Can We Talk?
by Pat Craig 

From the Summer 1997 issue of the Complexity Management Chronicles 

"I was working with the ninth president of my career. Every president that came along had good intentions and promised to fix things, but there was an atmosphere of fear, a kind of rusting out and dying on the job.... Why do we talk about real problems in the hall instead of in front of each other? Why do I feel so burned out?" from the The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, compiled by Peter Senge and others. Many people working in software development know the feeling of rusting out and dying on the job only too well. "Rusting out" impedes companies by causing slower times to market, lower staff morale and higher rework costs. 

Senge's MIT Organizational Learning Center tries to solve "Wicked Problems" like software development. Imagine a simple X and Y axis with Human Complexity along the X axis and Dynamic Complexity along the Y axis. "Wicked Problems" are in the top right hand corner with high human complexity and high dynamic complexity. 

In this newsletter we will briefly summarize the human complexity issues that motivated the comments in the first paragraph, issues exemplified by the chapter called The Cauldron in Senge's book. Then we will describe three success stories and suggest how to prevent burn-out and build productive teams. 

GS Technologies' employees jointly wrote The Cauldron chapter about their steel manufacturing plant based in Kansas City. For 20+ years management and the union battled, "All we knew how to do was beat up on each other,..." 

GS Technologies' worked with a dialog facilitator associated with MIT, Bill Isaacs. During the dialogue sessions, union leaders and managers discussed problems, values, and vision. The outcome of those sessions was building a virtual container of shared meaning, a cauldron. To foster the use of dialogue as an integral part of doing business, representatives from management and the union attended three offsite training session. Then for more than a year following the offsite meetings, they held bi-weekly meetings that lasted three hours. When the parent company sold the plant, the good relations between the union and management were key to the sale. Rob Cushman, the head of the Kansas City division, said "If it hadn't been for what we did with dialogue, we would not exist as a company today." 

We have participated on client teams that practice dialogue like that at GS Technologies. These clients discovered that taking the time to develop shared vision, shared values, and ongoing good communications proved key to their success. While working with a very productive automated telephone service group, we watched a VP create a culture of open communications by encouraging everyone to speak at the weekly meetings. If we ran out of time at that meeting, management would often call a second meeting during the same week. At one point, everyone involved with this group went offsite and worked with a facilitator on improving teamwork. 

Another prolific group we worked with, developing imaging applications, also utilized the weekly "anything goes" type of meeting. When management formed the group, they held a kick-off meeting that created a foundation of shared vision and shared values. 

Our suggestions for improving software development teamwork follow: 1. Join the Association for Quality and Participation (AQP) for ongoing teamwork information. 
2. Staff projects with the correct mix of needed skills. The wrong mix of skills hampers many projects. 
3. Read the Peter Senge 5th Discipline books for team learning exercises and great references. 
4. Get talking (!) with regular weekly meetings and dialog-facilitated offsite meetings to establish a shared vision and shared values. We trust this information will help you get high productivity from your staff (and help prevent burn-out, too). 

©Complexity Management 1997 
Somerville, Massachusetts
Located in Metropolitan Boston

Complexity Management Chronicles, a newsletter for software quality assurance professionals, is published in print form four times a year. Send your name and snail-mail address to the e-mail address below if you would like to be on the mailing list - at no cost to USA mailing addresses. 


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