Swarming Context

September 29, 2014


The application of Swarming as a method can be broken down into four main contexts. For each context the process of swarming is different. Allowing for different contexts makes sense, because we really can’t expect the same process to work equally well in every situation. Even the simplest animals are able to exhibit variations in behavior based on the context, so why shouldn’t our processes? We change our behavior to match the circumstances. That is, unless we are using fixed methods like Scrum or Kanban. If you are using fixed methods, the proscription is to treat the process in a fractal fashion, repeating it everywhere. Practically speaking, by having only one process these methods ignore the context.

So what are the four contexts of Swarming? Here they are in no particular order:

  • Emergencies
  • Shifting Gears
  • Innovation
  • Building

Emergencies represent the simplest context for swarming. When a crisis occurs, it’ all hands on deck. Everyone joins the conversation and brings whatever specific expertise they have to the party. The group self-organizes to enable those present to contribute to solving the problem. You see this a lot in production operations environments when a “P1” defect occurs or, heaven forbid, the production system goes down. When this happens, everyone swarms on the problem. Some are gathering information, some are listening and integrating the information, and some are taking action to try and remedy the situation. All of this is happening dynamically in the moment without central organization. All of these activities are critical to the success of the swarm. During a crisis, nobody is going to stop what they are doing for a standup meeting, and they sure as hell aren’t interested in seeing your Kanban board.

Shifting gears refers to when the system is in transition. The corporate ecosystems that we are all a part of are changing faster with every passing day. New products are coming to market and disrupting the old ones. It’s not enough to simply work within the existing system. You can’t keep up that way. These days corporations have to match their structure to the complexity of the environment. That’s hard, and that’s where swarming comes in. Like when honey bees form a swarm, the corporation reaches a critical mass where a new structure is necessary. Up until this point, the hive has been a stable and reliable structure, but with the presence of a new queen everything changes. A cascade of events takes place where the hive moves on. This can also happen with companies. When they reach a certain size, they can spin off subsidiaries, divisions, and even teams. We see this when teams reach critical mass and split into two teams (meiosis). On swarming teams, we use simple rules to enable groups to decide on their own when division should take place (Team size of 7 plus or minus 2). We use the swarming values and principles to help guide who works on each team – always leaning toward letting individuals decide based on where their own passions take them.

In swarming, Innovation is treated as foraging. We are foraging for new information and new ideas. In this context we are actively using our social networks to recruit new people and new ideas to our cause. This can be initiated as part of a special state (shifting gears) or it can be part of the ongoing activities of the team. When ants are foraging, they tend to follow the strongest pheromone trails to a food source. However this rule is not universal. There are ants who wander off the pheromone trail from time to time. These solitary explorers are the ones who have the unique opportunity to wander off the beaten path and potentially find rich new sources of food. So too, we want people on our team not to follow the team too closely. It’s best if they can wander off and explore side avenues and blind alleys. This isn’t something that is dictated, it’s a natural part of teams with rich diversity. People make these decisions on their own and either bring them back to the original team or they form a new team.

Building takes place when we are trying to strengthen our networks. As a team is growing it uses it’s social networks to strengthen bonds both within and without the team. This can be as simple as increasing the number of social “touches” on a team. Social touches are things like: greeting each other, going out to lunch together, supporting each other’s work. There are some people who are stronger at this than others. Some people tend to form many lightweight social contacts (which is very useful). On the other hand, there are those who only have a few deep, strong relationships. A good swarming team is composed of a healthy balance of both types of people.

In summary, swarming is used differently based on the context you are in. Understand the context, and you are prepared to take advantage of the power of swarming.


Treating “Impedimentia”

February 26, 2009


Why is it so hard to come up with impediments sometimes? I know that impediments are all around me – literally everywhere I look. So why is it that when we do the daily standup and answer the three questions, nobody seems to have any impediments? Obviously the team is having the same problem that I am. I can’t blame them, sometimes impediments are hard to find.

I’ve heard all sorts of explanations for why no impediments come up in the standup.
“Everything is fine.”
“We’ve tackled all the big impediments.”
“We just don’t have any – we’re good!”
I don’t buy any of these answers. You shouldn’t either. I have a few theories to explain why impediments are so hard to discern. It has to do with context, perspective, aclimatization and complacency.

Missing Context
Sometimes we need to have some sort of target to shoot for so that we can recognize our impediments. If I go the to the gun range and use a blank sheet of paper for a target, it will be very hard to tell how accurately I’m shooting. The shots may be grouped well (precision), but it would be hard to tell if they were going to hit what I was aiming for (accuracy). If I paint a bullseye on the target, now I have enough contextual information to judge the accuracy of my shots. So it goes with impediments. We need a metaphorical target that we can compare our objectives to in order to see their impediments.
What would be the equivalent of a target for a set of user stories. It might be a detailed set of task cards associated with those stories. After all, if there are no task details then it’s hard to know if you are blocked on a given issue or not.

Maybe we are just looking at things wrong. Perhaps we need to change the way we view the objectives we are trying to achieve. Maybe we should take the advice of Matthew May in “The Elegant Solution”. Instead of asking, “What can we improve?” Perhaps we should be asking “What is blocking perfection?”
To me, the thing that alters my perspective the most is when I’m being a perfectionist. I’ll admit that perfectionism is a distorted perpective, but it can be very useful when we are seeking impediments. When I am in perfectionist mode, I am very sensitive to anything that doesn’t go exactly right.

Another factor that helps make finding impediments difficult is the fact that we just get used to having them around. It’s kind of like the proverbial frog in a pot of hot water. You know how it goes – the water gets hotter and hotter until the poor frog gets cooked. So to there are a lot of little irritants that get in our way, but for some reason we take them for granted. It’s just how “things are done” We get so used to jumping through the flaming hoops that we stop seeing them entirely. How could it possibly be done any different? Sometimes it takes the perspective of an outsider to help identify these sorts of impediments. Bring someone else into your team for a day. Pay attention when they say, “Why all the flaming hoops?”

Is it possible that we just stop caring about things like impediments? Are we just lazy? I’ll answer that: yes, sometimes. As much as I might like to maintain otherwise, I do have days where seeking out impediments to my projects is not at the top of my priority list. I’ve also seen the case where teams neglected to address the impediments that they did find. Not fixing impediments is the quickest way that I can think of to discourage a team from identifying them. Why bother?
There are probably a lot more reasons why impediments are hard to see, but these strike me as the biggest in the bunch. They give us important clues as to how we might start to address our own collective “impedimentia” by taking action to address these issues.