Extreme Tuesday Club: 2017 Retrospective

2017 was a transformative year for XTC. I can say it’s the year we definitively stepped up from “not quite dead” to “vibrant and engaged”. I can lay the credit on this to a couple of changes we made to the format at the start of 2017:

  • Reduce occurence from weekly to fortnightly
  • Ensure that there is a defined topic every meetup

These changes (plus some early visits from Kent Beck) helped focus the XTC community, and help recall past glories. However, we’re always looking to improve…

On Tuesday, 12th December 2017, XTC held a retrospective. Using a simple sad/mad/glad format, mixed in with beer and pizza, we produced the following:


We grouped all the stickies by themes, and proposed some actions for improvement in 2018.



XTC has been held at The City Pride since April 2016. These points were raised about this venue:

  • Only pizza available (sad)
  • Beer is a bit meh (sad)
  • Limited disabled access (sad)
  • “old man’s pub” (sad)
    • (not actually raised as a card, but we did discuss this in relation to diversity)
  • Pizza is gr8! (glad)
  • Quiet room (glad)


The topic of the next meetup is decided at the previous meetup. At some time during the meetup, an organiser will ask people to propose topics. After all the proposals have been collated, attendees will then vote on the proposals. The proposal with the most votes will become the topic of the next meetup, and the person who proposed the topic is expected to help run the session. These points were raised about topics:

  • Imperative absolutes (mad)
    • “How you should do things”
    • Always/never
  • The community drives and runs the topics (glad)
  • “Conversation” format (glad)
  • Different viewpoints! (glad)
  • Debate! (glad)
  • More people, topics, discussions (since 2016) (glad)

My take: don’t tell people what to do. Talk about what you’ve done, and what you’ve learned.


The format was relatively undefined in 2017. Instructions to topic hosts were loosely “do whatever you want”. Facilitation was very light.

  • I don’t like structured discussion (sad)
  • Some sessions lacked a clear start and end and were worse for it (sad)
  • Ambiguity in facilitation (mad)
  • In depth discussion I can hear. (glad)
  • Variety of format (glad)
  • Open debate (glad)
  • Smaller groups means I can remember names (glad)
  • Opportunity for community?
  • XTC Clinic?

My take: general style of format OK, but we can tighted up on facilitation


Attendance was one of the big success stories for 2017. Changing from weekly meetups in 2016 to fortnightly meetups in 2017 seemed to provide a sense of scarcity and urgency, and people really responded to the topics. Mid-way through the year we experimented with “old-style” events (no set topic). There was a definite drop-off in interest and sign-ups.

  • Not a very diverse crowd (sad)
  • Lack of diversity (sad)
    • Physical abilities
    • Neuro
    • Gender
    • Ethnicity
  • Way more attendance (glad)

We did discuss the “diversity” topic once. Happily, we did get a much more diverse attendance that night. However, on average the points raised reflect issues with the general attendance.


We had trouble putting these points into other themes or categories:

  • Why didn’t I start coming again sooner? (written as a mad, but actually a glad)
  • Passion and enthusiasm of everyone (glad) 
  • Coming to XTC again! (glad)
  • XTC is still going (glad)
  • Joe Schmetzer (glad)



Here are some changes we agreed to trail/experiment with in 2018:

Defined Host each Event

a.k.a Who’s going to be the “Joe” tonight?

We need to ensure that every event always has someone who understands the format, ensures that everything happens as it should, and can help facilitate talks, etc. It can’t be “Joe” every event 🙂

Playbook / Checklists

We want to make sure that things aren’t missed, and there’s some sort of predictability about the events. The playbook needs to consider at least the following:

  • Pre event:
    • Selecting a host
    • Working with the topic proposer to add an event description
    • Promoting the event on Meetup, Twitter (anywhere else?)
    • Getting materials for the event (e.g. pens, stickies)
  • During each event:
    • Setting up the room
    • Welcoming attendees
    • Ordering pizzas
    • Introducing the topic vote
    • Introducing the speaker
    • Facilitating talk, as required
    • Tweeting!
    • Taking the vote for the next topic
    • Paying for pizzas
  • Post event:
    • Claiming expenses
    • Posting photos to Meetup
    • Blog post

What else?

Extra Hosts

Currently, there are 6 organisers for XTC: myself (Joe), Nader, Nigel (a.k.a. sleepyfox), Tom, Samir and Jeff.

I’d ask the existing organisers to review their availability and commitments (Over 2016, I hosted the bulk of the meetups, with a scattering of support from Nigel, Tom and Samir. Nader has a conflicting meetup, Nigel has moved out of London, which makes it hard for them both to participate in the future).

We’d be interested in finding new organisers who would be willing to help out. Ideally, we’d like to get a more diverse group of organisers.

Code of Conduct

As discussed in our “diversity” topic, we’d like to introduce a code of conduct. More to come on this topic.

