An experiment in social engineering

Posted: April 17, 2015 in Team
Tags: ,

behaveI have observed an issue with one of my teams where we can come up with a whole list of great actions or process changes, reduce them down to a subset with owners, have everyone leave the room enthusiastic to make some changes, and then have no one actually follow through. I’ve tried identifying explicit owners. I’ve tried SMART goals. I’ve tried helping the group hold itself accountable by setting aside time for them to review the goals after the agreed timebox. The fact remained: when no one was watching, everyone went back to what they did before.

Having recently been through a bit of a ‘noisy’ patch, I have now set off on a social experiment. Instead of focusing on specific actions or processes, I’ve decided to try approaching it from the angle of behaviours. We’re about to go into a ‘freeze’ period (parts of our floor are more waterfall than others and we have a huge core upgrade about to go live) which also means that any process improvements we identify will not really be relevant for the short-to-medium term, so we won’t have the opportunity to try them and see if they actually work. Behaviours, however, should remain fairly consistent regardless of the what work we are actually doing. I’m hoping that improving behaviours will lead to other improvements.

What has happened thus far?

  1. We had a session where I had the team list teams (from any industry) where they felt that the team delivered great service and/or products.
  2. I then asked the team to imagine what characteristics their great teams had: what behaviours did those teams exhibit that led to their success?
  3. We then listed these behaviours (where people had actions, we listed the underlying behaviour driving that action) and ensured everyone understood what they meant.

The next step is to get people thinking. I asked the team to spend the next week observing each other and considering their own actions: which positive behaviours from the list is our team displaying on a day-to-day basis? My hope for this part of the process is that:

  • The behaviours will be front of mind – and may prompt certain individuals to already start changing themselves.
  • We can have more ‘real’ data when we meet for part two which will be to identify behaviours we want to strengthen and goals around how we explicitly do that.

As I know my team tend to forget things as soon as they walk out the door, I’ve tried to keep the observation part front of mind for the next two weeks through a combination of:

  • Email reminders
  • Rewarding people with a small sweet if they report an observed demonstrated behaviour
  • A prize at the end for the person who sends through the most behaviours
  • Emails with relevant articles or information about team behaviours
  • A hand-written poster of the behaviours at the bottom of the team taskboard

We’re currently scheduled to run the second session at the end of next week. I’ll let you know how it goes. As mentioned, this is an experiment. Hopefully it works, but if it doesn’t, then at least I will have learnt something 🙂 Have you had any experience in adjusting team behaviours? What did you try and how did it go?

  1. carlo says:

    hi – my observation is that you’re relying on extrinsic rewards (e.g. sweets, prizes) to drive behavioural change. This may not be too successful.

    Check out:

    to see what the difference between intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards are and how they feature in thought work.

    • Mya says:

      Hi Carlo

      Thanks so much for the feedback! I love that video!

      The sweets thing is just to try encourage people to think about behaviours for the next week-or-so. I agree extrinsic rewards don’t drive behavioural change. In this case it’s just one of the ‘tools’ I’m using to keep the action (“Observe behaviours in our team”) front-of-mind for the next two weeks.

      Keep the comments coming!

  2. stugom says:

    Hey Mya,
    Like Carlo, I drew in a sharp breath when I read that you reward the team with sweets; though I get where you’re going given the response above.

    I am finalising a Uni assignment at the moment and one of the agile adoption case studies focuses on the Dreyfus model of skills adoption. It may be worth a read – specifically the IEEE study by Shinkle.


    • Mya says:

      Haha. It’s quite funny that everyone’s focusing on something I’m only using for 10 days to encourage feedback/observation of behaviours 🙂 Not hoping the sweets will drive any behaviour at all (except perhaps that of encouraging people to perhaps give me some feedback in the moment rather than during the session). Do you have a link to that case study?

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