Group Coherence for Project Teams - A Search for Hyper-Productivity


Group characteristics and group dynamics are invisible to most of us. We are not trained to detect them, let alone manage them. Our work is influenced by much more than what we see. This can make project success (and failure) sometimes appear to be random.

If you ask a project manager to give you a summary of the state of their project you would reasonably expect the answer to include several metrics. In some cases that might be all you get, or all you feel you need to hear. The bias towards the quantitative is quite prevalent in our projects and in our lives.

The tools and training to identify and analyze qualitative input are a lot less developed. Even project management methodologies that practitioners don't consider "traditional" have only started to scratch the surface of the human aspects of our work.

It is curious that at the end of a project - once the measuring stops - teams can typically describe qualitative factors that influenced their ability to deliver the project. The quantitative voice might quickly suggest "hindsight is always 20:20". However, it seems that the ones that experience the strongest success or achieve hyper-productivity are often the ones that also have qualitative observations. We think exploring qualitative research methods can provide a source of rich learning about teams.

We want to share new research and the insight it offers to project teams.

What is Group Coherence?

Joanna Zweig spent more than ten years researching group characteristics for her Ph.D. dissertation. She formed the Group Coherence Cooperative Inquiry (GCCI) group to learn about Group Coherence. This research team used Cooperative Inquiry, a group research method consisting of cycles of action and reflection to answer a question that the group agreed upon. The question was "What is Group Coherence?"

For this post, Group Coherence is the shared state reached by a group of people that allows them to perform one or more tasks in perfect rhythm and harmony with great energy to overcome obstacles. This simplistic interpretation is a starting point for discussion and we acknowledge that it doesn't begin to do justice to all the interdisciplinary components of Group Coherence that include behavioral, psychological, spiritual and sociological.

In reality Group Coherence is a more elusive concept than one would imagine. Indeed during their research Joanna and her group overlooked Group Coherence, seeing only a great meeting or experience rather than a shift at the group level.

Types of Group Coherence

During their research the GCCI group experienced Group Coherence on four occasions. When each instance of Group Coherence felt different, the group called them "types" of Group Coherence.

They named four such events as instances and types of Group Coherence as Group Shared Experiences:

1. Coming Up With a Common Question to Answer,

Type: Stating the group's problem or common purpose

2. Agreeing to a Common Project to address that question,

Type: Identifying a group action to learn about the problem or purpose

3. Finding and Agreeing to a Common Process was also significant,

Type: Identifying a group process for Practice (An example of this could be the self-organizing nature of Agile methods such as XP and Scrum) .

4. Finding an answer to the research question completed the research process.

Type: Group resolution or group learning based on the question.

Despite being able to recognize these types, they found that Group Coherence was not something that could be planned or made to happen at will. They did, however, identify and describe seventeen ingredients they experienced as contributing to their experience of coherence.

Key Ingredients

Among the seventeen were five ingredients they considered to be "key" because the group felt that these ingredients would be present in every type of Group Coherence.

The key ingredients are listed below. We will discuss them in subsequent posts:

  • Relationship between Individual and Shared Creativity: individual creativity contributing to group creativity.

In coherent groups creativity of individuals can be freely expressed and included in the group's self-organization. Agile methods naturally promote this key ingredient by providing a developer with the structured process to work with colleagues to develop features. Close collaboration with business users, application architects and technical specialists reflects the self-organization of all contributors.

  • State Shift: change in energetic level (like water to steam or water to ice)

Subsequent to state shift, a felt phenomenon, individuals in a coherent Agile group can identify each other's complementary skills without management, visual or auditory clues. Their level of comfort and trust in the group increases.

  • Bonded State: group members bonded but everyone had bonded when Group Coherence occurred.

Feeling of safety in the group and openness of expression allowing instances of unknown to be accepted so the group's self-organizing energy is available to find solutions. Social events serve as extensions of work collaborations.

  • Fugue: accelerated interaction of the group members' activity and interactions producing great increases in group energy.

Interpersonal exchanges in group discussion quicken; people finish each other's sentences and actions; excited creative expression of individuals are part of the interaction of the group.

  • Perception of Group Coherence: awareness of Group Coherence.

Trust in group leadership and fugue responses; awareness that something energetic occurred; fun in addressing challenges together.

Group characteristics are invisible and have to be felt. In addition, we are not trained to detect them any more than we could detect radio waves without a radio. Nevertheless, people recognize Group Coherence as a common phenomenon when its characteristics are described to them. The discussion that allows others to recall feelings of Group Coherence is a good starting point for discussion of Group Coherence.

Perception of Group Coherence

When Joanna shared her research at Agile Open California 2008 during a session she hosted, it is not surprising that everyone who participated, while new to the terminology, was able to describe coherent work groups and project teams. These teams exhibited hyper-productive levels of energy, focus and achievement.

