Agile Teams and the Art of Aquarium Maintenance
17 August 2017
It was going to be an eventful day. Rocky had just joined the team and the rest of the team members looked a bit anxious when he got into their area. They hadn’t known that he was coming and were a bit surprised to see him around. Rocky’s naturally aggressive behavior did not help, and an initial storming phase was expected.
The day went by anxiously, and so did another . . . and the storming continued. It became obvious that Rocky was not going to gel too well with the team, and a few team members were already fuming against him. It was high time I moved Rocky out — into a separate water tank.
Yes: Rocky the tiger barb did not fit in with the rest of the team. He brought down morale and could have killed the fish one after the other. I had no other choice but to pull him out.
For a long time during my school years, having a nice aquarium was always on my priority list. Setting up an aquarium and maintaining it was so much fun, and also a huge responsibility for a school kid. The icing on the cake was, of course, the beautiful fish themselves, which you could spend a lot of time with. In later years when I started working in Agile projects, I couldn’t help but look back at the lessons I learned while setting up my fish tanks. Astonishingly, they were directly applicable to my current Agile teams.
I am not talking about the performance of a team here, as we are not learning much from the daily performance of a group of fish in a tank. Yet it is really critical that, just as the fish need the right environment to live and stay happy, a good Agile team also needs to have the right environment to perform at its best. Here are a few things to be cautious about, whether with Agile teams or aquarium maintenance.
Setting up the tank
When you are setting up a new aquarium, it is important to choose the right size tank and the right location for it. A small tank is difficult for the fish to live in. They can end up storming too much and making it a tough place to survive. Similarly, it is important to have the right number of team members on an Agile team. A really big team makes it difficult to communicate and collaborate, resulting in people stepping on each other’s toes and causing delays in work completion. A small team can be less vibrant, with fewer chances for cross-functional learning. (Imagine being stuck with just one another fish for company in a 30-gallon tank.)
Setting up the aquarium in the right location also matters. Too close to bright sunlight, and you’ll have algae all over the inner tank walls. Too close to doors or entrances, and the fish will not have a quiet living space. Similarly, Agile teams should have the right level of colocation and a nicely laid-out area in which to communicate and collaborate effectively. They should be kept free of disturbances, such as excessive scrutiny from external members. An Agile team set up in a bad environment is as bad as putting your aquarium in the middle of a busy street.
Last but not the least, adding fish to a tank with just the glass walls and a glass bottom is like imprisoning them. Imagine shoving your Agile team into a closed, locked room with just their laptops and asking them to work there every day. A pleasant, comfortable work space is necessary to motivate your Agile team, as is adding suitable gravel and live plants to your aquarium to keep your fish happy.
Adding the fish
Experts will tell you that if you buy an aquarium and put the fish in right away, it is almost the same as going for a deep sea dive without an oxygen cylinder. This is because the aquarium is still not ready to house the fish. It has to go through a nitrogen cycle before fish can actually survive in it. Similarly, Agile teams cannot be put together one fine day and expected to immediately perform on a task or project. They need the right amount of time to gel as a team, and to get a good development environment and initial architectural runway built before they can start to deliver. This is especially crucial for Agile teams; unlike conventional Waterfall teams, they need to deliver incrementally in short, timeboxed sprints, so they need the work conditions ready in order to start performing.
Maintaining the environment
Setting up the tank and adding the fish are the initial steps. The next big thing is to give them a well-maintained environment to carry on in. Since aquariums are controlled simulations of their natural ecosystems, a small miss in maintaining the conditions could result in sickness and death. The water needs to be in the right temperature range, the pH not too low or too high, and ammonia and nitrates should be nonexistent for the fish to be healthy.
This is directly in alignment with this principle behind the Agile Manifesto: Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
Agile teams need to have the right environment to get the job done. The team and supporting members should not be in an agitated, conflict-filled environment. Since Agile teams deliver in short time cycles, care should be taken to maintain a steady and stable work environment so that they can continuously improve and adapt. Demotivation and lack of trust are like the ammonia and nitrates in a fish tank — they will kill the team’s spirit and impact the team performance.
The Rocky effect
Now we come to what I would call the Rocky effect in an aquarium. For aquarium enthusiasts, there is an extensive compatibility chart available as a guideline to ensure that only compatible types of fish are added into one aquarium. Incompatible species increase stress in the aquarium, which can result in sickness and death of fish that cannot cope. For instance, having fancy goldfish and tiger barbs in the same tank is a bad idea. The goldfish are slow-moving and get chased so much by fast-moving barbs that they tire out and damage their fins.
Imagine having an Agile team where you add a Rocky who constantly bullies and demotivates other team members, or is too quick with his tasks and does not bother to help the other team members adapt to his speed, or tries to take up all the accolades and has his own territory marked within the team space. It is very important to avoid introducing such Rocky effects to an already well-adjusted Agile team, just as you would think twice before adding the tiger barb to your existing aquarium. Too often, we think that adding a new team member at the beginning of a sprint automatically ensures that there will be a spike in velocity. We forget to check whether we are introducing a Rocky and whether the team has enough time to form, storm, and norm before they can perform together.
Aquarium experts generally suggest that if you have betta fish in the same aquarium as guppies and platys, be sure you have enough plants and hiding spaces for the less aggressive fish to steal away from the betta. Eventually they will learn to coexist without stressing each other. Similarly, it is important to review the Agile team setup and the team environment before introducing new team members. Give them all a suitable work environment and enough time to buddy up before they are expected to deliver at a sustainable pace.
I finally managed to mitigate the Rocky effect in my aquarium by setting up a separate fish tank and adding some more of Rocky’s friends in there. Fish in both tanks are now happy, and I have two beautiful and lively aquariums to boast of. It’s time now to shift my focus to mitigating the Rocky effect in Agile Teams.
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