This morning, finally, after weeks of observing the process and scrutinizing every possibility for improvement, the team establishes its new rule. Everyone on the team believes that this rule is effective. Everyone imagines the reciprocal advantages that will come from applying that rule immediately, and on a daily basis. Enhanced productivity is guaranteed. What they don't know is that over time, it's precisely this rule that will damage the cohesion of the team through the creation of social pacts.
Let's simplify things with an example. The team decides not to eat in the work area. Mark supports this rule because it's a way to stay more focused on work. Elizabeth promotes it to have a clearly established timetable and reinforce the application of the Pomodoro Technique. Nick won't have to give everyone napkins to keep the keyboards clean. Seeing the positive team results for the customer who wants software for formatting flyers, company management is happy to set aside a little area with a fridge for fruit and vegetables. A dream come true!
Three weeks go by. One morning, Luke happens to bring an apple in a bag. He's working on a spike; he's concentrating hard. From the minute he woke up this morning he can't get that spike out of his head. He's tired; he remembers the apple; he wants something to eat; he grabs it and takes a bite. Someone turns around and glances over without saying a word. The apple's good. Luke finishes it off in a few bites, staring at that string of IFs and trying to apply the principles of the Anti-IF Campaign. No one mentions "Luke’s apple", even in the feedback session at the end of the day or in the days that follow. Luke might not even remember having eaten the apple that day.
Two weeks go by. Mark's getting the demo ready for the flyer customer. It starts at 3 PM and he only has a few hours left. He's hungry; he quickly unwraps the tin foil around a ham sandwich that he bought for lunch. He might remember in a flash that Luca ate something one day too, or he might not. He eats the sandwich to finish the demo on time.
Two more weeks pass. Now the rule of no eating in the work area is systematically broken and no one says anything. In time, the other rules of the team are no longer respected. Sometimes the team doesn't refactor, or write tests…
It might occur to a lot of people that all this was Luke's fault. But that's not true. What happened was that the team didn't defend its rules. And the very concept of rules gradually lost its power with the team. Any rule.
Luke can forget a rule he believes in; it's only human. The other members of the team, every one of them, can help Luke; it's their responsibility to remind him about the team rule that he himself believes in. If they don't, a social pact is automatically created among the members of the team: an insidious agreement, though not necessarily a conscious decision, but one with dangerous consequences every time. "I'm hungry; Luke ate an apple; after all, I can eat my sandwich too. No one will say anything anyway." This might be more or less what Mark was secretly thinking. Following this line of reasoning, any rule can be broken. It just takes time.
The insidious aspect of social pacts is that the team sincerely believes in the very rules they violate. If they wanted to do away with the rules, they'd just have to discuss the issue openly and change them. But, again, the team believes in them. They give up due to a lack of a reaction, due to inertia. The behavior of others isn’t questioned – for the sake of convenience, for lack of time, to keep the peace, to be permissive ("It’s no big deal to eat an apple"), for friendship's sake. We get into the habit of ignoring the rules.
When in agile methods we talk about self-regulating teams, this can't be taken separately from the ability of individual members to:
- Respect and;
- Help the other members of the team respect the rules.
In my experience, teams can't self-regulate if its members aren't good at doing both.
To avoid social pacts, I have a simple suggestion: tell Luke right away that the team has a rule about eating. It has to be done right away. Who has to tell him? Any member of the team. In a mature team, Luke would have heard two or three direct comments. The Coach isn’t a supervisor, and shouldn't end up taking on this kind of responsibility. In really serious cases, she can give a warning, but she’d do better to have the team re-read the rules and remind them of the reasons those rules were established, asking the team whether or not the rules are still valid.
So to avoid social pacts:
- A few clear rules;
- The willpower to respect the rules and help others do the same, and;
- The chance to change the rules whenever the need arises.