Breakout Corner

Even though we have a chosen topic each meetup, we’d like to explicitly welcome those who don’t care to talk about anything in particular (or just the topic at hand).

Discussion Guidelines

We’d like to provide more guidance to people introducing topics at XTC. A set of guidelines that reflects the essence of XTC (for example, we value stories about experiences over absolutes). More to come on this topic.

Explore Alternative Venues

I think most people are generally happy with our current venue, but we recognise that we are excluding groups of people who might otherwise come. We’re keen to introduce some extra events outside of the normal pub location, if only to see what sort of response there is. #XTCXtra


Some changes are coming to XTC in 2018. Most of relatively minor.

What do you think? Please add some notes to the comments.

Converting to Kotlin

kotlin_250x250After dipping my toe in the water a number of times, I’ve finally taken the plunge. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been migrating a private project from Java to Kotlin. This is a report of how it’s been going…

Firstly, my main interest in Kotlin was the cleaner language design, the clear Java migration path and good interoperability with the JVM ecosystem. What do I mean by “cleaner language”? The my favourite example are the Kotlin data classes. In my code base, I have a large number of classes deriving from “Event”. Each one of these event classes has a number of attributes, with corresponding getter functions, plus an equals, hashcode and toString function. Here’s one of my classes:

public class LearnerAddedToOrganisation implements Event {

    private final LearnerId learnerId;
    private final OrganisationId organisationId;
    private final UserId agentId;
    private final Instant eventTime;

    public LearnerAddedToOrganisation(LearnerId learnerId, OrganisationId organisationId, UserId agentId, Instant eventTime) {
        this.learnerId = requireNonNull(learnerId);
        this.organisationId = requireNonNull(organisationId);
        this.agentId = requireNonNull(agentId);
        this.eventTime = requireNonNull(eventTime);

    public LearnerId getId() {
        return learnerId;

    public LearnerId getLearnerId() {
        return learnerId;

    public UserId getAgentId() {
        return agentId;

    public Instant eventTime() {
        return eventTime;

    public boolean equals(Object o) {
        if (this == o) {
            return true;
        if (!(o instanceof LearnerAddedToOrganisation)) {
            return false;
        LearnerAddedToOrganisation that = (LearnerAddedToOrganisation) o;
        return Objects.equals(learnerId, that.learnerId) &&
                Objects.equals(organisationId, that.organisationId) &&
                Objects.equals(agentId, that.agentId) &&
                Objects.equals(eventTime, that.eventTime);

    public int hashCode() {
        return Objects.hash(learnerId, organisationId, agentId, eventTime);

    public String toString() {
        return String.format("LearnerAddedToOrganisation{learnerId=%s,organisationId=%s,agentId=%s,eventTime=%s}",
                learnerId, organisationId, agentId, eventId);

Here’s the code for the same class after I converted it to Kotlin:

data class LearnerAddedToOrganisation(
        override val id:                LearnerId,
                 val organisationId:    OrganisationId,
        override val agentId:           UserId,
        override val eventTime:         Instant) : Event {
    val learnerId: LearnerId
        get() = id

This Kotlin code has exactly the same functionality as the Java equivalent, plus it also has a copy function as well.

This conciseness can lead to some large reductions in code size. The module I converted to Kotlin originally had ~8,000 lines of Java code. After conversion, it contained ~4,800 lines of Kotlin, which corresponds to a 40% reduction in code size. This is a significant improvement! Consider that programmer output in terms of lines of code tends to be relatively stable, independent of language. Switching to a language where the same features can be implemented in fewer lines of code means more features can be built.

The more I use Kotlin, the more I find I enjoy using it. I’m definitely going to use it more in the future.