Once it is pointed out to them, anyone in a group that enters a shared state of Group Coherence is able to perceive it and remember it. For example there are the long-lasting bonds amongst team members who share such an experience. Those team members are highly motivated to work with each other on future projects, even creating those opportunities and reacting with enthusiasm when approached. It is possible to recall how much "fun" that project was. There is a shared sense of accomplishment and pride in these levels of productivity reached as a team.

This key ingredient alone might offer hints about why hyper-productive teams are better able to describe the qualitative characteristics of their work that were key to their success. Members of hyper-productive teams are more likely to have experienced Group Coherence and have the Perception to be able to describe it.

Correlation to Hyper-productive teams

We have observed that there is a high correlation between hyper-productive teams and this state of Group Coherence within a project team. Joanna's research gives structure to the search for this correlation and responds to what many of us have experienced and observed in our teams.

If we accept the correlation between hyper-productive teams and Group Coherence then the objectives of a project manager should include something like: "Getting the project team into a recognized state of Group Coherence for maximum sustained productivity and optimal results". This is pretty hard to fulfill when group coherence can't be planned, so the next best thing a project manager can do is to create the conditions to make it possible for the group to experience coherence and remove the conditions that inhibit that possibility.

Activities in the pursuit of Group Coherence at the enterprise level have to focus on creating the circumstances that are conducive for project teams to shift into group coherence. This includes some training to identify known ingredients and manifest unique project ingredients to understand how their interaction might make a coherent state available to the group.

The intention / aim / hope at both team and enterprise level is to increase the probability that Group Coherence will occur at least once. The team is then aware of their shared state and become more likely to be able to reach it again in their current team of individuals or in a future team. From a project management perspective this objective is very enticing because knowing how to improve the team's ability to reach a state of Group Coherence could mean delivering the project in that "perfect rhythm and harmony with great energy to overcome obstacles."

Next Steps

We hope you find this material intriguing and we want to share some of the areas where we continue to explore the application of the Group Coherence research to Agile environments:

  • A backlog can enable clarity in project direction and effectiveness in delivering value. At a group level, defining a Common Purpose that is both strong and highly adaptable can increase the group's ability to execute on the project vision or enterprise strategy.
  • The understanding of the process of Collaborative Interaction can help us identify the group dynamics that prevented a team with 100% willingness to do pair programming from doing it at all.
  • While the Agile practice of continuous improvement is often justified in terms of software quality, the relationship between the individual and Group Experimentation and Creativity can describe the invisible benefit to the group dynamics and success.
  • In cases where Agile adoption needs buy-in from groups close to the development team, a training in Group Coherence concepts can help BAs, QAs and other teams understand and adapt to the new group dynamics being implemented.
  • Some leadership models are more suited to Agile than others. By applying Group Coherence concepts, the enterprise can unleash the emergent leadership characteristics that are shared by the group.

We want to share our thinking as guidance for the enterprise and senior management levels to enable teams to experience Group Coherence at least once and how this experience increases their self-reliance on the search for hyper-productivity.

About the Authors

Joanna Zweig holds a Ph.D. in Integral Studies with an emphasis on Learning and Change in Human Systems (how groups learn and Change) from California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, California and a Project management Institute (PMI) Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. Her research on Group Coherence was motivated by her practical experience in two collaborative professional fields where groups exceeded expectations and experienced enormous energy and success in their goals.

She is a project manager in information technology in large businesses for more than 15 years and a producer and director of theatrical productions for more than 20 years. Her passion for collaboration in creative groups helped her to formulate the idea of group coherence and carry out her four-year research project to find out about it. Her research on group coherence revealed a way to learn about capabilities of collective consciousness. She is currently an independent consultant and CEO of Integral System Response, Inc.

César Idrovo created his first hyper-productive team at JPMorgan London during 2000, in response to strong demand for his own work. He recruited a highly heterogeneous group and implemented "continuous collaboration" to achieve high team cohesion and tangible results. In several instances, his team's tactical solutions were adopted as strategic implementations and are still in use today.

From 2003 he has focused on formal Agile methodologies and adaptability to high rates of change in requirements, creating further hyper-productive teams. As a project and program manager, he has applied Scrum for managing, tracking, and delivering working software in time-boxed iterations and introduced Extreme Programming including 100% pair programming. He has worked on practical complementary techniques to Agile practices for management and executive levels such as Project Patterns and Adaptive Roadmap.

He also blogs at Nonlinear Enterprise where he is starting to exploring creative ways for large companies to deal with nonlinear behavior - and at times potentially explosive behavior - without losing the required adaptability to rapidly changing market conditions.

In 2008 he has given over 50% of his time to nonprofit initiatives, focusing mainly on, chartered for community research and education. It creates, fosters and supports a learning community of Agile leaders in the Bay Area. He contributes as a Community Builder, Organizer and Connector.

He holds a Masters in Engineering from Imperial College London and a Masters in Finance from London Business School.


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