New book - Individuals and Interactions: An Agile Guide

Posted by Shane Hastie on Jul 18, 2011 |

Ken Howard and Barry Rogers have written a book that focuses on the first value from the Agile Manifesto - "We value Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools". 

The title of the book is "Individuals and Interactions: An Agile Guide".  The authors present a set of tools and techniques to assist teams and team members in their quest to create more effective collaboration and communication environments.  The book is available in paperback and in a variety of electronic formats.  

The authors have provided InfoQ readers with a sample chapter which can be downloaded here.

Shane Hastie from recently questioned the authors about the content of the book.

The book places a lot of emphasis on knowing yourself, and understanding how you interact with others. It presents the DISC framework for self- and team-discovery. Please can you briefly explainthe DISC framework, and why it is considered so useful?

Everyone has their own unique blend of D (dominance) I (influence) S (supportive) and C (critical thinking) elements that make up who they are. It is that unique blend that defines how you behave or interact with people. The framework is useful for many reasons. Perhaps the most valuable use is in understanding and accepting others. That is, natural conflict will occur when people with differing profiles interact with one another. As an example, someone with a very high D element may try and drive a decision very quickly, while monopolizing a conversation and interrupting others in midsentence.

Someone with a high C element will want to slow things down, get into details to ensure the right decisions are being made, and may not get a word in edgewise in a team discussion. There will be natural conflict between these team members – especially those with diametrically opposing behavioral profiles – that can affect overall teamwork, decision making process and productivity within the team. The framework enables team members to understand why this conflict occurs and how everyone can adjust their behavior in order to induce less stress on others. The end result is a team that performs better as a team, thus increasing their overall effectiveness.

Why is knowing your own DISC profile so important?

Knowing your own DISC profile and the DISC profile of your team members allows you to understand who will naturally get along and who will naturally have conflict and why. It allows you to know how to adjust your own communication style when interacting with others.

How does the DISC framework compare to other psychometric tools, such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator? If someone knows their MBTI profile how does it map to the DISC framework you present?

DISC focuses on behavior and emotions in relation to your environment and is used to determine how you can adjust your behavior to work more effectively with others or better adapt to a situation. It is also often used in team building. Myers-Briggs focuses on trying to explain what an individual is like at the core of his personality (e.g., are you introverted or extroverted or do you process and evaluate information more by thinking or feeling) and is used to help you determine how you may change to become more effective. It is often used for personal development.

More importantly, however, is that the DISC is extremely quick and easy for team members to learn (thus becomes “sticky” and easy for the team to apply). It immediately enables a common vocabulary that the team members will use in day to day communication (called the language of DISC). I have seen individuals who previously grated on each other’s nerves, learn and use the language of DISC to get along very well and laugh about their differences.

How does knowing your DISC framework help in team communications, and why is this seen as so important in Agile teams?

Agile teams value Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools. Thus communication is king. Our experience is that the majority of the really difficult problems that projects (and even companies) face are not technology related but rather associated in some way to problems with team dynamics, organizational behavior or communication issues. DISC is not the end all-be-all. But it is one component in helping team members get along, understand one another, and modify communication styles to maximize effectiveness.

In the chapter on team dynamics you present five zones that teams can operate in. Why is it important for teams to understand their zone, and how should teams deal with the situation of different members acting in different zones?

It’s easy to label a team as disagreeable, argumentative, cooperative, or with some other narrow stereotype that describes its expected behavioral tendencies. In actuality, every single problem a team is tasked to solve can elicit different behaviors. For example, some problems are unique and new with little similarity to problems of the past. A generally agreeable team (e.g., one with a lot of high S’s on it) is unlikely to spend a lot of time debating resolution choices. However, a team with a different behavioral blend may tend to spend a lot of energy arguing about resolution choices for the same problem. While the DISC helps us understand behavioral tendencies of a team, that’s not enough. We should also be mindful of the types of problems being solved. Those problems that are similar to problems of the past ought to be easy to solve, but team dynamics could turn an easy problem into a hard problem.

One chapter looks at the concept of "collaborative communication levels" - why is this so important?

Mom says, “Billy clean your room!” Does Billy comply? Was he listening? When I am giving a talk to a group, I like to think that everyone in the audience is captivated and hanging on my every word. In reality, I realize that some are listening, but others are tuned out. If I am speaking and I don’t engage my audience in any type of interaction, I’m simply delivering a speech. A speech may offer some value, but not as much value as other communication configurations. At the other end of the spectrum, if I delve into the audience and interact with them through conversation and activity, the listeners become engaged. This is where collaborative interaction occurs. Not all circumstances make it feasible for collaborative interaction to occur, but when it does, it offers much more value.

These days, it’s the norm to send an email to communicate something. Although popular and highly conventional, it’s risky to assume that sending an email accomplishes some communication goal. The purpose of the email is not served until the other party reads and understands its contents. This may or may not ever happen, and the sender may never know. It sure is easy to click send and declare a communication event “done”, but there is often a high degree of risk that it didn’t serve the purpose intended.

In the chapter on collaboration you suggest that conflict is not a bad thing, and propose cultivating and confronting conflict in a team. Surely conflict is the opposite of collaboration, how do teams deal with conflict to get the positive benefits you suggest, without destroying teamwork?

In the chapter we describe types of conflict that are natural and common. Many individuals tend to want to avoid conflict, yet it’s through conflict that productive interactions occur which may lead to unexpectedly delightful results.

One of the workshop exercises in the book, Moon Survival, does a great job of demonstrating that the churn that exists on teams usually results in higher quality results. On the other hand, working alone and avoiding conflict may seem easier, but it also usually results in a lower quality results. Working through conflict and getting valuable results from conflict requires the right blend of behaviors on the team.

For a team full of high D’s, conflict could be disastrous because stubbornness (or extreme competitiveness) could prevent the possibility of resolution. On the other hand, a team with no D’s may never reach a resolution because the team may wallow in brainstorming, discussion, and/or emotion. An effective team has a good blend of behavioral styles, and therefore a good team has natural conflict based on these opposing behaviors. The best way to ensure positive benefits without destroying teamwork is for the team to be trained in DISC so that the team members understand why these conflicts occur; so that they embrace the conflict (as a good thing); and so that they understand how to modify their own behaviors while accepting the behaviors of others.

You pose the question - "why not hire a team with members who will naturally get along?"; why not, won't that be a more harmonious environment?

Yes, it would be a more harmonious environment. However, diversity is not only good but is a necessity. You need drivers who want to drive projects, sprints or decisions to completion and analyzers who want to make sure we slow down, get into the details and do it right. It is good to have both optimists and pessimists. It is this diversity and balance that enables projects to perform and succeed. The best teams have a blend of behaviors which means the best teams have natural conflict. DISC enables the team to understand this dynamic and to embrace the fact that natural conflict is inevitable yet necessary.

You discuss the impact of stress on team dynamics; what can individuals and organizations do to reduce stress in environments where conflict is to be expected?

We address stress a few different places in the book. Stress is not a factor of an organization’s (or project’s) environment. It is a result of how individuals respond to that environment. A slow pace can be relaxing for some, and stressful for others. Some find the team room concept invigorating, while others find it highly stressful. There is rarely a configuration or set of circumstances that eliminates stress altogether.

Individuals who have adapted their natural DISC behavior to their work environment have the greatest potential for stress impacting the dynamics of the team. As an example, let’s assume Joe is a high D that is playing a high C tester role. If the project suddenly comes under pressure, Joe will likely flip and all of a sudden become very outspoken and straightforward with his teammates. This would throw the team for a loop, potentially snow-balling the effect of the stressful situation. Organizations can create a DISC team wheel so that team members are cognizant of who on the team has adapted their natural behaviors to be prepared for these situations.

On agile projects, self selection of tasks offers team members an opportunity to select tasks that they are best suited for, which can reduce stress. However, as an iteration winds down, the leftover tasks that team members agree to do may be less desirable. This could be as much of a source of end-of-iteration stress as the looming deadline.

You discuss the impact of change on individuals and teams. How do individuals and organizations create a culture that promotes the attitudes and behaviors you suggest; what changes do individuals need to make to be able to adapt to the new way of working?

The Ptolemy example is a great illustration of how resistant to change we can become. Almost 2000 years ago, Ptolemy established the pattern of placing north on the top and south on the bottom of maps. This simple (and arbitrary) decision would be very difficult to undo – just try looking at a map of the country upside down and get a sense of how uncomfortable it feels! There are many practices in most organizations that persist primarily because people are uncomfortable with change. Agile practices introduce substantial change to organizations, and resistance to agile adoption tends to be more about aversion to changing old ways than it is about disputing what agile has to offer. It’s easy for me to say that an individual should embrace the change and abandon old practices that don’t make sense, but without the support of management and peers, this can be frustrating (and in some cases, career damaging.)

Telling change-averse individuals to “just deal with it” could work for some, but in most cases it’s preferable to handle more delicately. Risk-averse individuals are likely to settle in to whatever is conventional and generally accepted. If they don’t believe that a change will become the new norm, they are likely to resist it. The laggards will usually jump on board when they’ve seen a critical mass of others climb on ahead of them. This process can be accelerated if individual (and team) performance measurements are revised to reflect adoption of behavioral and process changes. People tend to conform to however they will be measured.

You suggest a very different approach to motivation from that used by most HR departments. Why, and how do organizations change to a more effective motivation approach?

One common HR practice is an individual performance review process that focuses on establishing individual goals to bridge skill gaps. Individuals who are most successful are ones who have maximized honing their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses. Therefore, an alternative would be to focus reviews on individual strengths and establish goals to continue to refine those strengths. Another alternative would be to establish team reviews as opposed to (or perhaps in addition to) individual reviews. Another common HR practice is to treat all people the same when it comes to motivation. The HR process may assume financial rewards are important, providing monetary bonuses for meeting goals. Or perhaps that an individual’s title or influence over others is important, providing promotional title changes when goals are reached. An alternative would be to treat people differently based on what their actual motivators are. For example, some individuals are motivated by learning, while others may be more motivated by financial rewards. Some individuals are motivated by helping people while others by their aesthetic surroundings. The HR department could modify their approach by understanding the hidden motivators of individuals and enabling an environment which map responsibilities and rewards to optimize each individual’s happiness and thus the team’s performance.

The second part of the book is a structure for a Team Dynamics Workshop that builds on the theory from the first half of the book. How do you suggest teams approach this workshop: must it be completed in a single day; must they follow all of the stages and steps in sequence?

It is not required to perform the workshop in a single day nor in the specific sequence. The workshop was designed to cover many of the learning points in the book, in the sequence that the authors believe is best. The team would not lose any learning points by splitting the workshop across multiple days. Often times, however, we have found that it is best to remove the team from the day-to-day work environment and focus on the workshop. In addition to the educational benefits, the workshop can be a motivational, team building event. If it can be executed at an off-site location (such as a hotel conference room), which can be helpful to set the mood for the team. Splitting across multiple days could lose some of these team building benefits especially if the team gets easily distracted by work related interruptions.

About the Book Authors

Ken Howard works at Improving Enterprises, where he specializes in helping companies increase productivity through efficient practices and pragmatic organizational dynamics. Ken has been involved in most aspects of software development for more than 26 years with such languages as diverse as COBOL, Smalltalk, and Java. Over the years Ken has provided consulting, training, and mentoring to companies in 12 countries around the world, helping with adoption of software development best practices. He eagerly embraced the opportunity to share many of the things he has learned with a broader audience through the publication of this book.

Barry Rogers is President of Improving Enterprises, Dallas, Texas. He is an accomplished Certified ScrumMaster and Certified Scrum Professional. Barry supports clients in both a hands-on and mentorship/coaching capacity supporting a variety of roles including ScrumMaster, Agile adoption mentor, and human dynamics coach. Barry is a Speaker and also facilitates leadership, agile, and project management training sessions.


About the Article Author

Shane Hastie is the Chief Knowledge Engineer for Software Education, a training and consulting company based in New Zealand. Since first using XP in 2000 Shane's been passionate about helping organisations and teams adopt Agile practices. Shane is a key member of Software Education's Agile Practice, offering training, consulting, mentoring and support for organisations and teams working to improve their project outcomes. Shane blogs on the Software Education Trainers Blog.


Publisher Info:
Ken Howard and Barry Rogers are authors of the book, ‘Individuals and Interactions: An Agile Guide’, published by Pearson/Addison-Wesley Professional, April 2011, ISBN 0321714091, Copyright 2011 Pearson Education, Inc. For more info, please visit the publisher site

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Mostly About Personality Profile Use by Scott Duncan

The book is related to Agile in that it deals with interactions between people. It is, however, mostly about using personality profiles and a specific one at that. So if you don't buy into such tools, and then DISC, specifically, the book may have little to say to you. There is certainly minimal discussion of anything particularly Agile as opposed to any other group interaction models. I suppose, however, that a book entitled something like "Using the DISC Personality Profile to Understand Interpersonal Relationships" would not attract the same potential audience as one with "Agile" in the title.

Research support by Udayan Banerjee

It is good to see research from psychology getting co-related to agile practice. We need more such work.

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