How to design a team that would produce software of good quality — knowledge overlap

How to design a team that would produce software of good quality — knowledge overlap

In one of the previous articles, I stated that team knowledge should overlap.

How can one achieve that?

Knowledge comes from learning and practice.

Learning can’t be enforced.

People learn best when team design, culture, and work conditions encourage them.

As our goal is to make people’s knowledge overlap, the most obvious way is to allow them to work together and explain to each other what and why is going on.

There are a few things that will certainly block these social dynamics:

  • EM (Engineering Manager) focus on employee’s individual performance
  • EM focus on employee’s time utilisation

EM focus on employee’s individual performance

Suppose an employee sees that the only (or the principal) thing which matters to their manager is individual performance in delivering tasks assigned to this employee. In that case, it’s unlikely that this employee would be motivated to help others or explain anything.

If you as an EM have individual performance metrics, check Goodhart’s law (possibly read Deming’s or Akoff’s books on systems) and get rid of these metrics.

EM focus on employee’s time utilisation

Physiology of learning

The neuroscientific research about learning has revealed the negative impact of stress and anxiety and the qualitative improvement of the brain circuitry involved in memory and executive function that accompanies positive motivation and engagement.

As learning can’t be done under stress, and even more — learning is an ‘exploration’ kind of activity, one needs free, or, possibly, specially dedicated time for learning.

However, learning and exploration take significant mental effort. If out of 8 hours you propose 2 hours for learning, expect much less performance in the remaining 6 hours.

A good piece of advice to initiate proper learning is to have a dedicated day once in a while (a week is good) where both the student and the mentor have no workload or pressing matters (releases, unfinished tasks, deadlines).

Psychology of learning

Learning requires people to show their vulnerability; hence trustworthy and safe environment with mutual respect is a prerequisite.

Vulnerability:

While learning, one moves from ‘not knowing’ to ‘knowing’, and the first step is to reveal that there’s a lack of knowledge, and this is psychologically challenging, and even more so if the person is very senior in one area and they are just starting in another.

The learning person needs to ‘abandon’ their seniority status and still be accepted and respected in the team.

The first step in achieving this is to make sure everyone does this — everyone learns something and shows vulnerability, which must start with the EM.

You, the EM, must lead people by your example: show your vulnerability, strip off your ‘status’, admit you don’t know some tech, ask the specialist to teach you, make the process transparent, and show how cool it is to your team. Make mistakes in public.

Safe environment:

Make sure no one judges the learning progress; as I’ve said, learning is exploration, and every explorer has their speed.

The strategic goal of getting knowledge overlap in the team can be easily undermined by an appealing urge to make people learn faster and compete.

Please do not copy the school grading system: it encourages competition and is currently severely criticized and revised by modern pedagogy scientists.

When we consider the practically universal use in all educational institutions of a system of marks, we can but be astonished at the blind faith that has been felt in the reliability of the marking systems. (Finkelstein, 1913)
Isn’t it hypocritical to preach about the importance of innovation in education while simultaneously clinging to a system of grading which is almost as archaic as it is useless. (Ferriter, 2015)

Do not introduce any tests or examinations to assess the level of ‘learning progress’ — learning never stops, and you don’t need to add stress bound to arbitrary dates.

Flexibility

It’s tempting to set a ‘growth plan’ for each person in stone. However, your goal is not to make people equal; your goal is to have everyone learn from each other.

You don’t need abstract knowledge with grades in each area; you need knowledge overlap to reduce information loss in communication between people.

Essentially, you create a community of people who naturally want to learn and share (teach). Everyone is different; you as an EM can’t and shouldn’t make them all the same, but instead encourage them to support and teach each other.

Glory

Everyone wants ‘a moment to shine’ i.e., some positive feedback on their newly acquired skills. Why don’t you provide an opportunity for people to show off what they learned via something like public talks?

Occasional volunteer Friday talks seem to be quite a good idea. Don’t push people, but encourage and help them prepare.


To sum everything up:

  • allow proper free time for learning, maybe a half a day per week, like Friday afternoon?
  • lead the process by example, learn from your team, and do it publicly
  • give people space and a good atmosphere: don’t grade, don’t ‘track progress’
  • allow people to show off what they’ve learned

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