Group smells

As a programmer, part of my job is to spot ‘code smells’. Like being alert for musky over-ripeness somewhere in your fridge, or unwanted acridity of burning plastic coming from your computer, smells hint that nearby, something is amiss, and it’s probably going to get worse.

an anti-pattern

In code it’s usually that you’ve used a pattern that seemed good when you started, but as you continue to add things, suddenly it gets volatile. An everyday example would be running too many appliances off a multi-board.

Patterns of coding that lead to future instability we call anti-patterns.

Code smells are the whiffs that help us notice anti-patterns. Naming them helps us spot vulnerabilities, avert catastrophes, and support an evolving discourse about best (and worst) practice.


My flatmate just came back from a conference where she was pulling her hair out because the way the group was working together was counter-productive. It occurred to me that it would be useful to port anti-patterns into the group-work context.

I want to know what group-smells are. Here’s a few we were able to name in my lounge just now:

Cargo-cult collaboration

A variant of Richard Feynman’s cargo-cult science, this is implementation of collaboration through shallow adoption of whatever latest buzzword.

A classic example you might hear is people asserting “we’re a totally flat self-organised group”. Self-organisation is a thing, but it doesn’t grow just anywhere. There are certain conditions in which it tends to work well, and many in which it doesn’t

Some smells to watch out for :
- lack of clarity about where and how decision making is happening
- invitation to ‘be the change’ without any guidance/ support to do that
- no description of what or how self-organisation is going to occur
- founders deny their power and leadership
- not everyone feels empowered to intervene in group processes

The anti-pattern :
- you think you’re making space for an ecosystem to magically appear, but you forgot to resource it

Where this anti-pattern can lead :
- invisible power structures which priviledge some actors without them being aware of it
- emergent inside / outside groups
- poor communication systems that lead to distrust
- people taking on too many things and burning out
- white men dominating lots of things, women doing administrative roles

Patterns which support self-organisation :
- naming power / leadership roles that exist
- actively sharing roles around
- making decision making processes clear
- clear communication systems

Talking over each other

This one is easy. In the best case, everyone just cares a lot about the topic of conversation, and they’re excited to share what the conversation is bringing up for them.

Other smells you might notice :

- 2 people having a conversation, while everyone else watches
- anxiety about when you’re going to get to speak
- lots of loud people, no quiet people
- an old white guy opinion-fest

The anti-pattern :
- you’ve skipped an agreement about how you’re going to approach things, and conversation has defaulted to loudest / most dominant

Where this anti-pattern can lead :
- less listening
- less diverse opinion 
- shallow analysis

Patterns you might consider that help:
- appoint a facilitator
- introduce a rule (e.g. talking stick, or you can only talk again after 2 other people have spoken)
- change the format (e.g. split into smaller groups, get everyone to write thoughts on cards, go for a walking dialogue)

Miscy meeting

(pronounced ‘misky’, *misc = miscellaneous) There’s a bunch of you in a room talking about your project and raising relevant ideas. The conversation energy is good, and you’re discussing all the things.

This is a great space for combining ideas, exploring shared values, and connecting with each other. If you were intending to agree things and plan action though, you might be in a miscy meeting.

You might also smell:
- no-one recording any actions / agreements
- surprise at the topics being raised (lack of agreement about why you’ve met)
- topic drift / people changing topics annoyingly
- excited exploration of rabbit-holes
- no clear ending to meeting

The anti-pattern :
- you haven’t agreed on what you’re actually doing, so you’re starting a range of things and doing them poorly or not at all.

Where this anti-pattern can lead :
- massive waste of group time
- frustration when people remember agreements / actions differently in the next meeting 
- more miscy meetings, gradual loss of momentum
- inability to unlock continuous improvement / evolution

Patterns for clearer meetings :
- start by asking ‘what is the purpose of this meeting?’
- use an agenda, and refer back to that when needed
- record agreements / actions (and who is going to do them) and share 
- call ‘rabbit hole’ when you smell one
- use some ‘meeting ending’ ritual (e.g. a checkout-round) so everyone knows when you’re done and don’t auto-extend your meeting ad infinitum


These are just a sample of course. Lets spot anti-patterns together and name them. Lets spot group-smells and do better work together. I’d love to hear of any common anti-patterns you’ve already named in your group work, please post them up.