Unleashing Great Teams — Sandy Mamoli

Sandy Mamoli is an agile coach at Nomad8 in New-Zealand, where she helps teams & organizations working together. She shares —with two coaches asking questions, it’s more of a dialog actually ;) — how she helps her clients “Getting Shit Done”.

How do you help teams work together and several teams work together and pull in the same direction ? What are your last experiences regarding that?

Sometimes I succeed in creating great teams. Sometimes I don’t. It’s about the culture where people want to collaborate and I think it’s possible to help them to actually do this. So even if they don’t necessarily have the skills to start out if they want to, I think it’s possible. What’s your take of it?

I‘d say passion is maybe the biggest denominator to look for and there can be passion in everyone so it all comes to the environment people are in. Some say that programmers don’t get bored on products they can be passionate about (fr). So it’s about the boring settings and boring projects…

I totally agree. I think the main inhibitor for passion is fear. Because people start out with being really passionate and wanting to create something and wanting to code, wanting to do whatever they do and at some point they become almost institutionalized and there lives fear. And it’s fear of career-limiting moves (sometimes real and sometimes perceived), fear of not being liked, of not being able to provide for the family. And I find it’s really important to break that and to create a safe environment for people.

It’s also why it makes me so happy to read that Google study (The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team). We know what makes teams great : one of the preconditions is to make people feel safe.

We know what makes teams great : one of the preconditions is to make people feel safe.

There is a huge difference between liking each other and feeling safe though. I’m in my second career as I started out being a professional athlete, playing handball. In a professional sports team people are absolutely safe with each other: I know someone else has my back and vice versa. I can give them instant feedback and tell them what I need, I don’t need to be polite and at the same time we don’t need to like each other. You can play with people you would never even talk to when you’re not on the field as long as you feel safe with them in the team.

You don’t see that in the professional world, do you ?

A lot less. I think it could be there. Really good teams have the same. There is safety first. But often teams get stuck in their development before they get to a stage where they can be completely open and just really focus on the purpose. They get stuck in the “too nice” phase. I see lots of teams getting stuck in that stage.

Teams often get stuck in the “too nice” phase.

What made those sport teams safe with each other?

There’s a very, very clear purpose in sports : you can’t go bigger than that if you want to qualify for the Olympics. That purpose drives everything.

There are also working agreements within a sports team but in general, it’s a total meritocracy. It doesn’t matter that I think the left-wing is a horrible person I would never have coffee with, I still want to play with her because she’s the best left-wing in the world. I think that’s something that we can take to the professional world.

That’s often the problem with the Brazilian football team with so many heroes but it’s still something else to have a great team.

Heroes are not helpful ! That’s what Sutton is saying in The No Asshole Rule and what’s happening in professional teams. In professional teams we have explored a lot about the soft skills side and I think that’s great. A next step could be exploring parallels with professional sports.

Unfortunately organizations are too often talking about projects and not about products and teams are far from having a clear “transformative purpose”…

I find that when organizations move to products (vs projects) and with people having direct customer interaction : it makes such a difference on meaning and purpose . I’ve been in a company where they actually switched from one to the other and it made a huge difference, it was almost visible how people focused more, how much more people enjoyed working in that way. Have you seen it?

I tend to be on the #NoProject side and think that structuring the value-chain as products is much more effective. And then considering the portfolio is necessary to work on the right products and have a more holistic view.

Even if you have products, you can still have initiatives, which need to be prioritized to decide where the focus should be.

Back to the sports analogy : contrary to sport teams, IT teams deliver all the time (hopefully !) and yet they train very, very little time, when it’s ok to fail : what do you think about that?

I don’t think that we can do exactly the same with IT teams but what we can learn from sports teams is actually to have more focus on learning and deliberate practice. I love programming katas recently tried out mob programming to enhance learning. I think there is something that we could totally learn from sports teams : take out time where we not just learn on the job but explore what we can learn.