Culture-Driven Team Building Capstone: Week 2

Tony Morales Interview

  • Process for forming a consulting team:
    • Forming the consulting team happens on a case by case basis, as it depends upon the industry, function, and available people
    • Team is formed of principals, executives and residents at Inter-Growth, staff members, researchers, and experts
    • Experts are one of:
      • Functional experts (e.g. have deep experience in executive search, or deep experience in culture transformation)
      • Industrial experts (e.g. deeply familiar with transportation and logistics)
  • Generating ideas on how to tackle the issue:
    • Need to understand first. Research team does the following:
      • Extensive analysis of the organisation from the outside perspective
      • Looks to understand the industry
      • Looks to understand competitors
      • Looks to see what’s going on in terms of industry trends (cyclical or not)
        • How are their competitors operating?
        • What changes are happening?
        • Are there any emergent trends in the industry?
  • Client process and structure:
    • Seek to understand first from an outside basis (see above)
    • How can we learn about lived experience, the culture, the design, beyond what you can see written in a document?
      • Interviews and assessments
    • Cultural interviews:
      • Team members visited 100 client sites in a 90 day period to interview people, collect their notes, and put them together
      • These are ethnographic, and so it takes on an anthropological skill set
      • Don’t seek to guide or bias, just looking for the “grand tour”. Asking questions like:
        • What’s your job like?
        • What’s this organisation like?
      • This can give a piecemeal picture of what’s happening across the organisation
    • Assessment:
      • Inter-Growth uses a tool called “total for index”
      • This is an algorithmic assessment, that measures things like:
        • leadership
        • culture
        • experience
        • capabilities
      • Model comes up with actionable data which allows insights about what’s happening across the organisation
    • Deciding who to interview:
      • There’s not enough time to interview the 20,000 employees
      • Think about more than employees: what are consumers, partners, competitors all thinking?
      • Instead, draw a diverse sampling across the organisation
      • Looking to get information from different perspectives
        • geographically
        • seniority level
      • Broad bases, then focusing up on the executive team
    • Diagnosing team dynamics issues:
      • A lot of the problems that emerge will be cited time and time again in the interviews
      • Start off by looking for areas of shared concern from the interviews
      • Core findings will be common, but there may also be smaller one-off or isolated issues that could be addressed
    • Diagnosing organisation design issues:
      • Organisational design should be fit to achieve the target culture
      • There’s a culture that exists, and a culture that’s desired. Inter-Growth helps their clients move between these two states
      • Secondary to culture issues, business fundamental issues are also manifest in the organisation design:
        • cost saving
        • revenue generation
    • Other diagnosis tools:
      • Top team problems are always sensitive and delicate
      • Making sure that there is alignment with strategy and each other on the team level is important
      • Inter-Growth seeks to understand where there are areas of misalignment, and leading the executive team towards better alignment
      • Transport company had an executive team with different histories, and hence different ideas about what works and what doesn’t.
    • Other considerations:
      • Our client is a business who are looking to maximise shareholder returns
      • Culture and organisational design need to be aligned towards what will help the business most through:
        • driving revenue
        • cutting costs
        • maximising output
        • quality

Environmental Misalignments

  • VW pollution masking scandal
    • Consumers have become less accepting of environmental scandals
  • The external environment – something outside the team changes, but the team does not notice or adapt.
  • Causes of misalignments:
    1. focus on shared information
    2. ignoring alternatives
      • recency bias
      • over-valuing outcomes
    3. Focus on self-interest
      • motivated blindness
  • For all these reasons, teams fail to adapt.

Individual Misalignments

  • One of the main causes in Microsoft’s decline in the 2000’s.
  • Stack ranking assessment – reduced trust and damaged Microsoft’s ability to innovate
  • Team goals should align with individual goals (WIIFM)
  • Individual goals can change. Some examples:
    • Junior colleague develops new skills, gains new career aspirations
    • Things change at work (conflicts develop over time)
    • Things change at home (e.g. start a family)
  • Psychological safety: an environment where team members can take risks.
    • Examples of risks:
      • admitting mistakes
      • addressing conflict
      • offering competing ideas
    • These are risks because no-one wants to feel left out of a group.

Systems Thinking Frame

  • When attending a meeting, we must represent our own frame. However, it is also important that we adopt and listen, and take on other frames. Systems thinking is all about that.
  • Analytical thinking: separate something into parts, understand the parts, and then see how the parts fit together
  • Systems thinking (as opposed to our analytical framing) asks us to do something else. Take the part we are trying to explain, and see how that works in a larger system.
  • Metaphor for Systems Thinking: Concentric Circles
  • Example of car:
    • You can pull a car apart and understand all the individual pieces.
    • However, you won’t understand why it is the size it is, or why the size has changed since the 50’s.
    • Instead of viewing the car as a transportation machine, think of it as something to move families.
    • You only understand that when you think about the car’s role in society.
  • Example of education:
    • School classes, 1 teacher, 20-30 children.
    • Why that configuration?
    • Need systems thinking to answer:
      • What is this preparing them to do?
      • What is being taught?
      • What role does that play?
  • When we want to get the purpose, we need the systems thinking piece
  • Getting rid of a problem does not necessarily led to what you want
  • Is thinking about the system as a whole too much information?
    • It’s a different set of questions that we’re asking
    • If you’re really trying to understand purpose and possibility, that’s a different space
  • Discovery space: not about getting rid of problems, but formulating problems in such as way that we can see possibilities that were not clear before
  • By thinking of a goal and working backwards, we may avoid the constraints that block us going forward
  • Analysis and synthesis
  • Example:
    • People leaving a group
    • Was told this was because of monetary compensation
    • In the larger system, compensation is only part of the rewards system
    • What are the various monetary and non-monetary rewards?
  • Considering the system rather than individualising issues or problems
  • Win/Lose frame
    • If I give you something, I have to take something away from someone else
  • Reframing: changing win/lose to win/win solutions

