Forming Silos

As part of my research for our Silo Busting tutorial at XP2010, I’m reading “The Robbers Cave Experiment: Intergroup conflict and cooperation” by Muzafer Sherif et. al. I first heard about this experiment from Linda Rising (one of my all time favorite speakers and writers) who used it as the topic for a great presentation that she gave at the Agile2008 conference. Her presentation made a big impression on me, so much so that I found myself ordering the book about the study. The Robbers Cave Experiment is a classic experiment in social psychology from the 1950s that has profound implications for the way that organizations work together today.

[One tiny little caveat here: this is a social psychology study from the fifties. At the time, psychology was, and some would say still is, struggling to be taken seriously as a science. As a result, in general the published papers are God-awful dry and boring. I mean make-a-grown-man-cry-for-mercy boring. That way they seem more scientific! You have been warned.]

The purpose of the experiment was to explore how social groups form, how they come into conflict, and to experiment with means of resolving inter-group conflict. The subjects of this experiment were two groups of 12-year-old boys who were going to a summer camp at the Robbers Cave State park in Oklahoma. This study took place in the late forties and early 1950s, back in the day when there was a lot more latitude with selecting and experimenting with human subjects.

[OK, another digression: researchers got to do the coolest stuff to people in the late forties and early fifties! They got away with all sorts of crazy experiments back then (see Zimbardo’s Prisoner experiment). Ah the good old days…we can’t torture people in experimental psychology the way we used to. Amateur hour is over. Now we leave torture to the professionals: the military.]

The boys (or subjects – see how scientific that sounds?) were carefully screened for selection for this summer camp. They had to pass a battery of psychological tests and meet specific criteria in order to take part in the experiment. The goal was to select from a population that didn’t have a background of disturbed family histories, large differences in social background or other dramatic differences that might cause confounds in the experimental design.

The first phase of the experiment was an exercise in-group formation. The researchers needed to create some silos in order to test their hypothesis about breaking them down. The boys were taken to campsites and proceeded to play games, go exploring, and generally go about the process of forming, storming, and norming that all teams go through – even teams of 12-year-old boys.

There are some interesting hypotheses that the researchers had about this first phase of the experiment:

  1. That hierarchies will form
  2. That your place in the hierarchy affects your own assessment of your own performance as well as that of others
  3. That members of groups will adopt the “norms” of the group and doggedly stick to those norms in the face of conflicting evidence.

I find these notions very intriguing to us as Agile practitioners. First, I think at its heart many of the Agile methods are rooted in egalitarian notions of communal leadership and are fairly antithetical to the idea of command and control. So, it seems to me that hierarchies, at least the way that I’m used to thinking of them, are generally considered a bad thing from an Agile perspective. This experiment theorizes that given our natural inclinations, the hierarchy is the default organizational structure for people (well, for 12 year old boys anyway). The results support this theory. My gut reaction: that is a major bummer.

Maybe not all is lost though. Perhaps the hierarchy is a default place to start absent any other influences, but evolution can take place. Perhaps it is evolution toward a more communal, collaborative style of group? I don’t know. I’m certainly not an expert in this field, but I find it fascinating and somewhat frustrating that hierarchy seems to be the default choice. Of course, when talking about silos, it’s hard not to refer to hierarchies. They seem to go hand in hand.

The next theory was that your place in the hierarchy would affect how you perceive your own performance and the performance of others. It turns out that we tend to overestimate the performance of those who are higher than us in the hierarchy and to underestimate the performance of people who are lower than us in the hierarchy. So does this imply that we tend to think that the boss is a genius and that the people who work for us are idiots? Ouch! Sherif and his researchers tested this and found that indeed, we do tend to overestimate the abilities of those higher up in the pecking order and underestimate the abilities of those beneath us. Keep that in mind the next time you are talking to the boss!

Finally, the members of the group came to “normalize” their assessments of conditions to match those of the group they were in. So independently, you might tell me that you prefer green, but if the group prefers blue, then guess what? You are going to start reporting that you prefer blue too. It’s all part of fitting into the group. One interesting observation was that members of a group frequently reported themselves as “working harder” than outside groups – even when there was no evidence to support this claim. I’ve certainly seen plenty of that when working with high tech groups and teams.

The rest of the study is equally, if not even more fascinating in its theories and its conclusions. This research, whether or not you agree with it, has some profound things to say about the way that human beings work in teams – and the dramatic effect teams have on our individual judgement. I found many parallels in the study with the teams that I have worked with (agile or not). It’s dry, academic stuff, but if you are at all interested in the way that teams form, fight and resolve, it is pure gold.

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