What we can learn from sports teams is actually to have more focus on learning and deliberate practice.

We’re coming back to the subject of safety : people trying things where they are not completely comfortable.

The biggest inhibitor for great performance is fear. And projects almost destroy that learning because of their deadlines. When you move to products it’s actually possible.

So it’s about the role of deadlines which make the difference ?

Yes, it’s the role of deadlines and also having limited time because in a project we have that much time together and then the project stops and we disband.

There are the two separate questions of deadlines and disbanding. I think that product-focused organizations don’t disband that much, there’s more opportunity for a team to stay on one product.

I don’t think deadlines are bad at all, for example the Olympics start at the 6th of August and then you plan towards that. But I’ve seen many IT teams picking an arbitrary date and from day-one being delayed : someone made up the deadline and it was under-resourced, we can’t find staff to do it. Whereas when you go for the Olympics you start at zero you don’t start delayed already. You just do as much as you possibly can before the deadline.

There’s your book and you’re doing a lot of workshops around self-forming teams : why did you choose to focus on that subject?

I chose to focus on it because some years ago I was working with an organization, consulting along the main manager, where project teams got disbanded and there were no stable teams. We wanted to have stable teams and the question was how do we actually do this? One way is management selection : trying to figure out where each person goes and trying to do what’s right for each person. It’s really complex and then at some point we thought : “who says that we managers are the best people to know ?”

Why not do as we preach and have the lowest possible level of delegation, have the people who know most about the problem solve it ? Which is completely obvious in retrospect, but before we did it, it wasn’t actually obvious to us.

So we came out with a process for how to facilitate that. What would actually happen if we take 152 people into a room and say “hey, just go” ? We didn’t dare to do that, because we thought it would probably go wrong and I still think it would.

Instead we provided a process and did a lot of preparation. It wasn’t like “We don’t need managers and everything should be decided by the people who do the actual hands-on work”… that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about people having the ability to form their own teams and to also hire into their own teams. And management’s role being to support that self-selection and to give people the capability and framework to pull this off.

So, that’s we did with our self-selection process, we supported people. We told them : this is what we want to do, this is why we want to do it, this is why we’re taking this problem to you. Ant this is the worst that can happen : you don’t solve it and we can go back to management selection. Don’t be afraid, you’re not signing away your lives. We provided a lot of emotional support and we also hed a plan that we shared. People felt a lot safer when we showed them that there actually were a plan and a process.

I think this is a really good example of what people in management positions can do to support teams. while not making a decision for them.

Team self-selection is a really good example of what people in management positions can do to support teams, while not making a decision for them.

Team-formation is a big responsibility for managers to let go. Does team self-formation change things for the role of managers or on the product side ?

Having stable teams changes management’s role regardless whether they are self-selected or not. The change for managers is that they now need to focus on supporting the teams. Maybe they have a more advanced starting point when they let teams self-select.

There is a certain mindset that is probably a prerequisite for this to work. I have seen it work really well even in traditional companies like banks when the leadership team was completely on board and had a mindset of letting people make decisions.

With self-selection, managers often have their eyes wide open and think about the change for their role because it’s such a nontraditional thing, with traditional management selection it’s often a bit of a shock. It’s only later that they realize that their role has changed.

Would you say that you can introduce this self-selection experiment in any organization ? Or do you maybe see it now as a seed to introduce first in any organization ?

Two years ago I would have gone “not everyone can”. We started out with a young, fearless and open technology company and it worked incredibly well. I had a feeling it could work in other organizations but I wasn’t sure… But we’ve done that even in banks and government departments since and it actually works.

Sometimes the prerequisites to get to self selection are different : for a bank it was harder to find out which teams they actually needed and how to align with potential products for example. Getting to the starting line might be harder for some but I think it can actually work for any company.

Maybe more upfront work to prepare on the product and purpose side ?

Yes, exactly. Once you work through that, I think it’s possible for anyone to do it. You need a certain degree of engagement from people and some people will need to compromise.

