Swarming Context

September 29, 2014

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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.

 

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The Values of a New Methodology: Swarming

September 22, 2014

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Perhaps the time has come for a new methodology. The old methodologies are showing their age as they are gradually incorporated and transformed by the large organizations of the world. There are many who feel that scrum today is but a pale shadow of what it used to be. One mediocre “transformation” after another has watered it down to functional irrelevance. Perhaps it’s inevitable that any method that you develop will eventually lose its vitality once it reaches the mainstream. Sooner or later you always sell out to The Man. That’s OK though, there is always a new young buck waiting to take up the mantle of The Next Great Development Process Breakthrough. What if it was Swarming?

If you were going to work on a team that used swarming as it’s only development process, what would it look like? This hypothetical team wouldn’t use any other processes, not scrum, not kanban, and certainly not waterfall – just swarming. It’s a pretty radical idea. Like many of the other methods, maybe we should start with the values. Values are the bedrock upon which we can build our new method. So what values would a swarming team have? Why don’t we start with these:

  • Passionate Engagement
  • Radical Transparency
  • Natural Rhythms
  • Simple Rules
  • Abundant Alternatives

That seems like a nice set of values, but what does it mean? Why would these be values that a swarming team would hold most essential? Let’s examine them each in turn:

Passionate Engagement – When you look at swarms in nature, from flocks of birds to nests of ants, one thing becomes apparent very quickly: each individual is completely and utterly focused on their task. Bees don’t simply ‘like’ honey. No, honey is much more important than that. To a bee, honey is life and death. Bees don’t ever take a coffee break. Similarly, we want teams that are equally passionate about what they are working on. We want them to believe that it is important, in fact it is absolutely the most important thing that they could be working on. Passion like that is infectious. Other people are attracted to it and soon you will find them working with you side by side just as passionate as you are.

Radical Transparency – Mobilize everyone to look for and manage team threats and opportunities. Share accountability, so that everyone can have the same responsibility for success and failure. All project information should always bet available at a glance on the walls, on dashboards, on my mobile phone, even at home. Access to information needs to be ubiquitous. Anywhere you look it can be found.

Natural Rhythms – A lot of the environments that we work in today don’t honor natural rhythms. Just ask anybody who works swing or night shift. On a swarming team, we want to make sure that we use the cadences of nature where ever possible. Our attention and focus have natural limits, so we can break up the day into smaller chunks. If we are happy and passionate about our work, does it really matter if its a Wednesday or a weekend? The norms of industrial society do not apply to a swarming team. They take their weekend whenever they feel like it.

Simple Rules – Use simple protocols to help enable the highest possible functionality of the team. We need to have simple rules of engagement that enable us to rapidly uncover disagreement and help us to promulgate learning as quickly as possible. Using simple rules requires conscious attention to their maintenance and upkeep. The team needs to keep their rules clear and disciplined in order for them to function well and not decay into disorder. Everyone in the flock needs to have the same signal for turning left.

Abundant Alternatives – Swarms thrive best in complex environments. There need to be an abundance of alternatives to explore, because that’s what swarms are really good at. When swarms find themselves in an environment characterized by scarcity, then they move on to more fertile ground. The same should apply to our teams, if they are working in an ecosystem that is rich with complexity, then they are probably well suited to it. If not, they move on.

These are what I would propose as values for a team using swarming as a development process. These ideas are what support and enable the kind of environment where swarming can happen. The tools are all there, we just need to be bold enough to use them.