Diagnosing Problems in Groups and Teams

  • We tend to think we bring together a group of people, and they will be high performing
  • It doesn’t always work! How can we identify the problems?
  • Example: steering committee on an organisational development initiative
    • Interesting patterns:
      • Every time the team met in person, lots of laughter and jokes. The were agreeable on almost anything that was discussed during the meeting
      • However, after the meeting, lots of emails sent raising numerous issues, which were not discussed during the in-person meetings
      • The next time they met, none of the issues were raised
  • The culture of politeness
    • We’re interfacing with each other, face to face, we’re going to be polite
    • “Real” issues are secondary to being polite
    • Being polite gets in the way of learning in organisations
  • The pattern of repeating
    • Even when contentious issues are raised, other people in the meeting disengage and lose focus. They’re not wanting to signal agreement or disagreement.
    • The speaker worries that they don’t get acknowledgement, so they repeat the same thing, a bit louder and more exuberant.
      • “I’ll do it again, and they’ll get it this time”
    • Not breaking the the frame, not stepping back or taking some sort of time-out.
  • Conflict is often avoided
    • People don’t feel the need to confront each other
    • They’re not comfortable dealing with conflicts
    • Undiscussable issues are not discussed during meetings
      • Conflicts are discussed outside of formal meetings, over a lunch or a beer
  • How to interrupt the negative cycle
    1. Pause, and raise the question of “What’s going on here?”
      • Make the pause part Ground rules.
      • Allow the team to re-frame and refocus
      • It needs to be a deliberate activity
      • The leader needs to help establish that this an effective and acceptable practice in the team
      • Examples:
        • work teams in factories can stop the whole production line
        • retrospectives
    2. Try to identify what the issue is
      • Where is the team is getting stuck?
    3. Collect a little data.
      • Ask everyone on the team:
        • What’s working well?
        • What isn’t working well?
      • Do an anonymous survey if people are uncomfortable talking in the open about what the issues are.
      • Don’t just make assumptions. Really try to figure out what people are seeing


Culture-Driven Team Building Capstone: Week 1

I’m studying the course Culture-Driven Team Building Capstone on Coursera. These are my revision notes for week 1.

Tony Morales Interview

  • Intergrowth:
    • a global leadership advisory firm
    • helping with talent and organisation issues, such as executive search, executive coaching, leadership development, organisational design, risk, culture transformation, strategy
    • Tony is a senior consultant at Intergrowth
  • Logistics and Transportation Corp approached with an RFP:
    • Need an executive search firm to help find new CFO
    • Intergrowth was selected on the basis of that tasks, and then continued to engaged with the company in a number of other practice areas.
  • CFO search – first impressions:
    • The problem looked a little funky for an organisation of this size ($2b enterprise)
      • No succession plan in place for their CFO
    • There were many other organisational dynamics issues that stemmed from their history
      • Origin story: two blue-collar immigrant workers, saved enough money to buy a bus, slept in it while building capital and expanding the business, until eventually became hugely successful
      • Problems with this:
        • the founders were never really operationally sophisticated
        • struggled moving from old economy thinking to digital age of transformation enterprises (e.g. Uber, Lyft)
        • there may be disconnects between how the company is currently operating, and how it ought to operate
    • This is a great story about how critical thought around leadership and leadership intervention can really benefit organisations
  • The transportation industry:
    • is going through a lot of change (e.g. Uber, Lyft, Tesla)
    • Transportation isn’t what it was 30 years ago, or as it had been 100 years ago
    • An organisation in the transportation industry that is still being run in “mom and pop” style would have some problems around innovation management

What Are Teams?

  • A team is any group of people that performs some collective task on which they have to work together, that is, they have to cooperate
  • In businesses, there are many tasks that require coordination. It’s the job of management to make sure that people coordinate on these tasks.
  • It is the cooperation in the performance of a task that makes a group a team
  • “We” intentions versus “I” intentions

A Closer Look at Culture

  • Culture is whatever people learn from other people, and transmit to other people, especially by interacting with them.
  • Culture:
    • ways of behaving and speaking
    • how to think and reason
    • values and goals
  • Embodied culture is the things we don’t event need to think about (e.g. dribbling ball, singing anthem, attitudes to horse meat)
  • Values and goals that guide our actions
  • Teams need their preconceived routines, their ways of reasoning about the world and their goals and values

Being Unaware of Culture

  • We are not even aware of a lot of culture we acquire from others
  • For example, how close we stand to each other
    • Proxemics is the study of the amount of space people feel necessary to keep between themselves and other people
      • Intimate zone (0 to 18 inches in America)
      • Personal zone (18 inches to 4 feet in America)
      • Social zone (4 feet to 12 feet in America)
      • Public zone (beyond 12 feet in America)
    • These distances vary based on your cultural upbringing
  • Cooperation on teams involves expectations of this sort.
  • When the expectation are violated, the performance of the team can suffer