The amount of change you can catalyse is often directly proportionate to the buy-in of leadership…

Yes. I was about to agree but thought about my last two self-selection experiences in a bank, where leadership got me to help them with self-selection and it was harder working working with the people who do the hands on work. In the leadership team, they were younger and hadn’t been in the same position for that long. The people who fought this were the ones who had been at the bank for about 20 years.

Were they maybe thinking there was a catch?

I think that’s a huge one, the catch : “What are you going to do, we ‘re just going to make some self-selection and management is going to choose anyway”. So there was a lack of trust and also often they’re actually really accustomed to change but change has been done TO them : “okay it’s the next stupid fad that will go away”. So they were tired of change.

Not continuous improvement and pushed rather than pulled.

Yes, more like random change that’s not improvement at all often.

Did your journey with self-selection change the way you work with teams, leadership and organizations ?

Yes definitely. I have much a stronger focus on the design of an organizational structure. Asking people to self-select into teams really is an organizational restructure. Something it has taught me through the last couple of years : I’m not saying it’s easy, but by comparison it’s easier than to hire an entire team from scratch.

At the moment, I’m thinking a lot around how often people should “re-squadify” and repeat self-selection.

We have done it with the first company three years ago and they have a self-selection every six months. On one hand it’s really good because people join the company because of self-selection because they have the opportunity to work with whoever they like. And if it happens once and never again you kind of cheat these people. On the other hand it can be really disruptive if you do it every six months and we haven’t really figured out the ideal amount of time between self-selection events.

If it happens once and never again you kind of cheat these people.

Having stable teams is often underrated, and recurrent self-selection may risk damaging stability. Maybe it all depends on the self-awareness about the benefits of having stable and effective teams and about team dynamics.

I think in order to have that they must at least once in their lives have been on a really, really good team and know how team formation works. And it’s surprising how many people actually haven’t because their teams have been ripped apart too early and they have never experienced being part of an amazing team.

Have you ever tried some “grafts” : having people come into a team and experience being part of a great team and then “seed” them back ?

That’s an awesome idea, like an internship : you go to different teams, you experience that and you go back. I haven’t actually managed to pull it off and managed to convince any person to actually do that yet. Have you?

Actually no. I’ve had colleagues doing some (Core Protocols) bootcamp to experience great team dynamics in a structured setting.

I’ve worked with a company couple of years ago, and they have a 4-month kind of a bootcamp for developers, where they teach you Ruby, agile and working in a team. There are always new people coming into their team but also people leaving when they’re ready. They experience the first pretty great team and then are being seeded into existing teams. That seems to be working very well for them.

It makes me think about an experiment from some colleagues of mine in France, called “the swimming pool” where a client team could “come and work with us”. I think Pivotal Labs are doing the same, embedding clients with already great teams. Maybe something to try internally ?

That’s a great idea: On one hand even if you add someone into a team, it will change the team they join so it comes at a cost but at the same time I think it’s such a shame that there are so many people who have never experienced being on a great team. It’s also something that can be experienced by being part of a sports team and that can be taken over to the professional world.

It’s such a shame that there are so many people who have never experienced being on a great team.

What are the next limits you could be pushing ? How could you “go crazy” and try some new things ?

My limits are pretty wide because I have a track record now. I have enough big successes that I could have some big failures. I’d love to get crazy but I’m not doing any kind of stuff that is bad for my clients. What I’d love to do is push self-selection to the next level. For example, tell the people “here’s the product roadmap, you tell us what teams you need and who should be on those teams”. So far we’ve always said what the teams and their mission should be, so pushing that to the next level…

If there’s something that I’m afraid of then I know that I’m on the right track.

If there’s something that I’m afraid of then I know that I’m on the right track and it becomes interesting. When we were considering self-selection, we couldn’t find anyone who had done it before and had shared their experience. When you have something that no one has done before, you know it’s either a really good idea and you’re on to something or it’s a really stupid idea. These kind of ideas, like I would love to do that again.

Any examples ?

I haven’t really exhausted the whole “let people figure it out for themselves” idea yet. When I’m done with self-selection, then something new will pop into my head.

How would you relate what you’re doing with clients on organizational structure and how you’re running Nomad8 ?

I’m tasting my own medicine and that’s why I know it’s actually really hard. Very often, I think I know best and how can this not be obvious to other people and of course I feel the urge to tell other people what to do. Being in that position and knowing this is totally the wrong thing to do, and that I’m biased and that I actually don’t know best can be really hard. Working with that is something I’ve learnt to do and it gives me empathy with my clients, as I know what their managers go through.

You’re quite self-organized.

Yes, everyone has the freedom to work with whoever they want and that can be like choosing their clients and it can also be who don’t want to work with within and outside of Nomad8. It’s not that often that we get the chance to do work together at a client but when we teach courses as pair-ups and always choose our partner.

What about the team dynamics at Nomad8 compared to what you can experience in clients or to what you experienced in the sports world?

What we don’t have is an external purpose. We don’t have this external big goal so our relations are different. We’re completely inward focused : “being a work family for each other”… which also means that we actually need to like each other.

Which is already quite big as a purpose or foundation.

Yes, it is really important, compared to sports teams. In sports team I’m going to go to the Olympics and I don’t care if I don’t like this other person, our purpose is so strong. With Nomad8, if the goal is to have a working family, there’s no outside dream that will make it possible to ignore that. We actually want to be friends and need to be friends.

Don’t you miss a “massive transformative purpose”, some common goal that you’re pulled towards ?

We’re a lucky family, I don’t think a family has a goal, they’re just there for each other. Do I sometimes as a consultant feel like I’d like to have that goal? Yes. But it would be counter-productive for us to have an external goal, like being the best or biggest in New Zealand — we don’t want to compromise our family.

Which is not transformative…

True. Being the biggest for example is not really a good purpose I think. If it was, I probably could be the CEO of a product company. I (mistakenly) think I’m really qualified but I don’t think anyone would give me that job, but it would work for me.

You seem to be very much inward focused : how do you work with values and working agreements in Nomad8 ?

We started out without them and did it half wrong. As a company we’ve made all the mistakes that we could possibly make. Like we were a lot looser at adding people for example : we had some people who actually didn’t work out that well, and it’s really hard to get rid of someone in a totally democratic organization. You can’t just fire them.

We’ve had a lot of conversations about how we want to work together and what is important to us.

We’ve made a lot of mistakes and we’ve had a lot of conversations about how we want to work together and what is important to us. Two people have left and some people are about to join. We kind of expand and we contract but the values remain the same. When people join us, they have to sign up to those values. It doesn’t mean that over time these values can’t change and sometimes we do type them up again and we talk about them but that doesn’t happen too often.

When you’re facilitating team self-formation, do you have people also work on their values on their working agreements?

I think it’s actually important to have them even whether you are self selected or not, you need shared values no matter how the team is born or designed.

The really hard part is to keep the teams stable.

The funny thing is that everyone was concerned that those teams don’t go stale a few months after self-selection and that there is enough of an exchange of people. But really, don’t worry about that, the really hard part is to keep the teams stable. There’s always enough natural exchange, like someone getting pregnant, someone living somewhere else or quitting their job. It’s funny how so many people worry about that.

What is your opinion on communities of practice or guilds ? Did you use that with your self formatting teams and how do you think the two go together?

I think the best way to get work done is in cross functional teams but their weakness is that if you’re one of the specialty team then there will be little to do with other people who have the same specialty and I think that’s the weak point. You need to do something consciously to deal with this and mitigate the risk of people not learning from each other. I think communities of practice are perfect for that. I’ve always had one, whether formal or informal, like a product management book club that anyone can join. What’s your take ?

