Why trust and diversity are that important in IT?

In her last years, my grandma loved to watch Animal Planet. She never had a chance to travel and to see all these wonders of the animals’ world. She’s been to the Warsaw zoo twice, though, but long enough before zoos started to exhibit animals in such a way to show their natural habitats. Animal Planet was her ticket to the outside world she never saw. After decades of hard work as a low-level clerk, she watched the wonders of African savannahs or Asian jungles with an open mouth and a twinkle in her eyes. At times, they broadcasted videos from coral reefs, the shoals of tropical fishes, or they told stories about swarms and myriads of insects within.

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Surgeonfish (Acanthurus leucosternon), Maldives; Uxbona; Wikimedia Commons

The ultimate goal of Scrum

More than ten years later, as a senior software developer, I came across a handbook on how to “spot an Agile impostor.” As much as I find the words like “impostor” offensive, the book came with an intriguing thesis that Scrum teams should gradually evolve to form swarm-like groups, with all that synchronization and harmony of swarms. Teams without formal authority, but whose members know what to do, when, and how.

I stuck to this concept for some time and did some further research. Quite shortly afterward, I came across the term “swarm intelligence”. Coined in 1999 by Gerardo Beni and Jing Wang in the context of robotic systems, describes a phenomenon that’d been known to biology or social sciences for years.

Here’s a short disclaimer:
The term “swarm intelligence” is most willingly used by AI and robotics engineers, but technical applications of SI aren’t my interest here. As I’m writing about Scrum teams, I’ll focus mostly on the intelligence of swarms of living organisms.

I understand that the ultimate goal (or a major one, at least) of Scrum is to form teams, whose integration should encourage the origination of a swarm intelligence of their own. Truth is that swarm intelligence isn’t a reserved domain of insects. If you heard about protests in Hong Kong in 2019, you might have probably watched videos of protesting crowds making a passage for the medical ambulance in an amazingly smooth and harmonious way. In his 2013 book Swarmwise, Rick Falvinge, tells of the benefits of applying swarm logic in the organizations of today. “Swarmwise” teams are, without any doubt, a Holy Grail of every organization leader, as they solve most of the problems specific to groups managed in an authoritarian way.

Trust and diversity

Some swarms are hierarchical. Ants, bees, and many other animals have developed swarm systems with clear subordination relations. But the shoals of fishes are, technically, swarms as well, just like flocks of birds. As the question of swarm intelligence is on the rise, numerous researchers are exploring the issue. One of them was Christos C. Ioannou, who, in 2016, compared traits of swarm intelligence among different groups of animals (Ioannou, 2017). It’s a fascinating read, a great starting point for a journey into understanding the logic and dynamics of SI origination. Same as Konstantinos Katsikopolous and Andrew King’s 2010 paper asking “when can a collective out-perform an expert” (Katsikopoulos & King, 2010).

Another paper, published in 2011, claims that there’s a link between diversity and swarm’s abilities (Krause et al., 2011). This particular one turned kickstarted my hyperfocus and left me thinking.

Imagine you’re a bee. Why would you agree to join a swarm? That one’s easy. Swarms’ abilities are much higher than yours, as of a lonesome bee’s. Acquiring food or avoiding predators is much easier for a beeswarm, but there’s one condition. You have to swallow your pride and agree to act in favor of the swarm’s good. This is because what’s good for a swarm, is good for you as well. There’s no room for individualism and personal agendas. Adherence to this rule builds trust. You trust the other bees that their decisions are motivated by the swarm’s good. Otherwise, you’ll have to be cautious, vigilant about any signs of an ill-will by your fellow bees. You might probably face situations of uncertainty, whether the bee next to you has the same goals as yours. These would make you act independently, which — in turn — would contradict the swarm’s raison d’être, especially when you’re judgments proved wrong.

That’s trust, and what about diversity? Swarms, shoals, flocks, you name it, seem to be homogeneous. What’s more, diversity means the risk of some individuals being rebellious or authoritarian. As a team-playing bee, you can’t allow that. Indeed, swarms don’t need to be diverse as much as they need trust, but diversity offers a plethora of personal traits that the swarm can advantage. Imagine a shoal of some fish species ducking to avoid a shark. And now, let’s assume that there’s some variety of fins anatomy within the species. Some individuals are better at swimming upwards than downwards, and some score equally at both. It’d be something to put the down-swimmers below the up-swimmers. When a shark approaches a shoal, sometimes it’s best to make a hole in the shoal center. Thanks to the diversity, such swarms will be much better at forming holes than shoals of species without differences in fin anatomy. Utilizing the special skills of swarm members can boost the swarm’s aptitude. Diversity helps swarms become abler.

The same applies to software development teams. Homogeneous teams will perform worse than teams able to leverage diversity. Some developers are better at one thing, the others are better at another. Some are testing masters, for some implementation of SOLID principles comes at ease. Understanding and acknowledging the individual traits of your fellow developers is the key to utilizing the team’s full potential.

Sounds great, but how to do that?

Make your mind

If you’re an IT leader, you should first decide if you want to build more performant teams around the concept of trust and diversity. It’s OK not to do that, but since you read my article, it’s more OK to make that decision knowingly.

Observe and communicate

Then, you’ll probably want how to spot the traits of your team members’. It’s not only about their hard skills, but also about soft skills you might want to use. For both, it’s enough to master your observation and communication skills. There are thousands of courses and handbooks on how to enhance communication, and most of them are worth a try. Observation of one’s traits is sometimes a bit more difficult — good communication is not always enough. There are traits able to spot only if you’re a good people reader, and emotional intelligence is something that helps. You can start by reading David Caruso and Peter Salovey’s book on emotionally intelligent managers, The Emotionally Intelligent Manager.

Be the one to trust

Welcome change and focus on enhancement. The Agile manifesto of 2001 mentions both. Keep your observations in mind, and listen to your colleagues. Take care of empathetic and respectful discussions. Encourage your colleagues to share their thoughts, don’t undermine them right away. Besides, they might be shy or introverted, so be the guy (or the girl) they trust. Remember that they might feel better in one-on-one communication, and reassure them about the safety of the environment. Some day, they’ll dare to open.

Improve

Ask yourself questions and learn. What didn’t work one day will work another if you’re on a self-improvement way. Don’t be afraid of thinking, the superpower of every human being.

Is that all to remember?

Certainly not.

But being aware of the trust and diversity and the role that they play in leading teams to perfection is a good starting point. There’s a whole science behind being a good leader, especially in the VUCA world. There are thousands of questions and doubts, and all of them deserve explanations. It’s impossible, though, to know and understand everything, so the best strategy possible is to improve, simple as that. The worst one can do is to assume there’s no room for improvement — this is never true. More than that, it can make us oblivious to the wrongs (or, if you prefer, anti-patterns) around us.

For the last months, I’ve been deep in the pursuit of knowledge on how to be a good IT leader. Some answers are fascinating and amazingly humane, and I’ll gladly share my insights with you in the future. I’ll be honored if you find them interesting.

References

  1. Beck, K., Beedle, M., Van Bennekum, A., Cockburn, A., Cunningham, W., Fowler, M., Grenning, J., Highsmith, J., Hunt, A., Jeffries, R., Kern, J., Marick, B., Martin, R. C., Mellor, S., Schwaber, K., Sutherland, J., & Thomas, D. (2001). Agile Manifesto. https://assets.uits.iu.edu/pdf/Agile-Manifesto.pdf
  2. Caruso, D., & Salovey, P. (2004). The emotionally intelligent manager: How to develop and use the four key emotional skills of leadership (1st ed). Jossey-Bass.
  3. Falkvinge, R. (2018). Swarmwise: The tactical manual to changing the world. Createspace.
  4. Frias, L. (2009, June 17). Stunning video shows Hong Kong protesters part like a wave to allow an ambulance to pass. Insider. https://www.insider.com/watch-hong-kong-protesters-allow-an-ambulance-to-pass-2019-6
  5. Ioannou, C. C. (2017). Swarm intelligence in fish? The difficulty in demonstrating distributed and self-organised collective intelligence in (Some) animal groups. Behavioural Processes, 141, 141–151. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2016.10.005
  6. Katsikopoulos, K. V., & King, A. J. (2010). Swarm intelligence in animal groups: When can a collective out-perform an expert? PLoS ONE, 5(11), e15505. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0015505
  7. Krause, S., James, R., Faria, J. J., Ruxton, G. D., & Krause, J. (2011). Swarm intelligence in humans: Diversity can trump ability. Animal Behaviour, 81(5), 941–948. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2010.12.018
  8. Wolpers, S., & Tomoiaga, A. (2017). 38 Scrum Master Interview Questions to Avoid Hiring Agile Imposters (4th ed). Berlin Product People GmbH.

Senior software developer. (Almost) sociologist, (almost) geographer. Deep generalist.

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