Group Coherence for Project Teams - Collaborative Interaction

The hyper-productive teams we have observed apply high rates of practical collaboration. We believe that fostering Collaborative Interaction leads to increases in productivity, yet performance is recognized at the individual rather than team level. In environments where collaboration is required, managers should avoid assigning project work and accountability to individuals. Inappropriate rewards for individuals are additional distractions from their collaborative project duties.

Organizations avoid team measures and rewards because it is easer to measure individual activity and achievement. A cultural clash is created where team action is the solution but rewards are only available to individuals. Where team members each have accountability for a different project, pairing with others reduces time spent on advancing one's own goals. Helping you hurts me. Focusing on team results we choose collaboration over competition and avoid this conflict.

"What must we do that is:

- bigger than any of us,

- requires all of us, and

- none of us can claim victory until we are done?"

Teamwork Is An Individual Skill: How to Build Any Team Any Time  - Christopher Avery, QConSF2008

Agile methods promote collaboration, transparency and trust at the group level. They create a safe environment for individuals to volunteer their effort rather than have work assigned to them. In this post we discuss how Agile adoption is made harder to achieve in organizations that emphasize individual rewards over team incentives. We also identify some possible obstacles to collaboration and a group method for collaborative continuous improvement that was used by the Group Coherence research team.

Rewarding Individuals Stifles Collaboration
In hierarchical organizations the ‘org chart' is one of two operating hierarchies. The second one is invisible; a functional hierarchy of how things are actually accomplished in the organization. If only individual performance measures drive rewards, participants will use the functional hierarchy that appears in the "organizational white space" (DeMarco, 1999, p. 214) to accomplish individual goals first and team results second.

Even when the project would not have completed successfully without the efforts of all of the participants, the contributions of one person, a leader, a hero, or a small number of individuals get special recognition. This fosters cultural behavior of competition rather than collaboration and makes it possible for someone else's failure to lead to your success.

Companies try to address these symptoms or dysfunctions by introducing objectives for achieving a required level of collaboration. Objectives about how much to collaborate aren't credible in an environment that measures only the individual. Sustaining collaboration requires team participation and results. Managers trying to attribute results to individual achievers sabotage the collaborative process.

Identifying Obstacles to Collaboration
Managers have to deal with many built-in resistances to collaboration. In one of our teams (let's call them Team-K) most members had prior experience with Agile methods and they were in agreement on the positive influence of collaboration to team productivity. However, collaboration rates were extremely low.

Over the course of two years, Team-K had been suffering the fate of the metaphorical " slow boiling frog ". This led to the team starting to disintegrate. We list some of the factors involved in Table 1:




Management drive for personal accountability, rather than personal responsibility


Developers isolated by separate individual projects


Private performance reviews prevented individuals' objectives from being visible to the team


No corporate team rewards available


Departmental CMMI Level 2 certification focused on evidencing individual contributions and ownership


Volatile prioritization causing lots of projects to be started, none finished


Project sponsors avoided team process by allocating work directly to individual developers


Managers and developers, conditioned to accept such constraints by inertia

Table 1: Obstacles to Collaboration and Agile Adoption

Managers observed the absence of collaboration and deteriorating team performance, but their relationship to the above constraints was invisible to them.

These obstacles affected both intra- and inter-team collaboration, and held back Agile adoption.

Intra-team Collaboration
Pair programming had been elusive to the team for a


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