I think it’s very useful, not only for learning and cross-pollination but also to give a broader perspective on the system as a whole and how it works. Having these communities also helps because people can talk across silos. So it can be seen as some kind of a systemic hack.

Yes. They also come with some dangers : for example, we had a testing guild with a very strong leader, which can be a good thing, but what happened was that that leader was so strong that it did end up with people feeling a really strong affinity to their community of practice. So they checked literally every decision with the community of practice because they felt stronger for that than for their squad. I haven’t seen it many times but if you’re not careful, it can be a way of sneaking in the old way. We managed to fix it but it was quite bad for a while.

Maybe it’s a bad symptom about feeling less purpose-driven and about the team dynamics, which are not good enough so that people may band together for some other else ?

I do understand it when craftsmanship becomes stronger than the purpose, when mastery becomes more important than purpose then that can happen. But it’s not a good thing.

When launching “state startups”, Pierre Pezziardi uses some simple constraints on teams : one “outraged” guy who wants to solve a problem, two developers, one coach and one sponsor, ready to put the money. When self-forming teams, did you play with such constraints ?

It’s really tempting to, thinking about the team that we wish we had and we also want have a mix of skills like someone who is really experienced and someone who is really young and inexperienced. But then we realized that would actually introduce complexity and wouldn’t allow for some combinations that we might not even see and that could be much better than what we were thinking of. It pushes us back to more management selection, and more management rules.

So, usually I only have a couple of constraints : smallish teams between 3 and 7 people, with all the skills to deliver something and, if possible, co-located. In New Zealand, many companies are in two or three cities and it’s a really bizarre idea : why would you have one developer in one city, the business analyst in the second and a tester in the third when you could just actually make the entire team in one city ?

You mentioned working both on team-formation level and on product roadmap formation : I’m curious about what could happen, whether very small teams or very big teams ? Which is the kind of stuff that happens at Valve, where people self gather around interesting subjects…

I think is absolutely awesome how it works for Valve and I would love to see that. So if you know anyone here who would let me do it : give people a strategy and see what they come up with ! I’d like to figure out whether it’s possible to do it in a company where people are not their own users, where they are not users of their own product. The guys at Valve are the domain experts, playing their own games. Would you have to hire users ?

That’s what XP is about with the onsite-customer, one guy who wants to solve one problem , which tends to be watered down to a product owner who add features…

We need to dig ourselves out of this disconnection between the how and the what, which may have made sense at a time, but I think it was a mistake and it causes lots of trouble.

Any book or topic you’ve found out lately, that you would recommend ?

Reinventing organizations, but that’s really old now and I’m probably the last person to read it. My book on self-selection is of course great.

Someone asked me to read their experience reports, as they’re doing the opposite with unstable teams, about team re-formation: it could be really interesting stuff.

That’s contrary to what you’re doing, it’s maximizing chaos.

Yes, I think so. I haven’t figured out how often they change yet. If what I think is stable is what they think is not. I’ve seen teams that can be too stable, I’ve seen a bank once where it was 7 years and on the contrary, two months is probably too short.

I’ve had this problem, working with an agency, where we tried having stable teams. But I don’t think it was the right thing to do, because the demand is going up and down with clients. So they pair with absolutely everything and they make sure the pairs change all of the time so the knowledge is really spread. There is of course some disadvantages to not having stable teams but their main problem is to be able to scale their projects up and down. I would love to actually try that !

It all comes back to the question of stable vs unstable teams.

The context is king : for product development stable is perfect, whereas for agency it may not work.

It all come down to how you get the most efficiency from the people in your own context ? Whatever you do, having some capability for experimentation : try something and see how it works and let’s check if it’s better for us.

You also like to have ideas to try out !

That’s why I loved Creativity Inc., which is about crafting an environment which helps bringing out the creativity of people.

Thank you Sandy for this conversation :)

Read more about team self-selection at Squadification.com