Driving Self-Organization

July 8, 2015

Bangalore Traffic

“Too bad the only people who know how to run the country are busy driving cabs and cutting hair.”

-George Burns

I learned to drive in Southern California. I’ve always been kind of proud of that fact. Driving in the southern land of pavement and potholes requires a special kind of aggressive driving in order to survive the freeway melee. You have to learn to barge into a lane when there isn’t any room, to turn left on a light after it turns red, to tailgate in order to keep others from cutting you off. That’s quite a litany of questionable driving practices. All in a typical day of driving in Cali. Don’t mess with me, I’m an expert.

That’s what I thought before I went to India.

Driving in a taxi in India was an eye opening experience. Silly little conventions like lanes are completely ignored. The entire road, from sidewalk to sidewalk, is your vehicular playground. Driving the wrong way into oncoming traffic is a matter of habit – how else would you get where you are going? I tried to count the number of times I was nearly in a head on collision, but I gave up – partly because I lost count, and (maybe) because I was distracted by my own screaming.

Don’t get me wrong: I was in complete and utter admiration. The level of self-organization and complexity was breathtaking! With what appeared to be a complete absence of rules, people managed to get to and from work every day amidst what appeared to be complete chaos. I very quickly resolved to never lecture anyone on the merits of self-organization ever again! Why? Because apparently I’m an amateur. If you want a lesson in professional level self-organization, don’t talk to me. Talk to a taxi driver in Bangalore.

Someone asked me if I thought I could drive in that traffic. My answer was yes, but not because I think I’m good. Quite the opposite in fact. The Indian driving system appeared to be remarkably tolerant of incompetence. The traffic ebbed and flowed around complete bumbling dolts with apparent ease. Contrast that with where I live in Seattle: one idiot in the left lane can shut down an entire freeway for hours.

Each day in India, I took a one hour commute to and from the office through complete chaos. We circumvented obstacles that would have shut down a US freeway for hours. The creativity on display was dazzling. And as an added bonus, I was thankful to be alive when I arrived at my destination!

Compare that to my commute in the US. Everyone lines up uniformly. We stay in our lanes. Creativity is discouraged. It’s not very exciting. My commute at home also takes an hour. It made me wonder: which system is more efficient?

Under what conditions is a system with fewer rules faster than a system with relatively rigid rules? It was tempting to look at the Bangalore traffic and speculate that perhaps it was faster in some ways. It was certainly more exciting (especially after a few beers late at night in an auto-rickshaw). However, a certain level of orderliness also has its benefits.

I find myself on my own humble commute now, cars stacked up in nice, orderly lines behind an endless parade of red tail lights – and I wonder, “What if we had fewer rules?”


Environments for Swarming

October 5, 2014


What kind of environment would best suit a swarming team? I just stumbled across something called the SOLE toolkit while researching this topic. SOLE stands for Self-Organized Learning Environment. It’s designed for children (start ’em young) and provides instructions for setting up this special learning environment. The kit recommends the following:

  • One computer per 4 kids
  • A whiteboard
  • Paper and Pens
  • A name tag

I love this! So our self organizing work environment is configured to encourage shared learning on a single machine (pairing anyone?),  plenty of whiteboards (Yes! information radiators), Paper and pens (do stickies and sharpies count?), and a name tag (team identification perhaps?). These very simple environmental constraints are all that are needed to create a self-organizing learning environment (oh yeah, don’t forget the kids).

These sorts of rules are already pretty common on some Agile teams. The pairing, many whiteboards, and lots of notes are hallmarks of enriched learning environments. So this is a great starting point for creating an environment for swarming too. If you haven’t seen the TED talk and the SOLE Toolkit, you should definitely check it out.


Starting Swarming

October 1, 2014


“prattle without practice”
― William Shakespeare, Othello

Enough prattle! All this theory is great, but how do we actually set the conditions for swarming to occur? How can we make it work?

Initiating the Swarm

The problem with a good swarming team is that you can’t control team membership. Swarming requires a dynamic and egalitarian approach where everyone can decide what they want to do with whomever they please. Management has no role in this at all (other than perhaps creating the space). I suppose you could try and provide a few seed ideas to attract people, but you go into it with no assurance that those ideas will be what the groups coalesce around.

There should be some orientation to the values and principles to start with. We need to find a group that is interested in using the process and understands from the start that there are no explicitly defined leaders or followers. Anyone can come up with an idea, and if the idea is a good one, perhaps others will join you.

So the key ingredients to start swarming:

  • People who have been introduced to and understand the swarming values and principles
  • Some ideas
  • A place for the swarming to take place – preferably a place dedicated to swarming
  • Passion

One more note on the people: radical diversity is required. It’s not sufficient to just toss a bunch of developers and QA into a room and tell them to swarm. It must be open to everyone. ABSOLUTELY everyone. That’s right, toss that cute receptionist from the front desk in there too. Customer Service, the guy from the help desk, and the janitor. Throw them all in. And a customer or two – don’t forget them. Oh, and for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t toss an agile coach in there, they’ll tell everyone how to do it and just screw everything up.

That should get them started. It could be structured like the marketplace in open space. Everyone with an idea goes to the center of the room and writes their idea on a sheet of paper. They stand up and announce the idea, then go to some agreed upon area and wait to see who shows up. Simple. Then let people go wherever their interest takes them. They can be butterflies, bumble bees, whatever makes them happy. If you come up with a new idea (and hopefully people will) then you just write it down and announce it to the group. If there are no takers, no problem: you can decide to continue on your own and develop the idea to the point where it attracts more interest or you can dump it and look at someone else’s idea.

That’s really all there is to it. From here on out you just stand back and let it go. The teams that form will decide how to work together. If someone doesn’t like it, they can move on, make their own team or join another one. No managers. No scrum masters. Just:

Water frequently…

Place in direct sunlight…

And let it grow…