March 20, 2015

Can rituals help agile teams bond?

Years ago I was complimented on “improving the group dynamic” by bringing in a cafetiere for the my agile team to use.  We developed a bit of a ritual around this object.  One person had made it clear that the kettle needed to be left to cool so the coffee was not burned, procedures were in place for who got the rocket fuel left at the bottom, etc.  At the time I thought little of it but was reminded of this shared practice after reading this article in New Scientist (subscription required) about rituals and their role in binding groups together.

In the Shetland islands, there is a yearly ceremony where people dress up as Vikings and burn a longboat.  Etiquette in Asian tea ceremonies is complex and distinct to each region.  In the UK Parliament, when a new Speaker of the House is appointed they are physically dragged to the chair by fellow MPs.

Research referenced in the article supports the idea that ceremonies and rituals form part of an instinctive human behaviour.  This behaviour is believed to have provided an evolutionary advantage by strengthening social cohesion, making it clear who is in and who is an outsider.  Those within the group feel a stronger sense of identity and commitment to shared goals.  As an agile coach it may be beneficial to understand these instincts and assess their effect in the modern workplace.

Reflecting on observations in other agile teams, the presence of evolved rituals or practices seems to have coincided with healthy team dynamics.   One agile team used a mangy-looking toy cat to indicate who was building the release.  The use of customised avatars on boards is common, and the effort put into them seems linked to team identity and the pressence of trust amongst team members willing to make themselves vulnerable.

Teams that have formed strong cohesive bonds are likely to develop common practices with a shared and tacit understanding.  A lack of engagement in shared practices by one or more team member can be a sign that a team has lost its sense of purpose.  This may be a sign that people no longer see the value of working together due to an underlying issue that must be addressed.  A common example of this is a lack of commitment to attending the daily scrum or stand-up.  The problem is rarely to do with public transport or setting alarm clocks, so an agile coach trying to engage with the problem on that level is likely to fail.  If the team have lost their sense of cohesion and commitment then the reason for this needs to be found.

How can the natural instinct for ritual help an agile coach?  I would encourage the agile team to define the boundaries for their team events, and take collective ownership of them.  Rituals, or a new lack of engagement in them, are a symptom rather than a cause.  This can form part of your observation toolset and give you cues to delve deeper into issues.  You can help the team develop by encouraging new foibles as they form or supporting existing rituals, while explaining to co-workers that “Viking helmet Fridays” are no threat to corporate values...

Image Attribution: Anne Burgess [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons