ll say more about it on the pages of this blog.

The economy of ideas, hierarchy and private space

Ran writes, “How much privacy a person has, is often an indication of what position they hold in a hierarchy. Who gets the corner office? Who gets a desk in the middle of an open area?” Yes, that is a cliché in corporate USA and Europe. However, Extreme Programming teams almost always sit together, and I think, in general, most great teams do too.

I think this is part of the shift from an industrial economy, to an economy of ideas. In an industrial economy, the emphasis is on repeatable, standardized processes. By definition, there is a small group of people setting the standards and designing the processes. The best standards win – think of Henry Ford’s production line, Taylorism, and school.

For some time our economy and society has been shifting to an economy based on ideas. Here, firms, teams, and people win by having better ideas, not standard ideas. New and creative ideas are valued. And the best way to develop creative ideas is with other people, not by sitting in a room by yourself. Even some CEOs recognize this – Intel’s former CEO Andy Grove used a cubicle partly because his co-workers could overhear his conversations and give him help.

There is a movement afoot. I often say I wish my work was like my son Martin’s school, PSCS – it feels vibrant, warm, and fun, and often when I go there I don’t want to leave. So one of the first things I did when I started working at Grameen Foundation was create a team room, and got my team members sitting together. Our productivity jumped because we could get help from each other quickly – and at least for me, the warmth of the place went up a lot.

In the programming world, there is controversy about this. Microsoft rarely uses team rooms, putting most programmers into private offices where they can’t collaborate in-person with each other. So does Joel Spolsky. And Don DeMarco recommends it in the great book Peopleware – the same book where he recounts the story of the legendary Black Team.

But there have been great teams that do it the other way, like Chrysler’s famous C3 team ¹ that spawned Extreme Programming (XP). ThoughtWorks does it this way, as does my friends Paul Ingalls’ and Troy Frever’s XP team at Smilebox. When I visit ThoughtWorks or Smilebox, I don’t want to leave.

Anarchists often say that big business is the same as fascism and oppression, and make up that there is nothing to learn from corporations and business. That is true for many or even most large corporations. Business are changing the world – many for worse, but more and more there are ones that change it for the better – and the way they do it is by implementing their ideas. In the world we live in, if you want to change the world, shipping is what counts.

And it’s easier to ship if you’re sitting in the same room with your team.

Note 1: The Chrysler C3 team actually did not fully complete their software for Chrysler, and the project was eventually was shut down. However, in addition to shipping software, they also shipped the Extreme Programming methodology, which had significant influence on the software industry. Mistakes and failures are not always what they seem to be. I’ll say more about that in a future post.