  • BART stands for Boundaries, Authority, Roles, and Task
  • BART is a way of thinking about teams that emphasises psycho-dynamic processes
  • Boundaries
    • e.g. time, physical setting, psychological, etc
    • Time boundary examples
      • people arriving late, checking mail during meeting, etc
      • In many cultures, commencing a meeting on time is considered very important, a trademark of being very professional at work.
      • In other cultures, they’re very lenient. It’s OK to stary a meeting 15 minutes later than the scheduled time.
    • Perhaps the team does not value boundaries.
  • Authority
    • e.g. who wields authority, who has formal or informal authority
    • e.g. the person who was the designated leader was not the actual leader. The acutal leader was another team member who was a subject matter expert.
    • Who is considered to be an authority in the context?
    • We have formal and informal authority
  • Roles
    • e.g. formal and informal roles
    • e.g. one team had a member who was seen and designated as the contrarian
      • every point that was made, he felt called upon to disagree, contract, argue
      • he was really their critical thinking partner, so that turned out to be positive
    • Think about what the role says about the group or team and how you can understand that
  • Task
    • e.g. at least 2 tasks
      • work task
        • What is it that we’re assigned to do?
        • What is our purpose?
      • survival task
        • How do we sustain ourselves?
        • How do we continue our activity?
    • Teams can often get confused between their survival task, as opposed to their assignment

Managing Reward Systems

  • Reward systems in the workplace like performance reviews, bonuses, and promotions are powerful ways to shape culture and create an atmosphere of inclusion
    • They can also be a source of implicit bias.
    • Disadvantaging certain groups of people, even if they appear to be totally neutral.
    • If you’re serious about boosting diversity on your team, you have to think about the unintentional forms of bias that could be hiding in your reward systems
  • Symphony orchestras
    • Few of them reflect the population of the cities they represent
      • Just over 10% of orchestra musicians are people of colour
    • This is due to:
      • unequal access to music education
      • hidden biases in systems of reward and advancement from an early age
    • People of colour are tenured at a rate of about 30%, which is way lower than their white colleagues
      • Peers nitpick small imperfections in their performances and character that they would normally let slide with white musicians
      • This can happen totally unconsciously and in small ways
      • Those small unintentional forms of bias lead to fewer opportunities for people of colour at a large scale
  • Same effect can happen with informal rewards systems. Such as praise from supervisors, recognition for team members’ achievements, or even just who we listen to at meetings
  • How to combat biases?
    • Measure outcomes
      • When you set specific targets for diversity, and measure progress toward achieving them, you can uncover unintentional bias in an objective way and that leads to better accountability.
    • Post results publicly
    • The Shield (see Promoting Diversity in the Workplace)
      • The unspoken rule on the team was men direct the conversation at meetings
      • Mazzara created a new rule for the team. He told them that no one should be interrupted when they were pitching an idea

Addressing Representational Gaps

  • Representational gaps: gaps in perception about team problems, including the team’s ultimate task and what’s important to execute team goals
  • Representational gaps arise from:
    • differences in knowledge sets
    • differences in value sets
    • conflicting interpretations of new knowledge
  • How to reconcile incompatible views?
  • An intentional effort is needed on teams to reconcile different perspectives.
    • This is important because functionally diverse teams often lack shared knowledge
    • Compatibility is established by providing adequate time for team members to build relationships and get to know each other
  • Key is for team members to mutually understand the values, beliefs and attitudes represented in the team
  • There needs to be a shared understanding of how individuals within teams identify problems
  • Four keys to representing any problem: GAEO
    • Goal hierarchy: how we prioritise goals
    • Assumptions: how we assume others behave, or how we assume others are limited in time or resources
    • Elements: components of the problem that are changeable
    • Operators: the ways that the components of the problem can change
  • Companies can set ground rule expectations that establish these shared ways of understanding problems.
    • Teams can recognise that different behaviours may exist, and these behaviours are unique to particular countries or cultures
    • This recognition and acceptance of differences helps to establish shared knowledge, and creates opportunities for mutual understanding among team members
  • At an organisational level managerial staff must set an example for valuing diversity on teams.
    • Examples:
      • Mentoring relationships
      • Job shadowing
      • Relationship building time
      • 360 feedback
    • Watch out for the potential to blur roles and to reduce creative solutions
  • Managers need to be strategic in drawing out their teams’ creativity
  • Jim Shaw, former executive vice president of MTV networks
    • a “left-brain” guy in a “right-brain” organisation
    • Initially responded to creative suggestions by discussing possible ways where the idea could go wrong
    • This had the effect of shutting down the idea
    • Instead of diving in with his perspective on the suggestion, Jim learned to incrementally share contingency planning information.
    • This way creative people can fully explain themselves and get their ideas on the table
    • No two people on Jim’s team thinks alike, and this needs to be accounted for
  • Example from the last section of team that broke apart (Beth & John):
    • Remaining four called themselves the “Small Beautiful Team”
    • Set out to reestablish goals, roles and norms for their team
    • They managed representational gaps between them through establishing frequent check-ins for information sharing and goal setting
    • The norms of active and deliberate listening where critical to their building compatibility across their views and mutual understanding of each other’s perspectives
    • Decisions were much slower and more deliberate than before.
    • One conversation when the new CEO (Nigel) called attention
    • Roles because more evenly distributed and more clearly defined
    • Representational gaps will inevitably exist, but with thoughtful intention, compatibility across individuals and high function can be achieved when mutual understanding is the goal

