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InfoQ Homepage Interviews David Mole on Self Selecting Teams and Drive

David Mole on Self Selecting Teams and Drive


1. Hi, my name is Craig Smith, I am an Agile editor at InfoQ and we are here at Agile 2015 in Washington, DC and it is my great pleasure to be sitting here with David Mole. How are you doing, David?

I’m good thanks, good thanks Craig.

Craig: You are an Agile Coach at Nomad8 in New Zealand.

That’s right.

Craig: And you guys operate particularly in the big cities in New Zealand, if you can call them big cities, Wellington and Auckland; for those who don’t know you, tell us a little bit about David Mole’s agile journey.

Yes, I am in New Zealand now, I am originally from the UK and that’s where my agile-ness started, probably quite similar to most people is the horrible waterfall projects and spent 18 months of my life on that before I opened my eyes to Agile, but I heard something really interesting in the conference this week about once you’ve seen it you can’t go back and that was definitely the case for me. So, I got initially exposed to it in the UK and then I just started to find my feet in New Zealand and done some work in Wellington, done some work in Auckland. I am starting one step at a time to help New Zealand get a little bit more Agile, I think.

Craig: I guess where I first came across you was when you were Head of Agile at Trade Me, which for our international viewers is the New Zealand version of an eBay or a Craigslist, or something along those lines, which is selling and buying stuff; but I think the interesting think about Trade Me was that you had a look at what Spotify were doing, and the stuff that had been promoted by Henrik Kniberg and you had an article come out a few years ago about how you implemented that model there, so tell us a little bit about why that inspired you and then more importantly how you actually implemented that at Trade Me.

The Spotify stuff is fantastic, you can’t help but come across it and just want to do it, but the story is interesting at Trade Me I think because one of the reasons it was so attractive is becausewe were struggling so much and Trade Me is a fantastic company, full of fantastic people, but we got to a point through our growth where people started to get a little bit stressed out, a little bit less started to go out the door and even though we were still growing and adding people, we were no longer getting more done, if anything we were getting less done.


2. That was I guess the typical .com growth bubble?

I think it is, they say this thing about companies reaching that teenage years don’t they, and Trade Me was just going into its teenage years and you start to get those things that you would expect from a teenager maybe, a little bit of rebellion, and that’s when we came across the Spotify stuff. Originally it just went around the company as an email and someone said “Hey, you’ve seen this white paper?”,” Yes, that looks kind of cool, anyway let’s get back to being stressed out about how slow we are with our big projects” And it took us actually a little while to actually say wwell we could do something really cool with this, what about if we actually tried it. And what was great for us about the Spotify stuff was the new terminology, we tried cross-functional teams, we tried a little bit of Agile before and it had never really taken off, but the new terminology was awesome.

All of a sudden now you were in a squad, and people knew what a squad was because they had read the paper, if we’d said before you were in a cross-functional team, it was like “Oh, is this another team, I’m already in the design team and the technology team and I am part of the Trade Me team everyone keeps saying”, but now we could say ”Right, you’re part of a squad and here’s what a squad is”, and then add to that slowly over time say “Right, what about if you were part of a chapter as well, what would that look like”. And it worked really well for us, so we were really lucky to have, my current partner in crime, Sandy Mamoli was our Agile Coach at the time and she worked really closely with just one squad, that’s how we started off. I think it would have been easy and probably problematic to go with a big bang approach, so we just started with one squad, offered them a full time coach, really helped through those early stages and that’s when we started to see real benefit. Real benefit and then also the people outside of that squad started looking in and saying “Hey, we want to be like those guys, they seem like they’re having fun and they are collaborating and they’re laughing and they are also getting loads done”.

It happened to be they were one of our mobile squads and they were releasing really often compared to what we had done in the past. So it really took off, we started with one squad, then we added another, then before we knew it we had a tribe and then once we had a tribe we had all the things we came with it and it just grew from there really. I think today they sit at 30+ squads, probably grown up to 40 by the end of the year, so it’s one of the bigger implementations of Spotify stuff outside of Spotify, I think now.


