My last post in this series, The Elephant In The Room – Part II, discussed why this type of impediment is tolerated in many agile development organizations.  I also explored how understanding the context and motivation behind a team member’s poor performance can change other team members’ perceptions of it.  I discussed the importance of not labeling someone as a low performer before making sure that the individual is in the right context to leverage their strengths.

In this post I will be exploring some tools and tips for understanding what motivates people, how they operate when things are going well and when things are in conflict, and what types of positions best fit a person.  Armed with this knowledge, teams can be assembled that have complementary motivations, strengths and interests.  Teams formed with this knowledge of each other are much better equipped to build understanding, more open communication and trust.  In my experience, assuming you hire intelligent and technically competent people, these are the key ingredients for achieving sustainably high performing agile teams.

There are three tools or instruments that I have seen used effectively in software development management to equip people with an understanding of their own motivations, values, strengths and communication style as well as those of their team members. The three are:

1. Strengths Deployment Inventory (SDI) – A suite of psychometric tests and a practical methodology for empowering people to improve relationships and manage conflict more effectively. SDI is rooted in the theory of Relationship Awareness®, a self-learning model for effectively and accurately understanding and inferring the motive behind the behavior.

2. StrengthsFinder 2.0 – This is a book and on-line instrument that enables people to understand and develop their strengths rather than trying to improve on their weaknesses.  When used in an agile team environment it allows team members to understand and leverage their other team members’ strengths, and not interact with them by targeting their weaknesses.

3. Belbin Team Roles – This tool looks at the team dynamic based on roles within the team.  It identifies nine different roles.  Based on an understanding of these roles, teams can be assembled with the best complement of team roles to help ensure success.

While I have exposure to each of these tools, I am most familiar and have the most experience applying SDI.  In fact I am a qualified facilitator for this tool. I prefer SDI because it is simple, has a strong visual component and instills people with a basic vocabulary and set of tools from which they can build their own set of tools.  SDI is based on Relationship Awareness® theory which has four simple tenets:

  1. Behavior is driven by motivation to achieve self-worth.
  2. Motivation changes in conflict.
  3. Strengths, when overdone or misapplied, can be perceived as weaknesses.
  4. Clarity and face validity enhance self-discovery.

This has always seemed very common-sense to me and can be seen while truly observing any team during its interplay. It gives organizations and individuals the awareness and skills they need to build more effective personal and professional relationships. It helps them to sustain those relationships through understanding the underlying Motivational Value Systems™ of themselves and others under two conditions:

  1. When things are going well
  2. During conflict

By using Relationship Awareness® theory through the SDI instrument, software development teams can evolve from choosing their behaviors to accommodate just their own underlying values, to also considering the underlying values of others. It is a dynamic and powerful way of looking at human relationships that aids in building communication, trust, empathy, and effective, productive relationships.

In the rest of this post I will explain how I have used SDI on the agile teams I have led to help their members grow personally in their communication and collaboration skills as well as to help empower the teams to move to the next level of performance.

The first step is that I train everyone in SDI (I can do this since I am a facilitator).  Most organizations hire a certified SDI facilitator to deliver the training.  After everyone has been trained and it is known what each team member’s Motivational Values System is, these are plotted on a poster-sized MVS diagram as shown below.

Once the team is thoroughly trained, I then have a separate meeting with the team to go over the results, help to reinforce the simple vocabulary based on the colors in this diagram, and review the interpretation of each person’s plot.  Each plot shows where a team member operates when things are going well and where they go when things are not going well (are in conflict).  Once you understand this diagram and Motivational Value Systems, these plots are very informative.  For instance, the longer the line connecting the dot and arrow head, the more you can expect someone to change in behavior from when things are going well to when they get in conflict.

I recall a specific situation where one of my staff was a blue-green when things were ok, but traveled all the way into the red when things got into conflict.  This is an indicator of a very volatile personality, one that can absorb a lot of crap but then one day they “fly off the handle”.  I coached this person to ensure that they communicated openly when things were done or said that rubbed them the wrong way.  They continued to avoid the issues and just swallowed it and went on with life.  Each time they did this, their tolerance for the behavior or treatment that they said was wrong would get reduced until one day the person blew up at their lead and almost got physically violent…luckily they didn’t.  The person was gone for 3 days.  When he came back he came in my office and said, “Man!  You were right.  I should have let him know that the way he was treating me wasn’t working for me.  I’m going to start now.”  Funny thing is that when the genesis of this blow-up was explained to the Lead, he had no idea, because he was still operating and treating others based on his MVS.  Both these individuals learned a valuable lesson that sticks with them to this day.

Applying SDI as a servant leader, I reinforced it at each team meeting and at one-on-ones.  For instance, when someone would come to me and want to discuss a problem they were having in communicating effectively with someone else on or outside of their team, I would ask them to apply their SDI knowledge.  What did they know about their MVS?  Were they in conflict with the person, and if so, at what stage? (SDI has a 3 stage conflict model).  What do we know about their MVS when they’re in conflict, what do we know about yours?  Basically I’d have them work through the problem, just offering tips to help facilitate their thought process.

It doesn’t take long when applying SDI on a regular day-to day-basis that the team integrates SDI’s terms into their regular vocabulary.  This is exemplified during meetings, when people joke with each other about someone strongly exhibiting a certain color, especially when it isn’t conducive to the discussion at hand.  More than once I’ve heard, “Mike’s being red again.” :-) I am personally mostly red when things are going well and I move toward being blue when I get into conflict.  This helps to explain why I have much interest in the human side of things.

Eventually you can see people applying Relationship Awareness® thinking when they are constructing e-mails, planning for difficult conversations and even when they are preparing presentations.  If you know what motivates someone, it is not hard to communicate with them so as to not de-motivate them. :-)

If you’re dealing with the issue of “The Elephant In The Room,” I urge you to equip yourself and your teams with tools such as SDI or the others mentioned.  If you do, I believe it will make it much harder for such elements to creep in and also enable an agile team to understand and leverage each other’s strengths so no one on the team becomes the “Elephant”.

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