Course Structure

  1. Write a paper:
    • What are the potential issues you think this company could be facing
    • What factors would you as a consultant need to consider?
  2. Peer Review
    • Read someone else’s paper and comment on it
  3. Make a diagnosis
    • Write 5-8 questions down that you would want to ask the client to find out more relevant information about their situation


Culture, Ethnography, Grounded Theory and the Effectiveness of Stand-ups

Late last year (the end of 2016), Andy Parker and I were talking about a frustrating problem common to many senior people in teams: how to improve or positively affect the people we work with so that we were all happier and more effective? These discussions have lead me through one of the more intensive periods of growth and learning that I’ve experienced for a long time, and have ended up with a nice gem of a study on the effectiveness of stand-ups. This post is a description of the journey I’ve taken over the last 6 months or so…

Culture and Ethnography

Our first problem: how to get people to change? Andy and I agreed that we can’t make people change. It comes down to a matter of ways to influence people. We thought that this was an aspect of culture, and so our thoughts went to the tools of anthropologists. Perhaps we could learn something there? We knew that anthropologists use ethnography tools to study people and cultures. Perhaps we could look in that direction?


Andy had heard about Fieldwork, a company that specialises in the study of company culture. Most interesting to us, they had published a guide on how to conduct ethnography fieldwork and a DIY Ethnography Kit.


With this guide, Andy and I both started observing and documenting events that we saw about us at our companies. I started writing posts on our internal company blogging platform, and Andy did the same.

I spent a number of months making observations between my daily work duties. I found these enormously useful, and it helped spark a number of productive conversations.

However, it got to the stage where we had a lot of observations, but no clear idea of what to do next.

On a whim, we searched for online courses which might help us in our quest. As it turned out, there was an excellent course available on Coursera…

Culture-Driven Team Building

Culture-Driven Team Building is a specialisation run by the University of Pennsylvania through Coursera. It is made up of five separate month-long courses. Each course lasts for four weeks, and takes about four hours of study per week.

I’ve learned a huge amount of useful information in these courses, and I can recommend them as a good way expand your skills on leading and influencing teams.

Some of my key takeaways:

There’s lots more, I’m glad I kept details notes. I’ll be referring to them for years.

Grounded Theory

Remember the fieldwork we were doing earlier? I all my coursework I never really picked up on how to turn the observations into theories and models. Jeff Fredrick hit upon the key phrase and sent me the link: Grounded Theory. This is a systematic methodology in involving the construction of theory through the analysis of data. Finding this was a bit of an a-ha moment for me.

I think when I finish all the coursework, my next point of call will be to return to the ethnography study and apply some more powerful tools as provided by grounded theory.

Daily Stand-up Meeting: A Grounded Theory Study

This all leads me to the last gem: I found a link to a study on the effectiveness of stand-ups:

I love to see some real scientific studies on the effectiveness of our practices. There’s too much gut-feel and cargo-culting in team practices, so some hard data is always welcome.

Some key recommendations and guidelines from the study:

  • Don’t use stand-ups for reporting status (plan for the day instead)
  • Keep the stand-ups short
  • Keep the number of participants small
  • Don’t hold the stand-up first thing in the morning

Culture-Driven Team Building

Since March 2017, Andy Parker and I have been studying the Culture Driven Team Building specialisation from the University of Pennsylvania (delivered through Coursera). The specialisation is composed of 5 different month-long courses. I have published blogs containing detailed study notes for all these courses. This post collects links to all those blog posts in one place.

Fostering Innovation in Groups and Teams

I’m studying the course Creating a Team Culture of Continuous Learning on Coursera. These are my revision notes for week 4: Fostering Innovation in Groups and Teams.

Introduction & Learning in Ambiguous and Uncertain Environments

  • How do we balance what we don’t know with what we do know?
  • Organisations need to enable a learning environment:
    • Organisational enablers of continuous learning
    • Concepts of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) and liberating structures
    • Working with ambiguity and unpredicatbility
  • Uncertainty can enable creative solutions.
  • Suggested reading:
    • Michel, A., & Wortham, S. (2009). Bullish on uncertainty: How organizations transform individuals. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Conditions for Learning

