Some of the members of the ditch-clearing team, on the road leading down into the camp.
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Last weekend, I went to a service weekend at the summer camp I attended when I was growing up. Everyone who came spent our time working on various projects around the camp.

The work teams I was on self-organized beautifully, and got the work done faster than the staff had expected. So these experiences are good models for successful self-organizing teams in the workplace, right?

Of course not. Not all cute examples actually apply to workplace teams.

Take the first work group I was in. Our task was to clear leaves and branches out of the ditch along a stretch of the road that leads down into the camp. The staff member in charge of us gave us just a few simple suggestions, such as which rakes worked better for which kind of debris, and told us that everything could be dumped over the downhill side of the road. Other than that, everyone pitched in and did what needed to be done.

We got that ditch beautifully cleared, and finished with half an hour to spare. But why?

Why did these self-organizing teams at the service weekend succeed?

The self-organizing teams at this camp worked well. But there are major differences between them and work teams, and we can learn something from studying the differences.

Wanting to be there.

Everyone who came to the service weekend was there because they wanted to be there. Barring the kids whose parents brought them, everyone came there to help a camp they support. What’s more, everyone who signed up to clear that ditch by the side of the road, wanted to do that more than any of the other jobs available that morning, for example, chop wood or make achievement badges for the summer campers.

Mutual goodwill.

Everyone was disposed to feel good will towards everyone else, knowing that we were there to support a common cause. We worked well together because we already felt like cooperating with and supporting each other. Raking leaves and picking up sticks and branches – no one had to be good at that per se, in order to feel welcomed by everyone else in the group.

Similar personalities.

The kids who come to this camp are from similar backgrounds, and the adults who decide to come to service weekends are probably even more so. People’s personalities tended not to clash, so we had more energy to cooperate. (However, if we’d been working on a task that needed us to be innovative, a diverse group would have come up with better solutions.)

No consequences.

If we didn’t get the work done, we didn’t suffer any consequences. So we weren’t worried about it. As it happened, the ditch-clearing finished early, so our staff supervisor was pleased, but if we hadn’t finished the task, even in the allotted time, they still would have been happy that some of it got done.

New teams.

The teams we formed were new. Some of the people knew each other, but I doubt they’d ever worked together before on, for example, cleaning out a drainage ditch. It’s easier to work cooperatively when you don’t have a history with someone, and you’re inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Enjoying a change.

Most of us were doing things we didn’t normally do, which can be fun and relaxing. For example, as I told our staff supervisor, I live in a condominium building in the heart of Seattle. Getting out to the woods and raking leaves out of the drainage ditch – that’s fun for me. If that were my job, I wouldn’t have enjoyed those two hours as much as I did.

Can we learn anything from this example?

Maybe there’s a way that a good Scrum Master or agile coach could replicate some of the factors that made our self-organizing teams succeed during that service weekend at summer camp.

Here are some ideas. Most of these would work well in a retrospective.

If not everyone on the team wants to be there, do an activity in a retrospective that helps people remember, or discover, what they like about the work they’re doing. Help them figure out a reason why they might want to be there.

If people on the team don’t like each other, have them think about one positive or praiseworthy trait that person has. Anything to create even a little mutual goodwill.

Help the team think of common goals. Since there are consequences if a team constantly doesn’t finish most of the items it commits to for a sprint, or if a team’s velocity suffers, help the team figure out how to recognize the common goals it has.

Have an activity that helps team members learn new things about each other. They might see each other afresh, without all of the mental baggage.

How Tasty are these three Retrospective Main Courses?
Surviving and Thriving on Self-Organizing Teams – A Mediator’s Secrets

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