Creating Teams: Xmas Trees Experiment

There will be always the time when you’ll need to make changes in your teams. This may be due to change in workload, people joining or leaving the group, change of methodology, etc.

We also had this situation in our office. In our case we were beginning to move towards a more agile model plus we were moving to a new office space. As we wanted to have more cross-functional autonomous teams, we thought this could be a great opportunity to take our next step. But how to do it?

It was very early stage in our transformation of culture so we needed to be careful but at the same time we wanted to use this opportunity to send out a message in the right direction.

The traditional approach would have been easy. We could have told a couple of people to change teams and desks and that would have been it. But how was this solution aligned to our new philosophy based on feedback and self-management? Nothing.

Instead we went down to the bazar where we often go for inspiration. They’ve got so many things there that the probability of finding a solution for your problem is high.

It was Xmas time, so the bazar was full of Xmas motives. The usual, Xmas trees, tinsel, balls, stars and all sorts of glittery stuff. We looked around for a while and then it stroke us.

This is what we did:

-We bought as many Xmas trees as teams we wanted to create

-We bought a Star for every PO we had

-We bought a tinsel for every QA we had

-We bought as many balls as developers we had

We were about to transform the office and we were aware that the impact could be significant. We did it by surprise on a Monday morning. We brought up the Xmas trees and put them in front of everyone and explained that we needed to reshape the teams to accommodate recent changes and also to prepare for what’s coming ahead.

We cleared everyone schedules for the day and decided to invest the day in going through this exercise in the best manner we could think of. We named the trees as Team A, Team B and Team C.

We asked the POs to take a star, Devs to take a ball and QAs to take a piece of tinsel. The instructions were simple, they needed to decorate the trees in a way that they all had all elements.

Sure this implied that each team will get one of the POs, each team will get one of the QAs and the a few developers each; but we believe that this way it would be more engaging than imposing some new teams made by management.

We went several times, let the teams repeat the exercise with different configurations and took pictures of it. Then we showed the pictures and they all voted for the best combination of team members and skills and the new teams were born. Scrum masters were assigned by draw.

Next step would be to create team identities. We encouraged the teams to spend sometimes thinking about their new name, their logo, their values and prepare a short presentation to introduce the new team to everyone.

This was a very positive exercise, new team mates started working together in a fun project. Even couple of teams decided to look for complementary names as they were going to work on the same product.

Once the teams had their identity, they needed to decide how to distribute the desks. You can imagine a huge mess of people fighting for the window or the best desk by some personal criteria. In fact, none of this happened. We gave them a floor map of the office and made paper balls with different colours. Each colour represented a team and asked the teams to work together around the map to place the paper balls in a way that everybody is happy. They did in under 20 minutes with no major issue.

The rest of the day was spent getting settled in the new desks, discussing on sprint format with Scrum Master and for POs to rearrange backlogs for each team. By Tuesday morning, all teams were planning the sprint and getting on it.

Was everybody happy? of course not, we crashed their teams, their previous identity, they lost their loved desk and nobody likes changes. But it needed to be done and this is the least disruptive and fun way we could think of.

Fill The Gap Feedback Experiment

This is a rather advanced feedback exercise. It can become very awkward for inexperienced teams and get dangerous if not controlled properly. Sometimes the line between a genuinely positive transformation and a complete morale destruction is very thin. However, it is very powerful. All teams, even those which seem in perfect harmony at first sight, have their little bugs. Those little bugs may not seem worth addressing. Sometimes, it even feels like an overkill to discuss them as they can generate what it may be perceived as unnecessary unrest for a perfectly functioning team. I beg to differ. In my experience, those little things will become bigger and become unmanageable if not addressed early.

Here’s what you need:

Private Space

As any other feedback exercise, it is always good to provide the group with a private space where they can feel protected and relaxed. Ideally with no tables but with comfortable seats. Consider doing it outside the office, such as in a park, the beach or the terrace of their favourite coffee shop but keep in mind that it will work best when they don’t feel exposed to external people. For this exercise we will organise the group in a semicircle shape with one member in the middle, taking turns. Make sure the space allows for it. It is important to state that everything shared during the session will be kept private within the group.

2 Sentences

The drivers of this format are 2 sentences, one to express positive feelings and another describing negative emotions. It is very important that the sentences clearly state the subjects me and you. This will make it personal and will help the individuals to address each other while sharing the feedback.

Positive sentence:
It (helps/motivates/delights/pleases) me when youbecause

Negative sentence:
It (bothers/frustrates/demotivates/harms) me when youbecause

Make sure the clause because is always present and included in the feedback. The reasons behind the feedback are indispensable to drive true positive change. The recipient needs to understand the impact of their behaviour.

If somebody just says “It bothers me when you are late in the morning” without explaining why that behaviour is worth changing, it will be hard for the recipient to understand the problem and make the personal investment that takes to make true change. Why is arriving late a problem at all? Is it because we depend on that person to perform our job and we need to sync? Is it because it breaks the team’s agreement and we really care about rules? Is it because we make an effort to turn up on time and we expect the same from others? or is it because we love that person so much that makes us sad when they aren’t around?

As you can see, words and format are very important and it is important to be somewhat strict. You can cut some slack to those that struggle to find the appropriate feeling in the list but apart from that try to respect the existing sentence, otherwise it could lose strength and not be as effective. The point of this exercise it to force participants to share things that aren’t easy to share in a normal conversation. It is a good idea to acknowledge beforehand that the exercise is somehow rigid and that we shouldn’t take the resulting sentences literally.

Pen and paper

Prepare pen and paper for everyone and encourage them to take notes while they receive the feedback. Is usually interesting to focus on those things that are surprising or unexpected. In the end, gaining new information about how you come across is of most value.

Bonus: Tissues

It can help to place a box of tissues in the middle of the semicircle to show that it is totally ok to get emotional. You can also explicitly mention it during the introduction of the exercise.

How it works

Form a semicircle with all team members. Find a volunteer who wants to go first and that person will sit in the middle of the semicircle becoming the recipient for the first round of feedback. Whenever someone is ready to share feedback, it will do so by stating the 2 sentences and filling the gaps with their own words.

Depending on the group, it may help if you demonstrate the exercise by providing feedback yourself to the team or to a particular person. Show yourself vulnerable and admit how difficult this is for you too.

The goal of this exercise is for the participants to give honest feedback face-to-face. It is important that they give feedback which refers to the actions and behaviour of the recipient. Do not mix the individual feedback and the team feedback and stop discussions around changing behaviour that respond to a team agreement in place. That feedback should be handled at the team level.

Continue going around the semicircle until all participants share their 2 sentences with the recipient. Allow for the recipient to take notes and ask clarifying questions, nothing else. It is not the time to respond to the feedback provided. Encourage them to discuss the feedback received with the different individuals at a separate time.

Once everybody shared their feedback, the recipient will take a few minutes to review their notes and share their thoughts with the group.

Repeat this process for every team member.


Appreciate everyone’s participation, acknowledging how hard it is to open up and share personal opinions face-to-face. Encourage everyone to discuss topics at their own convenience and remind that all content should be kept private.

The Poker Chips Feedback Experiment

The Poker Chips experiment gave us a whole new level of transparency, communication, trust and performance. So much that I strongly recommend every team to try it and sustain it, but before I go into details, I must set the right context so you understand where we were coming from.

After we ditched the hierarchy and moved to a self-managed environment, we had to experiment with a lot of innovative practices to cope with the gaps that the lack of structure left us. Our teams are used to come up with many democratic approaches to make decisions and implement processes. The methods that we’re going to describe in this post need to be put in this context and must be carefully used in groups with little experience with transparency and honest feedback. For us, after 3 years playing with democratic approaches, the Poker Chips feedback was just one more thing we were trying.

One of the things that nobody was controlling in our structureless model was to make sure that everybody was doing what they were expected to do and that nobody was taking advantage of the system or derailing from the values and work required for the company to sustain its culture and achieve its business goals.

We experimented with lots of performance review exercises. To get a better context read Experiment 1, Experiment 2, Experiment 3, Experiment 4 and Candies Feedback Experiment.

If you haven’t read our previous experiments, this is a brief summary to help you get in context. We tried different ways of giving promotions by selecting the best employees democratically. We played with surveys, voted by categories and even delegated the promotions budget to the group for them to distribute but it was the Candies Exercise the one that took us to this new Poker Chips experiment. The Candies feedback, in short, is an exercise in which every team (as a whole) provides feedback to every other team (as a whole) and, additionally to the written feedback, a number of real candies is also given as a sweet rating of their performance. Typically the teams would collect those candies and all team members would share them and enjoy them together. It is important to say that the candies exercise wasn’t linked to money or promotions in any way but rather open and transparent feedback for the teams to understand how they were perceived and how they could do better.

One of the risks when creating self-managed teams is that having all members the same hierarchy can be confused with not having the right to demand accountability from others. To some degree, there is this feeling of “we are all the same and nobody can tell me what to do” or just not feeling comfortable with confronting anyone without having any real authority over that person. The way we see it, in a self-managed model, everybody has the authority to demand accountability to others, but of course, not the easiest thing to understand or do.

With this method, we make sure that everyone is aware of how they are perceived and what they need to do to improve that perception. Coming from the Candies Exercise, when the candies were collected, we raised the question to the teams “do all members of the team deserve an equal amount of candies?” or “have all contributed equally to this team?”.


We had some poker chips laying around from other workshop exercises so we decided to use those. We directly converted the number of candies received by the team into the number of 1$ coins they could use, and that would be the currency we would use for this feedback exercise.

If you wanna run this exercise from scratch you can decide the number of coins following a formula like this:

c = m * n + e

  • c is the number of 1$ coins per person for the exercise.
  • is the number of team members.
  • n is a variable to control the magnitude of variation. The bigger it is, the bigger gap will create between the best rated and the worst rated members.
  • e is there to avoid an equal distribution by forcing every member to decide who gets extra coins. e must be between 1 and m, the closest to 1 you would foster recognition of performance above average, the closer e is to m, you would be fostering punishment for lower than average performance.


We applied the following format to mature teams, with lots of experience in providing feedback. This is how it would work for a team of 5 members:

  • m = 5, n = 2 to avoid big differences in rating and e = 1 to foster positive recognition. c = 11.
  • Get all team members together in a friendly environment. It can be a playroom, the park or the bar. Whatever works for you.
  • Each member will get 11 coins of 1$ each.
  • In turns, each member will distribute their coins to all the teammates, giving to each one, a number of coins and the justification for it. This happens face-to-face and in front of everyone.
  • Once everybody distributed their coins, we compute the totals and write down the results on a board or a screen for everyone to see.
  • Give some time to reflect on the results and encourage everyone to share their thoughts by asking questions such as “are you surprised by these results?”. Also, encourage team members to ask the group “how can I improve to get a better result next time?”
  • Repeat this exercise often, every 6 to 12 weeks, identify trends and ask the team to define a plan that helps all team members help each other improve. It is ok and normal to have people outstanding but watch out for big differences of results or team members with recurrent low results.

Variation: of course you can sweeten it up a bit and use chocolates or any other yummy feedback unit so the team can have a feast at the end of the exercise!

Bonus: you can consider linking this to your appraisal process. In our experience, when you add money to the mix, you compromise the feedback but it sure can be a great way of running performance reviews for mature teams.

Proceed carefully! This is exercise can raise sensitive conversations and can be very awkward for an inexperienced team, potentially damaging the team moral and personal relationships. Add variations to the above format to reduce the impact if necessary. You can play with different degrees of anonymity. Start safe and send out an anonymous online survey first, where members can give each other feedback privately. Collect all the feedback given and have it discussed by the group without disclosing authors. After some sessions like that, when the team is ready, introduce the coins and just ask team members to put the coins in a box or behind the teammates’ back while seating in a circle on the floor. Eventually, with more experience, gradually open it up until you reach full transparency and one-to-one communication. Do not link this exercise to money or promotions if the team hasn’t practiced it before and feels comfortable with it.


In conclusion, this exercise is extremely powerful. It keeps everybody aware of how they are perceived in the team, allowing them to continuously improve upon feedback and making sure that all team members are meeting the team’s expectations. Running this exercise we had cases where low performers who would have been terminated overtime, had the chance to react and become valuable members of the team. We also had cases were low performers were never able to match the team’s expectation and had to eventually leave the team. Equally, we had cases of people constantly getting the highest scores in the team and that’s usually a great indicator for the team to consider proposing that member for promotions or salary increases. We consider that mastering this exercise is essential for the success of our teams.

Merit Increase in a self-managed group. Experiment 4: Star Awards

At this point, we have experimented quite a bit with different methods and, more importantly, we have grown in terms of trust, transparency and self-management. Check out our previous experiments if you haven’t done so yet (Experiment 1, Experiment 2, Experiment 3).

This time we wanted to tackle one of the flaws that all of our previous methods had, and that is to provide recognition right after the fact and have a process that runs throughout the year rather than just once every 6/12 months. We still had to stick to the corporate annual budget cycle so this is what we did:

8 Stars

There are a couple of things that made us create a “currency” for appreciation. After we ran Experiment 3, participants, in general, expressed that they didn’t particularly enjoy to use direct cash because it made the exercise too much about the money and deviated the attention from the recognition itself.

In addition to this, we don’t always know the available budget, when will be approved, how much it will be or even whether we’ll have one. It’s easier to have an artificial currency that you can exchange for real cash once your organisation has the money ready for it. So receiving a star will be seen as recognition and even though it will be converted to money at some point, it is nice to be recognised right away and enjoy that bit without thinking about money.

Why 8? That’s a great question. We used our gut feeling and previous experience on this. In Experiment 1 you could mention 3 names, in Experiment 2 you could mention up to 15 names and in Experiment 3 there was no limit in regards to how many people you could include in your distribution. With all that in mind, after studying how people behaved in these experiments and also considering how much budget we would typically get for increases, we decided that 8 was a good number both for having a reasonable monetary value when we convert it but also to convey that a star is valuable. Having only 8 for the whole year would make everyone carefully think about who deserves one, rather than just give them away easily for any little thing. We wanted a star to be meaningful.

As few rules as possible

After the 3 previous experiments, the group is now mature and hence we didn’t feel like we needed to set so many rules. We wanted to give people as much freedom as possible to use their stars as they considered appropriate. Stars could be given at any time, to anybody and even several stars to the same person, as long as you didn’t give them to yourself. We only set the limit of the stars (8) and made clear that all the stars will be published, who gave it, to whom and why. Also, because humans tend to procrastinate we said that 4 stars would expire in 6 months just to avoid people forgetting or keeping all the stars for the end of the year which would defeat the purpose of moving to a spontaneous method.

Oh yes, there was one more rule, if you wanted to cash out the stars you received at the end of the year, you had to participate in this exercise, meaning that you had to give out at least 1 of your stars.

Counting Stars

When the year was over, we would look at how much budget there was for this purpose and make a direct conversion dividing the total budget by the number of stars given. Each employee would get that value for every star received. Simple.

If somebody received so many stars producing their increase to go beyond their salary range, they would get a promotion. We actually loved this because promotions are a consequence of a salary increase earned by everyone’s recognition and not the other way around.

Things we considered

There were a few things we considered that we didn’t end up implementing. You may want to try them out though, so here they are:

  • Combine the stars with another method. You could dedicate a percentage of your budget to the Star Awards exercise and distribute the rest with a different method like splitting it equally among all employees to ensure a minimum raise for everyone or delegate some of it to the teams or apply a different method to that bit. Your imagination is the limit.
  • Allow giving a star to an entire team and split its value among its members.
  • Set limits. For example, an employee can only give out up to 4 stars to their team members but the other 4 need to be given to colleagues from other teams.

starsWhat worked well

  • We didn’t have a single employee who didn’t receive at least 1 star. Most people received several during the year for specific contributions, sent by a colleague together with a nice piece of positive feedback. This really motivated people and helped us keep doing our best through the year.
  • Everybody was happy for people receiving a lot of stars, they’re just great employees and teammates and if they received 20 stars it was because they really deserved them.
  • The fact that the stars were public could influence people on their decision. Maybe someone was thinking of one person to give them one star but then changed their mind when they saw that they had already received a lot of them. While we were concerned about things like that happening, and they probably happened, we still think that the positive impact of sharing recognitions frequently with everyone created way more good than bad.

Not so well

  • Again we didn’t have feedback about things to improve. Most feedback was to recognise something great about someone so additional methods needed to be used to fill that gap.
  • With this method, we still have cases of employees that interact with many people and their exposure made them more likely to be considered by more people versus those who spend more time out of the office, with clients or more isolated who are inevitably considered by fewer people as a candidate for a star award.

In Conclusion, this method was an extraordinary exercise. The feeling of giving a star, receiving it and even seeing how others were recognised was a boost and having 8 stars per employee, we had plenty of happy days throughout the year. Still, we think we can do better and that is why we’re working on the next Experiment, one that we think will fill most of the missing pieces. Stay tuned.



Adding HR Skills to the Mix

For years, we have lived with no official HR person. This is pretty unusual for an office of over 70 employees, but hey, we aren’t a usual company; after all, who else is investing in a team of 3 full-time employees fully dedicated to transforming our culture? We thought this profile could help us and we decided to include it in our Kaizen team, and for that, we found the ideal person, her name is A.


The main responsibilities of A are still the typical ones that an HR is expected to do but on top of that, she is part of the Kaizen team.

In the Kaizen team, we do our best so that everyone in this company feels empowered and informed enough to be the best at their jobs. No matter how many processes we put in place or how many tools we can use, at the end of the day, there are always people behind it. Our focus is on people and finding ways for everyone to be safe and free to make good judgment calls and to improve their work continuously.

To that end, working with people is essential, from building teams to their development and growth. This is why we do our best to find frameworks that enable this philosophy, and these include management models, appraisal processes, training and hiring among others. HR brings expertise in all these fields. A doesn’t only help us to stay within the law but also advises when designing and implementing a lot of these ideas to make sure people are considered carefully and respected. We use her experience to anticipate possible outcomes and ensure a positive effect in the long term. At the same time, she can represent Barcelona office in the Global HR organisation to make sure our culture and model are considered in their approach as well as keeping an eye on the competition and the talent market, to make sure we stay competitive.

Since our teams are self-managed, she doesn’t need to get involved in vacation approvals, team assignments or any of those things where she would just be a bottleneck, adding seldom value. That gives her more time to focus on the really important stuff such as making sure all of the above is possible and defining global strategies for motivation, engagement, recruiting and retention.

It took a while for everyone to understand this configuration? always. Are we convinced this was the right configuration? Completely. And when is not, we’ll change it.

Merit Increase in a self-managed group. Experiment 2: Most Complete Employee

If you read our Experiment 1 for the merit increase, you would know that the system, even though it brought a lot of good things to the group, it had some room for improvement.

With a little bit more time we decided to work on an improved version of the “Best Employee” and we created the “Most Complete Employee”.

Very similar format to the previous voting but this time we made a few changed to cover some of the feedback shared by the employees:


With the help of everyone, we defined 5 different categories: Teamwork, Stakeholder Accountability, Knowledge Spreading, Passion and Expertise in Relevant Field.


With this, we intend to provide clear guidelines for the behaviour we want to reward, as well as shaping our culture at the same time.

Up to 15 different people

Although you could leave blanks and vote for the same person in different categories, having the possibility to vote for 15 different people would allow to include more profiles and recognise different aspects, like those teammates that aren’t rockstar programmers but great team players.


Votes wouldn’t be anonymous. Everybody would see who voted for whom. Employees could still vote for themselves but everyone would see it. This would increase transparency and trust in the system and end results.

Online Survey

Instead of ballots and a box, we would use an online survey, this way we would avoid bad handwriting, human errors when counting and made easier to draw all sorts of statistics. The fact that all entries were 100% public made any tampering with this system very difficult.

Regatta System

Final results were based on the “regatta system”. This system rewards those who rather than scoring very high on a single category, scored nicely in several or all categories, showing that this employee was embracing the company values.

How it works:

  • As in the previous system, 3 names are entered for each category, the 1st name gets 3 votes, the 2nd gets 2 votes and the 3rd gets 1.
  • After the count, each category is sorted by highest number of votes, leaving everyone with a ranking position in each category. The one with more votes gets position 1, the second most gets position 2, etc.
  • Once you have all 5 categories ranked, you convert the ranking position into points. The 1st position would give you 1 point, second 2, third 3, etc. For example, if somebody is ranked 1st in Expertise, 9th in Knowledge Sharing, 22nd in Teamwork, 38th in Stakeholder accountability and 3rd in Passion, the total score for that person would be 1+9+22+38+3 = 73 points.
  • Finally, you put everyone in a single ranking and sort from least to most points. Those who got good positions on every category would be at the top of the ranking.

To illustrate it better, here a more complete example:


Those 3 tables represent 3 different categories, sorted by the number of votes received by each employee. Then based on their position in the rank, they get that number of points from each category. Once you add up the points from each category you end up with a consolidated final score that we sort from lowest to highest.


In the final ranking, you can see how Goku ended up first, even though he has fewer votes than Spiderman. The regatta system rewards Goku for scoring high in several categories. Even though Spiderman is the best in category 1, is not as good in categories 2 and 3.

Again, we ran a retrospective after this exercise and these are some things that came up:

What worked

  • People liked the categories, they represent the values of the office and they allowed to recognise different skills and profiles as well as a more homogeneous criterion.
  • Transparency was appreciated and even some voting was commented or challenged which helped shape a common understanding of the behaviour and aspects that we want to reward in our office.
  • It was great to have the opportunity to recognise a lot of different people.
  • People were mostly happy with the results and recognised that in such system people who deserve recognition make it to the top and vice-versa.

What didn’t work so well

  • People working with many different departments, such as a Product Owner, are more exposed and in a better position to be known and be evaluated by others, on the other hand, people working in teams like sales or finance are less likely to be recognised by others, since they work more isolated and often out of the office.
  • Same as in the previous method, all feedback is positive, employees don’t get feedback on what to improve and have to use alternative methods for this. This is especially rough for the only person that didn’t get any vote.
  • Again, this system is somehow time-consuming, involving everyone in the office which makes it heavy and not spontaneous. As shared before is less than ideal to run this only once or twice a year. Recognition is always better right after the fact and is hard to think of events that happened several months ago. We tend to unconsciously focus on more recent interactions with other people.


In conclusion, this method was much better than Experiment 1, we covered some of the gaps and improved significantly. Having to stick to the annual performance review, this is way much better and it allows you to progressively introduce more drastic practices while learning and shaping your culture in the process. For us, the results were no worse, if not better, than the traditional system and on top of that, we engaged everyone in one of the most sensitive decisions, showing trust and continuing in our journey towards more autonomy and self-management.

For the next iteration, we decided to spice things up a bit. Check out the Merit Increase in a self-managed group. Experiment 3: Salary Distribution.


Merit Increase in a self-managed group. Experiment 1: Best Employee

We did it, we removed hierarchy and managers, we are now all equal. Great.

However, as you may already know, most content in this blog refers to a self-managed office within the context of a bigger, hierarchical organisation, our self-management can only get so far, but still, pretty fun.

Before we realise, is that time of the year when the “bigger company” asks us to submit our proposals for promotions and salary increases. There used to be a clear step-by-step process for this, centralised through the managers. With no managers, what do we do now?

To be honest, we didn’t pay much attention to this and caught us by surprise, the deadline was around the corner and we had to find a formula very quickly and send out our proposals to corporate. We decided to run a simple voting.


The process was simple, every employee could fill in a ballot entering the name of the 3 employees they thought to deserve a promotion/raise. Each employee could vote only once, votes were anonymous and hence they could vote for themselves. The name on the first position would get 3 points, the name on the second position 2 points and the name on the third positions 1 point. Next to each name we needed to enter the reasons why we are proposing that employee.

At the end of the day, we proceeded to the scrutiny, counting all the votes in front of anybody who wanted to witness it.

The results were simple, we added up all the points and produced a ranking with the top 10 employees. That is the list that would be submitted to higher management for their consideration, they would still have the final word. The full list was available for anybody to see upon request.

A few days after this process was completed, we ran a retrospective about this method, and these are some things that came up:

What worked

  • Great progress consolidating self-management, for the better or worse, people were more in control than ever when it comes to deciding who outperformed. To trust them with such a sensitive topic, was consistent and giving a clear message.
  • People were pretty happy with the results. People at the top of the list were highly respected and made sense to most.
  • Corporate was also happy. They had a list of candidates where they could still apply their own rules, based on current salaries, seniority, recent promotions, etc.

What didn’t work so well

  • Many people shared that 3 candidates weren’t enough. They had more people in mind that deserve recognition and they would have liked to include more names in their vote.
  • Around ten people weren’t voted by anybody and others got very few points. Since there was only feedback given to people voted, there was nothing for the rest to work with and improve. Additional feedback initiatives were necessary for people to find out why they got so few or no votes.
  • This happened at the end of the year and we know this is not ideal. People tend to reward more recent behaviour and forgets about great work done earlier during the year.
  • People followed different criteria, which can be healthy but also confusing. There were some vague guidelines about what things to consider when selecting your candidates but still many people expressed very different approaches to their voting and that didn’t help towards a unified culture we wanted to create where behaviour is most important than results.

In conclusion, as a first attempt, it was a success but it clearly showed some flaws to be improved. In any case, it was very easy to set up and improvise so no excuse for not trying!

Wanna see what we did next? Check out Experiment 2


Peak 2: Mauna Kea – Climbing the Self Management Mountain Range

2-mauna kea

Mauna Kea – Work

Mauna Kea in Hawaii is probably less popular and touristy than Mount Fuji and it’s already 4000 meters high, so we’ll start feeling the lack of oxygen. When a self-organized team climbs up here we can expect they’ll have to deal with work-related decisions, so we call this one this the “work mountain”.

Execution decisions

While in Mount Fuji we saw how a team could decide among them who would do what, in this step we find how a team performs their tasks, meaning what solution to choose and apply to a given problem. Our experience is limited to software development teams but we believe this step is generic enough that the main idea can be applied to teams in different industries. So if we’re talking about a software development team this would be deciding the architectural and implementation details, maybe the technical solution they’ll use and so on. This is usually easy to delegate for a manager and very positive for the team as it makes them feel more engaged and helps them find a solution that takes into account the vision of every team member.

Vacation and time

Vacation approval and working times are some low added value tasks which are pretty easy to delegate, and yet some of those we still find a lot of managers handling. Delegating part or all of these to teams can be very beneficial for both teams and their managers, whose main task will be to let go of the doubts they may have that the team takes advantage of this.

Most of the teams we have worked with have reached this level, meaning they don’t need to submit their vacation request to any manager approval. Instead, they need the ability to see who in their team is on holiday and when, so that they can ask the group for a convenient time for vacation days and the group can safely agree, based on an internal working agreement about team availability.

Within these teams, working times have more or less the same rules as holidays. What is important for these teams is that the job they committed to do gets done. Some of this job will require close collaboration, for which being together in the office will be key. Other parts won’t require close collaboration and can be done by individuals at the time they prefer, in the office or at home. This is especially clear to teams working in software development but can be easily applied to other teams in different industries.

Decaf feedback

A constant flow of feedback is obviously something extremely important in the agile world and we are fond of finding many alternative ways to keep this flow alive. We took all these possible practices for fostering feedback inside teams and classified them as coffee, because good coffee needs to wake you up, right? We believe good feedback has to have the same effects as coffee, so this feedback that wakes you up is what we call strong feedback. A decaf feedback, on the other hand, is feedback that is just okay but is not waking you up. What makes feedback stronger or softer in this scale is the emotional investment in the exercise, so how hard is to give or to receive feedback, emotionally speaking, for the individuals involved.

At this point in the climbing teams usually start to use decaf feedback. An example of decaf feedback could be an anonymous online survey, in which nobody’s looking at your face while you give feedback, nobody knows who you are and you can just say anything you want. This is pretty easy to do for the giver, even if it could be hard for the receiver, therefore it’s not equally enriching for both, and even inexperienced teams who are new to feedback can use these practices.

How are you doing with oxygen breathe? Should we keep climbing? You’re ready for the next level. We’ll be close to almost 5000 meters soon visiting Monte Bianco.

Peak 1: Mount Fuji – Climbing the Self Management Mountain Range

1-mount fuji

Mount Fuji – Coordination

The first peak in this model is Mount Fuji, with its 3776 meters. If you’ve been there you may have noticed that it’s a pretty touristy place. In fact you can find experienced climbers but also totally inexperienced people who get there by bus.

We associate this mount with coordination, the first stage of self organisation in this model. This is when a team starts to self organize, which usually in our experience comes in the following forms.

Task distribution

Teams that are new to self organization usually follow Scrum or Kanban rules and visualize their work on physical boards where they can easily see who’s responsible for each task. In this phase team members love using magnets or other fancy sticky labels to see who’s doing what after discussing among themselves how to best divide the work and how to best leverage individuals’ skills in the team. Sounds familiar?

Space distribution

Where should teams sit? Who gets the brightest spots? Who gets the noisiest? Answering these questions may seem of little importance (if you’re lucky to be in a place with some self management in place already) but you’d be surprised by how many companies whose teams have managers making decisions for them struggle with this problem every time they form teams or change their members. Solving this puzzle can be an extremely painful process, with competing managers, back and forth consultations, half decisions,  long meetings, layouts that result from exhaustion rather than consent and ultimately, unhappy people.

A few years ago our office had this same problem to solve after reshuffling teams but we were in a favorable situation where we could decide as a group instead of having managers do that.

As scrum masters we were asked to come up with a process to solve the puzzle collectively, and we took the opportunity to be creative and add some level of self organization in the process. We tried to simplify it as much as we could and came up with a funny way to it.

We took all the teams involved to a session and asked them to elect a spokesperson on the spot to represent each team. Then, we gathered all the spokespersons around a map of the office and gave them as many little post it paper balls as team members in their team, each team a different colour, and asked them to place those paper balls on the layout together, discussing among themselves and bringing the voice of the teams they represented. We timeboxed it to 30 minutes and asked to come up with a viable layout in that time.

teams distribution paper balls

We were a bit scared at the beginning but interestingly there was no tension or argument, and people actually were very happy to take part into that because they felt like they had a voice in the decision. Simple, quick, sweet.

Team identity

Team identity can mean many different things to different people. In our experience team identity starts from very basic things like a name and logo, and part of our job back when we formed new teams a couple of years ago was to help them figure those out. One of the first things we did with them was to encourage them to call themselves something more meaningful than just “Service X Team” or “Component Y Team” (yes, that’s also you “API Team no. 2237” out there).

Another great way to let teams find their identity is by helping them find their values, which we usually do by facilitating that discovery process with them. Values are what’s important for them, what makes them angry, sad or proud of what they do. Interestingly, different teams in our experience found very different values which represent them quite well.

By helping them find their identity we helped them finding what makes them unique, so in way we could say we helped them like Sherpas would do (okay, considering this was Mount Fuji maybe we did more like bus drivers than Sherpas).

Start with Fuji

These are just a few examples of things that managers can start to delegate to teams. We consider these in our first level because they can do no harm to the business but they can mean a lot to a team building their confidence in making decisions.

Stay tuned and climb the next mountains with us!