  • Complex Adaptive Systems:
    • Main characteristics:
      • self-similarity
      • self-organisation
      • complexity
      • emergence
    • Traditional models of change: there are experts who can instruct others
    • Sometimes there are no experts, there is no solution to transfer
    • The solution must be discovered
  • Self organisation:
    • the tendency of an open system to generate new structures and patterns based on its own internal dynamics.
    • Organization design is not imposed from above or outside; it emerges from the interactions of the participants in the system.
  • Conditions for self-organisation:
    • Container
      • sets bounds for the self-organizing system. It defines the “self” that organizes.
      • The container may be physical (e.g. geographic location), organisational (e.g. department) or conceptual (e.g. identity, purpose, or procedures)
    • Significant differences
      • determine the primary patterns that emerge during self-organizing processes.
      • A difference between two agents may be reflected and reinforced by other agents in the system, which then establishes a system-wide pattern.
    • Transforming exchanges
      • These form the connections between system agents.
      • Information, money, energy, or other resources are the media for transforming exchanges.
      • As the resource flows from agent to agent, each is transformed in some way.
      • These patterns of individual change lead, ultimately, to adaptability of the system as a whole
  • CAS are necessary tools
    • Hierarchy isn’t going to get us there


Organizing Under Uncertainty

  • In traditional organisations, change is perceived to be top-down.
    • Current state, target state, steps to get to the target state
  • Team structures need to be more emergent in complex adaptive systems
    • Change is in response to changes in the environment, and how to fit better in the new environment.
  • Solutions can come from anywhere in the system (not just at the top of the hierarchy)
  • Self-Organisation:
    • the tendency of an open system to generate new structures and patterns based on its own internal dynamics.
    • Organization design is not imposed from above or outside; it emerges from the interactions of the participants in the system.

Scenario: Team at GURD, Part 1

  • Background:
    • GURD Limited
    • Software development services company
    • Works primarily with pharmaceutical companies
    • New client that they’ve asked to a develop a CRM tool
    • Team will test the program in 3 months
  • Stephanie (Project Manager):
    • Welcome everyone, glad you can be here
    • Hey Mikki (who is remotely dialed in on video)
    • As you know, we have an amazing project. It’s a big dal for GURD. If all goes well it could lead to many more projects. If there are any snags, the client could lose al ot of money. A big financial loss, for us as well as them. We just want to amek sure that everything is rolling along as it should for the testing in 3 months. So, where are we at in regards to that?
  • Gigi (Testing Lead):
    • We right now are just concerned about the compatibility of systems. We haven’t done any testing so far.
  • Jacob (Software Development Lead):
    • Good point, but that’s why we did due diligence before we started this project. We’ve been working hard and really studying the client systems, and making sure that it mirrors the development systems.
  • Mikki (Software Development Lead):
    • We can still have technical issues creeping in during the testing phase. We don’t have any control over those client systems, and that due diligence was done a little while ago. They may have done software upgrades since then.
  • Stephanie:
    • That’s a really valid point. It could be a really high risk situation if we don’t get on it. What can we do?
  • Gigi:
    • I checked the knowledge repository. We have a lot of history here with our previous clients.
  • Jen (Client Services Lead):
    • I will definitely be in touch with Theresa at the clients office with regard to IT. I’m certain that they’ve done multiple technology upgrades.
  • Stephanie:
    • Good. I think the Software Development Departement really needs to look over this beforehand, right? John’s going to find out all the information from the client. Find out if there’s anything we need to do to adjust and to integrate with their system before three months time. So, you’re going to get that to Mikki and Jacob. They’ll review it over the next few days, maybe over the weekend as well. Next week we’ll meet at the same time, and see where we stand at that point. Sound good?
  • Jen:
    • I’ll send you guys an email after I talk to her on Friday.
  • Stephanie:
    • OK, good. So next point of business. Company picnic. Did you guys get the invitation?
  • <<crosstalk> yeah
  • Stephanie:
    • Anyone bringing your kids? Mikki, are you bringing your son?

Scenario: Team at GURD, Part 2

  • Background:
    • After 3 weeks, the same team meets again
  • Stephanie (Project Manager):
    • Thanks everybody for being back. So, hi Jan. Were you able to find out from the client any information about co-ordinating systems?
  • Jen (Client Services Lead):
    • Yeah, I met with Theresa and the site team last week, and we put together a list of all the new information, and I sent that along to Jacob and Mikki, and we’re working through it.
  • Mikki (Software Development Lead):
    • That was really helpful, they made a lot of changes and upgrades on the client end. So, we’re going to make some changes to our software, so it’s going to work smoothly.
  • Stephanie:
    • So, how can we resolve the discrepancies?
  • Mikki:
    • Well, I propose we do a dry run. So that way, we can do this thing in real time. If there’s any glitches, we can address them before it gets to user testing.
  • Gigi (Testing Lead):
    • I think that’s a great idea. We can schedule a week or two ahead of testing.
  • Jen:
    • I’ll let Theresa know so that the team over there is prepared.
  • Jacob (Software Development Lead):
    • I just want to say, I’m not sure a dry run will grab everything. I was reviewing some of the implementations and I think it would be in our best interest to bring in a tech expert. Other projects have done it, they’ve been successful with it, I think we should try it.
  • Stephanie:
    • Good idea. Should we just throw out some names for people who could do something like this? I’m thinking maybe Janine?
  • Gigi:
    • Janine, or maybe Margaret even.
  • Stephanie:
    • We do have budget for this.
  • Gigi:
    • We put aside a little bit of funding for an expert review. We can get that done like one or two months ahead of testing.
  • Stephanie:
    • All right Mikki, well, let’s get the ball rolling, then.
  • Mikki:
    • You got it.
  • Stephanie:
    • Did you get some of that potato salad yesterday? It was amazing!
  • <<crosstalk>>

