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What You Learn About Teams By Parking Cars

Joel Norman Senior Consultant/Technical Specialist
Yusuf Hakim Senior Consultant
Reading: What You Learn About Teams By Parking Cars

Try It: An Experiment in Equalizing Knowledge and Eliminating Hierarchy

In our Try It Series, we will explain a common Agile or company problem, and provide solutions that have worked for us in the past. We include entire job aides and coaching materials for our readers to experiment with at their teams. We do this to help others and solicit feedback.

Question: How do you enable 100+ teams to execute relative estimation rapidly and set up newly-placed Agile coaches for success?

Answer: Parking Cars. And the coaches learned a lot more than the teams did!

PS: We’ve attached the actual job aide from this exercise later in this post, and we’d love to hear your feedback.

A Little History

Yusuf and I first started working on this problem of teaching relative estimation. We were chewing on the idea of eating fruit. What’s more “Agile coaching” than a PowerPoint on eating fruit? Since we’re good Agile coaches, we would have actually brought in fruit to eat, until we realized the size of knife necessary to cut a coconut would’ve probably exceeded the client’s physical safety standards.  

When considering tooling constraints, we realized that eating fruit on PowerPoint wasn’t going to cut it. It wasn’t memorable, it wasn’t interactive, and to be honest, it was a bit boring. So, we did what all Agile consultants do, we went to lunch, and Yusuf will admit to this, I had the idea of parallel parking cars. We debated, could we really teach relative estimation with one simple question? 

“Given these 10 cars, how much effort does it take for the team to parallel park all these cars?”

At home, Yusuf was teaching his wife how to drive, particularly parallel parking, and her point of view was different than ours. And with all great lunch time debates, I confidently countered that parallel parking my Mazda Miata was a breeze. It was 8 feet long and I could look over the back bumper from the driver seat. Yusuf countered rather passionately, “A Mazda Miata is a manual transmission car, and I can’t drive stick, and with my wife learning how to drive, it would be easier for both of us to park a full-sized automatic truck than your Miata.” 

Then it dawned on us, nearly everyone in our client’s demographic had experience parallel parking, and most drove to work. Even better – each team member had a very strong, opinionated viewpoints on parallel parking that weren’t easy to sway. In fact, we could foresee some spirited debates!

As lunch continued, our debate quickly evolved to include that in 2019, some cars could park themselves, some cars were manuals, some cars were trucks with blind spots, some cars were motorcycles that could be picked up, and some cars might not have reverse. This diversity would promote even more discussions amongst the strongly opinionated individuals on the team.  

After lunch, we huddled around our laptops and experienced our first learning through failure; we built a deck to teach this to teams. We piloted it ourselves, and realized it was just our fruit idea, but this time on wheels, nothing different, nothing to get teams involved, and not memorable.

Frustrated, we went to get coffee. On the walk to campus coffee shop, Yusuf realized we could just bring teams into the parking lot and pick 10 random cars and ask the question. Yusuf surmised, “This coaching isn’t that difficult, we should just get the coaches that are coaching the team and try it.” 

It worked. It worked too well. It was simple, it was fun, and the debate was enjoyable and mimicked the behaviors we needed on teams during estimation:  

  1. Understanding problem and goal
  2. Understanding the individual contribution to the goal
  3. Working together to get shared understanding of the work needed to achieve the goal

The next step was to try it with the teams. And when we did, it was a hit. It was simple, it was fun, and it was interactive. But most of all – we learned a lot more about the teams than they did about relative estimation.

The Experiment

As a preface to this section, the minimal guidance given to the team. We discovered these 3 distinct patterns. See the attached job aide.

Discovery: Teams had 3 Distinct Methods for Estimating the Work

Method 1: Individual Researchers

Some teams worked as individuals and delegated a car to each team member. In most of these cases, the individual would bring a report back of their viewpoint, some teams would consume unchallenged, other teams would debate. What we saw was that the way the work was being delegated and who was delegating the work showed more about the team than about the individual’s contribution to the estimation. We attribute this to the Power Hierarchy overpowering the Knowledge Hierarchy. 

Method 2: Pairing Researchers

Pairing teams tended to have a better estimation simply because two or more team members were researching the idea. However, the delegation of the work and who was delegating the work illustrated the team’s behavior. 

Method 3: Mobbing Researchers

Mobbing Researching teams would go car to car and discuss the challenges of parallel parking each car as a whole team. It was interesting to watch who was leading the conversation. Power Hierarchy teams were led by the power holders. Knowledge Hierarchy teams were led by the most knowledgeable, which changed car to car.

Common Things We Heard

Surprisingly, we heard a few similar thought patterns from the teams.

  1. Do we have to drive that car, or can we pick it up?
  2. That’s a truck, can we drive over the curb?
  3. How well does that self-parking work?
  4. Does that car run and have reverse?
  5. I can’t parallel park, don’t trust me!
  6. I’ve never driven that vehicle.
  7. I can’t afford to crash that car.
  8. I can’t drive stick

3 Lessons Learned About the Teams

When Knowledge Hierarchy is removed, most people are eager to contribute to the team and have a shared sense of accountability.

Clearly, these teams were having fun. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a team member throw out the idea, “Maybe we should just pick up the motorcycle and put it in the spot?” Most teams would respond favorably to that idea. In fact, that’s the easiest way to park a motorcycle for a non-motorcycle driving team. We’d suspect that these teams wouldn’t look to their own past and experience on how this work was to be carried out but would be open to fresh ideas. Simply put, it’s okay to be wrong, when no one has the “right” way.

When Knowledge Hierarchy is removed, Power Hierarchy becomes clear.

When Power Hierarchy was clearly evident, the team would be instructed on how to complete the work based upon the power holders. Rarely would teams pitch the idea of picking up the motorcycle. Some teams would pitch it and ask the power holders for permission to do the work this way.

On some teams, Power Hierarchy overpowers Knowledge Hierarchy.

When power hierarchy was clear, we saw common failure modes. For example, in 2019 self-parking cars were becoming more prevalent, so owners of those cars had a different opinions on their capabilities than non-owners. Owners of self-parking cars would be skeptical of their car’s ability to self-park in many situations. Non-owners with power would ignore the inputs of owners. The team would consume the Power holder’s estimate, regardless of the facts presented by the owner. Power hierarchy often missed the finer, more important details.

Conclusion

Regardless of the research format, the most successful teams invented and agreed upon the working norm to research the work as a team. This pattern was the following:

  1. Decide how to do the research by asking for brainstorming ideas.
  2. Set expectations of the accountability of the team.
  3. Gather and vigorously debate the results and findings in their research, regardless of position on the team absent of power hierarchy.

What We Did Next

As coaches, we work with people on teams in organizations. Through this exercise, and early in the team formation process we were able to discover the individual behaviors that do not contribute to a healthy team. We were able to take our observations and apply the proper coaching and organization structure to create success for the team and safety for the team members. Without this exercise, it would have taken months to make the same coaching corrections.

Finally, as coaches, we often heard teams discuss this exercise, “Remember parking the cars…” and it gave the team the correct foundation to own their own change. To our recollection, this was one capability we never had to teach again.

In the next Try It series article, we will discuss the more in-depth aspects of the personas discovered in this exercise.

Next Change is About Getting People to Move.

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