3. Was there any resistance from some the traditional parts of the organization, like your HR or executive side, particularly when you start throwing around words like squads and tribes?

There was, and a few people saying we are not Spotify, we are not a music company, why are we doing this, but broadly speaking it’s a great company for giving you enough rope, the initial ethos is one of trust and we’ll see what happens. So the fact that we weren’t going crazy and trying to implement this overnight with a big bang approach gave us a lot of help; anyone who was skeptical could just wander by the squads that were working and have a chat with them and show them what was coming out of the other end of the pipe as well, so there was definitely resistance. You know what it’s like, a change anywhere is difficult. In fact I heard recently that the only two things that people don’t like are how it is now and change and that’s pretty true, so no matter what we did we were probably going to get resistance. So it’s just a matter of, I think, talking to people an awful lot, really working on the communication so, at the same time as really supporting that squad we were doing a lot of communication about what they were doing, why they were doing it and really trying to make sense of this new terminology that was coming out of Spotify and make sure that everyone knew what it was and what it wasn’t as well, it wasn’t this big scary thing, it’s actually incredibly simple, but the simple thing being the hardest to implement sometimes, I think.


4. And what sort of benefits did you see? People are often skeptical because they see these types of ideas, but there has obviously been real benefits to that organization, so what did it bring over what you had before?

The most interesting thing that we saw was that this new form of collaboration, so people were already part of these teams as I said, we started to see the squads going out for lunch together, going out for drinks together and interacting really differently around the office. You could actually walk around without speaking to anyone and know which was a squad and which was an old fashioned team because the squads were stood up and pointing at each other’s desks and running over and moving really quickly and there was just a different vibe coming out of it which people seemed to really, really love, they were happier. At the time we were measuring happiness and motivation and stuff like that as well, we knew from watching people, but we could also see from our measures that these guys are happier somehow and that’s increasing how much they get out the door. So it seemed to be working from all angles really, it was really a fascinating experiment if you want to call it that and fascinating to see these new groups form. When we first implemented this it was probably two, two and a half years ago now, but those initial squads are still the best of friends, it’s amazing, these guys who were were thrown together randomly into this new thing called a squad which we didn’t know what it was at the time and now they are the best of friends because they really started to come together, so it was just beneficial for seemingly everyone.


5. One of the things that I remember reading when you guys went down this path was the idea of self-selecting, almost like a basketball team sign up at high school. Tell us a little bit about that, I think that’s something that people, they can’t imagine how that might work, ”how could I choose my own work”?

It’s funny you say that because everyone we speak to about it and we’ve told a few people about our journey through self-selection, their first reaction is “Oh, my god, no, how could that possibly work, surely your developers are going to end up fighting on the floor and surely there is some poor guy in the corner who is the last one to be picked like school sports”, it’s always the first reaction and it was ours too. But the reason we did it I think is interesting and it’s because I was manager there, as you said, at the time and we were in typical company management meetings and we’d decide who is in the next team and that was really easy when the company was smaller and there were 20 or 30 people in technology, but as we grew it got harder and harder to know people, so I would find myself sat in these meetings saying “Well, should Brian be on the squad or John be on the squad, well I think Brian wants to learn more about this coding language so he should probably be on that area, but he doesn’t get on with her so maybe we don’t, ok, so we’ll switch that around”.

We’d have all these elaborate conversations that would take hours and we would never get it right, we’d guess, but we’d never get it right, and as I say as we got bigger it was harder and harder to know and we even struggled to have names and we would miss people off. And it seemed crazy at the time, but it was a point where we stopped and it was Sandy’s idea originally and we said surely there is a better way of doing this, the people know themselves what they want to do and who they want to work with, what if we let them choose for themselves? And my reaction, like everyone else’s, was “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, here’s all the things that we should worry about that would stop us doing that”.

But then we thought, how could it be any worse, we are already getting it wrong, it’s already really laborious and it’s obviously not working because some of the squads we put together immediately fall out, within sprint one they are already fighting and we were thinking this doesn’t bode well for the future, so we thought great let’s try it, and we tried it at our satellite office, which at the time was our Auckland office, it was just 20 people and they were just about to split into the squads, it hadn’t quite hit them yet; so we went up there with a bunch of sticky notes in a bag and some flipchart paper, not really knowing what we were doing and we said “Hey guys, do you want to pick your own teams, how about we try that”; and we had the initial reaction of, “Well, no not really we would rather be told what to do and we’re a bit scared” but actually within a really short amount of time “This sounds cool, can we try it?”.

So we tried it and it just worked so well, people really bought into the process, we had people who hated standing up, they would much rather be sat at their desk writing code, they hated standing up and all of a sudden they were talking about what they wanted to do, andwhich team they wanted to be part in and I think we knew at at the time we’d touched on something quite special and something people would love; and by, I think it was half a day later, we had three fully formed squads, everyone was either in the squad they wanted to be in or if they weren’t they knew exactly why and what they were covering, so that’s a completely different scenario for me as a manager saying you are now in this squad, go sit over there. So everyone seemed really happy with the outcome and we thought maybe this could work on a bigger scale, let’s see how it goes, so those squads kind of bedded in, we supported them, we coached them and as it happened they got better and better and they’ve grown into fantastic things to this day.

Anyway, we went back to Wellington to our main office and at the same time we were continuing to grow and add new squads and add new people and then we said why don’t we get this tribe and let them self-select next, we did it with 20 people why don’t we try with 30-40 people, but as we were doing that we questioned ourselves and said well actually what if we just did it with everyone all at once? We need to move quickly and the people who aren’t in a squad really want to be in a squad anyway, so what if we just literally threw all the cards in the air. And that’s what we did, we did it with a couple of hundred of people and we started researching and saying who’s going to help us with this, who’s done it before, what can we do here.

And we found that no one has actually done that before on that scale so we knew we were in slightly uncharted territory, but we knew that the trial had worked and people had loved it and we knew that the process we were able to refine how we had facilitated it from there, so it was pretty scary for us and for them, but we did it and we got in a big room and we threw all the cards in the air and what that actually meant was giving people a photograph, their own photograph and big empty circles on a wall and some facilitation techniques behind that which we’ve kind of explained already and you take your picture and you pick which team you want to work with and you talk to the people who have also done that about whether that’s the best thing and we had a big overarching statement behind us on the wall which said do what’s best for the company, do what’s best for Trade Me so if there were ever any tradeoffs or potential fallings out or really tough decisions we would say “Hey, well ok, you’ve got a huge amount of autonomy here, but what about the company, at the end of the day we are all paid to do a job so what’s the best outcome for them”. And that led to some people sacrificing themselves and saying “OK, I don’t one hundred percent want to do that but I will try it and I know why I will try it”, and again you got complete buy into that process because people knew why they were having to make those decisions. So, crazily enough it worked and at the end of the day we had all these pictures on a wall of these squads where everyone had chosen where they wanted to be and what would have taken us weeks of negotiation and sat in offices and moving people around was done in less than a day and it has since then grown so now the way of selecting teams at Trade Me is self-selection, it’s kind of the default option, which is just fantastic. We started off really closely facilitating this process and now we hear that a tribe has re-self-selected because they added three squads and we went “Oh, awesome, that’s great”. It’s really empowered the people and given them an autonomy they’ve really seemed to just grab with both hands which is awesome.

Craig: That’s fantastic. So here at the conference you are here talking about the work that you’ve moved on from Dan Pink’s book Drive, I’m sure many of our viewers have seen that book and if you haven’t, go and read the book or watch the video. But your talk here is called “Drive: How we used Daniel Pink’s work to create a happier, more motivated workplace”; there’s been some real buzz about that talk, so tell us a little bit firstly about the motivation for that talk and where that came from.

It’s really interesting because even writing the talk about motivation I found myself really motivated to write the talk, so you’re getting this weird loop as you are writing about the stuff that you are actually feeling and doing, but it came about because we, like you and like millions of other people, saw Daniel Pink’s TED talk, read his book called Drive, read his other books, and thought this is actually awesome, it’s simple but it’s effective and it actually makes sense, it’s really hard to critique it, it’s seemingly quite comprehensive as well.

So, we read that stuff and we watched it and you kind of go away a little bit straighter in your posture and a little bit bubbly, but I think what we did which was different was we actually translated that into real stuff because it’s really easy to say Dan Pink is awesome, the video is awesome, great, now go back to work, and the really hard bit is to say how do we actually use this, what do we need to change, what do we need to do, and I remember sitting down with a big piece of A3 paper saying we are going to use this stuff and we got more people over to help and we were ok, Dan Pink at the top underlined, still a blank piece of paper, autonomy, mastery of purpose, write those out, underline them, still a blank piece of paper, but then within no time at all we started to fill it, how could we give more autonomy to people for example, what if we let them choose how they work, so instead of saying you must do Scrum and here is by the book how you must follow, we say here is a list of agile ingredients, why don’t you choose from those, and people are getting reacted really well to that, so that drove autonomy and then what we found is it also drove mastery because people would say “Ah, from this list I don’t like stand ups, I don’t like those meetings” and we would say “OK, cool, well if the purpose of a stand up is to coordinate how are you going to do that if you don’t have a standup”, and it would challenge people to think and understand the real reason why they did all those things that sit in Scrum and Kanban and everywhere else.

We saw people react to autonomy by getting more mastery and then thought again, this might work really well, so back to the drawing board what else can we try. And we tried all sorts of things, that’s partly how self-selection came about, autonomy over who you work with was one of the key things, and there’s really interesting things that happen at Trade Me already, nothing to do with this and we thought well actually, that’s what Dan Pink is saying, so when you’re a new starter, for example, you get a lesson from a barista, the type that makes coffee not does law, about how to make the perfect flat white, something that’s really important if you live in Wellington, in New Zealand. And what we found was new starters would come along, they make horrible noises on the coffee machine and you’d go through that learning experience really from day one, that kind of experience where your brain knows what to do but your hands don’t and your thumbs don’t make sense anymore. And that is an addictive thing to go through so people were like “Oh, I remember what it’s like to learn stuff, I learnt code years ago, but haven’t learnt anything new for ages, but this is really going to actually inspire me”.

We found that people were doing those things already so what could we add to that, what could we tweak and we thought let’s give people the opportunity to do that stuff so we did way more blocks in people’s calendars where they could just learn stuff. And again autonomy to do that, so we weren’t saying on a Tuesday at three o’clock, we were saying this is really important, you guys sort it out. And our design team, I remember, came up with something awesome which was juat a period of time where they would expand their minds they called it, which sounds rather fluffy but it isn’t at all, so our design team for two hours would go out of the office and visit a museum or an art gallery or just go for a walk around the harbor and what we found was that by giving that kind of autonomy, people would take a step back from the busyness of the day to day, must get the next design out, which is really bad for anyone who is creative, they’d take that step back, they’d see something inspiring, come back to the office and it would just change them and it would change their interactions and change their behavior.

All these things starting bubbling up, it was no longer about us sitting down with a piece of paper, we were like this squad’s trying this amazing thing or this squad’s trying this amazing thing and I think what was helpful at the time was we were in the process of moving office, so we were able to as part of moving office, completely redesign the environment. So using these principles from Daniel Pink we introduced things like caravans in the office for meeting rooms, slides between floors and we were able to change what should be a place of work into a place of play. People were all of a sudden having meetings in the caravan and it just changes how you interact, changing the environment changes how people act with each other and the slides brought us closer with other parts of the business that were on different floors, it was now fun, and you got a shot of adrenaline to kind of fly down and see the person whereas previously you might go I’ll just send him an email about the thing and all this stuff started to come together into something where I think we’ve really got something to talk about now.

And the reaction to the presentation has been great, of all the things we’ve put out there and what’s great about Trade Me is they are really open, really open to sharing this stuff, much like I think we learned from Spotify originally where they were quite happy to go “Hey, this is what we are like some of it might be useful and some of it it’s not”, and what we found from the presentation is of all the things we put out I really like asking people which one stuck with you, which one might you use and the great thing is it’s always a different one of all the things we put out there, someone will pick something and go “That was interesting to me, that I really liked”, and of everyone I’ve asked so far I don’t think I’ve had the same answer twice, so it’s been quite nice to see that hopefully this stuff goes out there, they try something they like we did, think of something new and go off and try something else on top of that. So it seems to have worked pretty well.


6. One of the things that I really liked about your talk is not only did you talk about all the things that worked, you also weren’t afraid to talk about the things that absolutely bombed; so can you share with us something that as an experiment that actually didn’t make the mark or spectacularly flopped?

Yes, actually that’s probably one of the bits I enjoy most and I think it would be really wrong of me to go, we watched a Dan Pink video and then did all these stuff and then amazing things happened and nothing went wrong along the way, because that just wouldn’t be true, wouldn’t be reflective of real life and you referred to some of the conversations before around resistance to Spotify and stuff and there was resistance to this as well or maybe a misunderstanding of it so we say, ok purpose is really important, this is what Dan Pink says, and someone can immediately turn that around and say “Great I will give you a purpose, deliver the thing by the first of February or you are all in trouble”.

Straight away the purpose is a date that everyone has to align around and a potential punishment maybe if they don’t and that’s an interpretation of Dan Pink on first glance someone like me would say I don’t think that’s what he meant, but at the same time let’s try it, let’s treat it as an experiment like everything else, much like the caravan in the office, why don’t we just try that and see what happens when a squad has to align around a really tough date and what we found was they really struggled, so people would start tearing their hair out, they’s start moving overly quickly so they would build up a whole load of technical debt that we might not go and fix later on, but by the time they did get to February 1st, even if they made it, even if they did what they said they would do, they’re crawling over line, they’re stressed, they’re tired, and at some point you have to pay back that debt, not just technically but with those people as well you’ve kind of dragged to this point in time. So, that was one; the one I was most disappointed about and the one I do like talking most about is naps What we tried to give was people autonomy over how they worked and we said well a lifehack is to take naps, after 20 minutes you return to your desk, you’re full of energy, it’s a real thing that research backs up, it’s really beneficial.

But what we found was that people taking naps loved it and really did benefit from this stuff, but the people who weren’t asleep got really upset that actually people were asleep, are they not busy enough, what is happening in the world. So things like that you have to not just understand the thing itself, but how that fits in the wider ecosystem because that can have an effect on other people that you may not have predicted. But I still hope that one comes back because I am a big fan of that, of the kind of recharge that could give to someone.


7. What do you learn from a retrospective like that because who do you side with, I am on the side of you, I love taking a recharge nap, but then I can understand that people think that, as you said, you are not getting work done, so how do you then, if you abolish the naps you are saying this is not a good thing, so was there a happy medium when you actually took that apart, how do you approach the people who are actually benefitting from that perk?

I think that’s an interesting one and I what actually happened was, fortunately I didn’t have to go in because if I did I don’t know how I would have made a decision because I obviously support one side as well, but this was one of the squads interacting with the other squads as they did and just taking on really a bit of banter but also a bit of real feedback on what they’d done and just coming to the conclusion that maybe the timing isn’t right. So at the time I remember that there was some particularly tough projects happening, there was a lot of things to get out the door and sometimes with this stuff I think you just have just got to to hit the nail with the thing it is, but with the timing as well, so I think it will come back in future maybe when there is a little bit more harmony, a little bit of reflection on it, but at the time it was just a bunch of people talking to each other and deciding for themselves, I think it’s hard to be on the receiving end of the banter sometimes, it was as simple as that really, we don’t want to upset our colleagues, we don’t want to appear to be not doing work either and there’s that perception that I think that you’ve got to manage, but one of the great things was we were just able to put that to the teams and say hey you guys sort this out and you do what’s right, and again that banner do what’s best for the company was only there on our self-selection day, but I think that principle overrides as well. Right now maybe it’s not right, but hopefully it comes back but the principle being that people just sort that out themselves and that seems to work well I think.


8. Out of all the things, obviously coming from a startup background there was already a culture in place in this organization, but did you see a real cultural change by the self-selection, by the Dan Pink type work?

Yes, that’s interesting because there was already, as you said, a great culture there and one of being a startup, but as a company gets to a certain size and Trade Me got to about three to four hundred people and you are not a startup anymore and they were also listed on the stock exchange as well, so all of a sudden they had a board of people demanding things from the company which they didn’t have when they were hacking it on the fly when they’ve got a much smaller number of people. But the great thing about the culture was it was one of learning, it was one of autonomy and as I said I always saw it as giving you enough rope and then at some point they might pull you back in, but it would always be the default, but we did see a different culture, we did see a different amount of collaboration, as I was saying the squads were kind of jumping around and the changes to the office I think they were really important as well, changes to the environment really changed how people acted and behaved, so that drove a whole cultural change as well and then as we grew it brought in new people, it brought in people from overseas like me and then other people since then as well and you got a lot more diversity which again re-navigate the culture. So I think today, which is as I say a couple of years from this, if there was a perfect cultural assessment, which there isn’t, there are some you can try, but if there was a perfect one, you would see a difference in the culture, what we’d hopefully see is it’s an extension of what we started with rather than re-inventing from the start. But I think the important thing about culture is to see that people are enjoying what they are doing, that’s how you know you are being successful, if you are seeing smiling people. And yes, you have to measure productivity as well but I think that’s a really good outcome of focusing on the people, driving happiness, driving motivation and then all the productivity and the financial benefits come with it as well and I think that’s how you get to the center of the cultural stuff.


9. You mentioned earlier that you are now working with Sandy Mamoli, who you mentioned earlier, on a book that kind of puts together all of this team stuff that you were talking about; tell us a little bit about the book and when we are going to see it?

The interesting thing about what we’ve talked about, and we’ve talked about Spotify and we’ve talked about squads and we’ve talked about motivation is, the one that people always pick up on is self-selection, the one they always pick up on is I can give you a list of ten and they’ll just pick that one out and they’ll come back to it and go “Are you sure about that, could that work”, and then we get a load of questions, and we’ve been quite good so far about putting out what we did and we’ve got a self-selection kit, but we’ve had so much interest we’ve been able to write a book on it so far and we found a publisher in the US which has been awesome and we are in the final stages of that now and the book is called Creating Great Teams: How Self Selection Let’s People Excel and it should be out in a couple of months, just twisting myself and Sandy to really hammer out the final parts. But what’s interesting about the book is that it’s been so motivating to write we’ve loved the process and we’ve also been able to use some of the Agile stuff to write it, so we’ve been pair writing like pair programming which has been really interesting as a coach to actually put yourself in the driving seat and see what that’s like and see the good bits and see the hard bits that come with that and then at the moment we are working remotely on the book as well, and people, as you know working in Agile will throw the question how does Agile work remotely, so we are doing that and we are living that as part of the writing the book itself. But we are in the final stages now and what we expect is that people will go through that and be skeptical but hopefully see that it is possible and see the real benefits that come out of it and want to try it for themselves, what we hope is that people will take our process that we’ve come up with and either tweak it a bit or use something similar and let the people chose for themselves who they want to work with and we’ve seen a few companies do that already and hopefully that word spreads and there will be less people like me, managers sat in a room pointing at cards and trying to move people around and solve an impossible game. So we’ve got really big hopes for the book and we hope it does well.


10. Excellent, we’ll look forward to it. So if people want to know more about you or more about the things you talked about because you have published a lot of different kits and papers on a lot of things we’ve talked about today, where can they find more information?

Yes, come to, we are a boutique consultancy we call ourselves in New Zealand, very select group of coaches, but come to and seek us out, find us on Twitter @molio, for anyone who wants to find it, and get in touch and hopefully have some conversations and tell us about how you used Drive or how you want to use self-selection. It’s our favorite subject so we would love to talk to people about that.

Craig: Great to talk to you today, thanks for your time.

Awesome, thanks, Craig. Cheers.

Nov 13, 2015