Debrief: GURD Scenario

  • This is a team that’s working quite differently to most of the other scenarios we’ve shown you.
  • They have quite a bit of flexibility, adaptability and engagement.
  • There is an aspect of inclusion
    • Even though there is a remote member, they are incorporating him into their discussions and social engagements.
  • Complex Adaptive Systems
    • It’s energising to be part of a team that is learning and adapting.
    • Simple problems:
      • In both meetings, there were some simple problems that recurred, and were addressed easily and readily. They have a formula or format for doing that.
    • Complicated problems
      • Knowledge mangaement repository
        • Someone’s been here before, what did we do?
    • Complex problems
      • Client environment is unpredictable. They have no control over the upgrades or changes on the client system.
      • Mark Twain:
        • “It’s not what you don’t know that will get you it trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”
    • The person who identifies problems is not shut down or blamed.
    • There’s a safe space created.
      • Safe spaces allow everyone to come up with their own perspective.
      • This enriches the conversation
      • Helps them to become more productive and effective
    • Customer’s world is constantly changing.
    • The team exhibited responsiveness
    • Diffusion of ideas
    • Knowledge management repository
      • Record of previous projects.
      • Ability to learn from past mistakes
      • Find out what has been done previously that can be applied now.
    • Emergent behaviour:
      • Teams that are future focused are more able to handle uncertainty and ambiguity
        • There are going to be variables that we don’t know
      • When teams handle emergent problems they need to constantly update their information.
      • Our work together on this team has been emergent
      • Helpful to add new perspectives

Liberating Structures: Examples of Team Exercises

  • Enabling structures:
    • are ones that support teams and group working.
    • e.g. Rewards need to be structured so that they encourage teamwork
      • i.e. reward the team, not the individual.
  • Liberating Structures:
    • We can invite people in the container (team, group), but we need ways to engage them, get them to engage, exchange view points.
    • Liberating structures can encourage the Complex Adaptive System to adapt, to be resilient and learn
    • Impromptu Speed Networking
      • How to get everyone engaged from the start? This technique gets everyone involved, indepentant of rank.
      • Think of one or two provocative questions that are pertinent to the meeting
        • Situation you’re in
        • Problem you’re trying to solve
      • Get everyone in an open space (a container)
      • A facilitator rings a bell and says “think silently for a minute or two, gather thoughts on the question that is in front of us”
      • After a while, the facilitator rings the bell again. Everyone finds someone in the room which they know the least well, and have a conversation with that person (up to five or ten minutes)
      • The bell is rung again, and pairs swap.
      • This is repeated for two or three rounds.
      • At the end, everyone sits together and asks:
        • “What did you discover about the question?”
        • “What were some of the insights that came out?”
        • “What do you now think about it?”
        • “How did your perspective change as a result of the conversations?”
    • 1-2-4-ALL
      • Not everyone feels comfortable talking or asking questions in a meeting. This creates a safe space for all those questions to be asked, and for others to listen to. Allows all voices to be heard
      • Participants in the meeting are given a chance to reflect on a problem, situation or question that needs to be answered
      • They pair in twos and discuss their reflections on the question
      • It then moves to a larger group of two pairs (4 people)
      • It then gets disussed in the whole group
    • Q Storming / Wise Crowds
      • Instead of taking questions one at a time, take 2, 3, 4, etc questions at a time.
      • This gives options about how to thread those questions together
    • TRIZ
      • A good way of discouraging the old disabler activies
      • The group asks the questions in order:
        • “What’s the worst possible outcome we can imagine?” or “What do we absolutely not want to happen?”
        • “What would cause this to happen?”
        • “What are we doing that is very similar to what would produce the bad outcome?”
      • Get rid of the last thing.
      • Defensive routines (Agyris):
        • An example of a taboo: asking “What’s not working well?”
        • Easy to answer the question “What’s working well?”, but the opposite triggers defensive routines.
        • TRIZ can help open up these taboo subjects.
    • Premortem
      • Start with the question: “What could go wrong with this project?” (at the start of the project)
    • Dissenting voices
      • Conflict is averted because it is no longer repressed
    • Empowering conversations
    • These liberating structures prevent a senior or alpha person from hijacking the meeting, asking the first question.
    • They break the frame of hierarchy
    • Everyone has to participate! (can’t zone out on a laptop or phone)
  • Suggested readings: