Agile teamwork: When collaboration becomes groupthink

Quality assurance consultant Gerie Owen discusses how Agile teamwork can lead to groupthink if it's not tempered.

Does your Agile team overestimate its velocity and capacity? Is the team consistently in agreement with little discussion during daily standups, iteration planning or review meetings? Is silence perceived as acceptance? If so, collaboration may have become groupthink.

Gerie OwenGerie Owen

Groupthink is a group dynamics theory developed by Irving Janus in 1971. Janus described it as the tendency of some groups to try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without sufficiently testing, analyzing and evaluating their ideas. Janus's research suggested that the development of a group's norms tends to place limits around the independent and creative thinking of the group members. As a result, group analysis may be biased, leading to poor decisions.

Close-knit teams may think they agree, but it may really be groupthink

Groupthink begins in the storming phase [PDF] of group development as team members vie for leadership roles while team values and goals are established. Symptoms of groupthink that are especially noticeable in Agile teamwork include the illusion of invulnerability, which may result in unrealistic time estimates, collective rationalization and self-censorship during meetings and team discussions. Stereotyped views of out-groups may appear in groups where testing or usability professionals' views are not valued if they are not a part of the core team.

Groupthink also becomes an issue when Agile teams incorrectly size backlog items and then fail to meet the commitments of the sprint. When team members try so hard to minimize conflict and reach consensus that all options are not completely analyzed, the best alternative may not be the one chosen.

Since the Agile self-organized teams are cohesive units usually physically insulated from the mainstream, they learn Agile processes, learn to work together and work to accomplish their sprint goals all at the same time. Physical insulation can be valuable in that it lets a team work with a minimum of outside distractions. However, it also prevents team members from hearing and acknowledging alternative points of view.

It's easy for collaboration to become groupthink in close-knit Agile teams, because the desire for fast consensus can be strong.

Managers can provide physical insulation while also arranging for controlled exposure to alternative perspectives. Here's how: Agile teams are managed by servant leaders. Still, those leaders emerge with different personalities, leadership styles and types of influence. All these factors set the stage for groupthink and can be managed using Container Difference Exchange (CDE) theory.

Fight groupthink with CDE

Glenda Eoyang, the executive director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute, developed CDE theory from her research on organizational behavior. Container, difference and exchange are factors that influence how a team self-organizes, thinks and behaves as a group. The container factor creates the bounds under which the system forms. For Agile teamwork, this is the physically colocated space shared by the team members. The difference factor is the way that the team deals with the divergent backgrounds of its individual members -- the various technical backgrounds and specializations of the developers. The exchange is how the group members interact with each other and with their stakeholders.

Managers can influence group dynamics by changing one or more of the CDE factors. For example, a manager can change the difference factor by adding a team member with a different point of view or personality. Likewise, the exchange factor can be altered by increasing or decreasing the time or budget for individual sprints.

Groupthink is a group problem with a group solution

It's easy for collaboration to become groupthink in close-knit Agile teams, because the desire for fast consensus can be strong. However, both team members and managers can recognize the symptoms and use team dynamics theory to make adjustments and guide the team back to high performance.

The Agile team is a perfect example of a specialized task group. In group dynamics theory, a task group comes together for the purpose of accomplishing a narrow range of goals within a short period of time. Agile teams have the additional aspect of self-organization, which is both beneficial and challenging for both the team and its managers.

Self-organizing Agile teams can be more effective in avoiding groupthink by specifically asking each member of the team to be a critical evaluator or by appointing a "devil's advocate." Either way, the goal is to find reasons why a decision might not be a good idea and by discussing potential choices with stakeholders outside the team. Alternatively, team leaders can challenge the team by postulating that a decision ultimately turned out badly and ask the team to brainstorm why that might have happened.

Agile teamwork can be highly effective in software development, but groupthink is a danger that hampers the group's ability to be creative in their work. Managers and teams have to be cognizant of groupthink and consider using CDE to avoid it.

This was first published in December 2013
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