Creating Healthier, Stress-Free Teams: An Interview with Michael Wolf

Michael Wolf discusses with us the way to create happier, more productive teams is to liberate them and remove the stress that's holding them back. Michael is presenting a session titled "Group Interaction Patterns: The Keys for Highly Productive Teams" at the 2012 Better Software Conference East.

Teaching classes for computer professionals, Michael Wolf learned how to create safe, fun, and engaging environments for people to explore, discuss, experiment, and learn. Michael consults and trains on diverse topics—from software development processes, user experience, and lean principles to sustainability, urban planning, and community building.

Noel : Your bio mentions that you create learning environments that are fun, engaging, and also "safe." What makes an environment "safe," and why is that an important criterion?

Michael : Unsafe environments create stress that (for evolutionary reasons) close down our brain's creative centers, and helps us live through attacks of sabre-toothed tigers, self-serving colleagues, and even our own self-deprecating habits. Stress focuses our brain on previously learned behaviors.

Safe environments allow our full, cross-functional brain to play (an effective learning behavior of many animals) in safe-to-fail scenarios where every outcome, whether expected or not, is a learning opportunity.

Noel : You've studied particles, engineering components, and people; to learn how they each interact and work together. What similarities have you found in those different types of interactions, and what are the primary necessities for successful, productive interaction?

Michael : In physics, particles exhibit attractive and repulsive forces, and also interesting patterns of interaction. Engineering (and ecological) systems aggregate these behaviors, often with emergent (or seemingly contradictory) behavior that is not observed at lower levels.

Successful, productive teams understand the analogous forces and behaviors of individuals and teams. For example, each team member has a human need to have their ideas be heard and valued, but/and the team has a need to apply a unified effort behind one idea. Successful, productive teams layer and balance the team member's needs to achieve the team's needs.

Noel : "Unleashing everyone" to achieve a happy, productive team - sounds like it creates a ton of freedom for individual team members. What are people often "leashed" by, and how does removing that restraint result in success?

Michael : Liberating Structures (one of the "practices" I introduce in my session) defines "structural elements" that guide the choices structuring group interactions. For example, if the desired outcome is to rapidly generate better ideas faster, a group would be "leashed" if the participation distribution allowed anyone to dominate (or avoid) silent self-reflection, small group discussion/refinement, or large group harvesting of those ideas.

It would also be leashed if the physical space did not allow each of these 3 scales of interaction. "Unleashing everyone" is accomplished by choosing the structural elements that support the group interaction to achieve their goal.

Noel : In regards to the rules of agile, what are some of the strategies in making sure group members know those rules, and that they're followed?

Michael : Upon forming, many groups create "Working Agreements" or a "Definition of Done" that can provide a gauge for the group's interactions or the product's enhancements. "The Core Protocols" (another of the "practices" I introduce in my session) formalizes a set of "Core Commitments" that relate to members being present, interacting with members, focusing on results, and refining the team's working agreements and group process.

This would fall within the Agile Manifesto's principle to "Give [teams] the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done."

Noel : For those already working in groups on a regular basis, what's the best way for them to asses whether their group is doing great, or could use some improvement?

Michael : Regular retrospectives. I'll bring a survey tool that teams can use to regularly collect quantitative data on their qualitative status within 9 categories. It's from "Group Works Card Deck" (yes, another of the "practices" I introduce in my session).

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