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Originally published in The Smalltalk Report, June 1997.

The Cafeteria Stage

by Jan Steinman

"Hey Jake -- where is everyone?" Aaron said as he walked into Jake's cubicle. "It's quiet as a morgue in here -- they out celebrating victory already?" Aaron Blake was one of the few seasoned Smalltalk project leaders at MegaCorp. He had started their first pilot project, and had followed the rocky Smalltalk road for several successful projects afterwards.

Management liked the results, and so began spreading Smalltalk beyond Aaron's small group. The first Smalltalk test bed beyond Aaron's reach was to be headed by Jake Sather. Jake had a good track record on traditional projects, but had no experience with OO projects.

"I don't know, I think they're in the cafeteria," Jake mumbled. "They seem to be spending a lot of time there lately -- I guess they're discussing design or something."

"He guesses," Aaron thought to himself, but tactfully said instead, "Doesn't that seem a little strange?"

Although he was basically a good manager, Jake had been dealt a bad hand with this project. It was critical, but neither he nor his staff were experienced with the technology. Unfortunately, he succumbed to the common pattern of falling back into his comfort zone, and tried to run this like a traditional, non-OO project.

Now team members could be seen huddled in a corner of the the cafeteria at odd times throughout the day -- nearly every day. It might begin with one pair or threesome, and grow to be foursomes or larger. Eventually all of the team members are making trips to the cafeteria, and staying there for as much as half of the work day when the trips were added up.

What causes this phenomenon? Something is wrong on the project, and the team's morale is in the dumper. Normal channels for expressing concerns are blocked. There is an impasse between team members and management on some aspect of the project. If these were union workers, they might have called a strike. Instead, they are airing their grievances to each other in the cafeteria -- a de facto strike of sorts.

Cafeteria Stage Seeds: Dissonant Goals

In this case, the team members didn't share the Jake's idea of what they were supposed to be building, but Jake wasn't paying attention to their concerns. He had borrowed a couple Smalltalkers from Aaron's group, and the team liked what they heard from them, but it was different than the message management was sending down.

There were many meetings on the subject, but with no agenda, no time limit, and no progress. It wasn't long before it turned from a technical argument into a political battle. Then Jake became the issue of concern, not the technical issue itself.

The Smalltalkers and one or two others started taking their concerns to the cafeteria for discussion. These cafeteria breaks were often up to an hour long. Sometimes more team members would notice who was absent and they'd go looking for them in the cafeteria -- then the whole team would end up in the cafeteria!

"Well, it did seem strange at first that people were disappearing, but we're using 'self directed teams' here -- all that matters to me are results," Jake replied to Aaron's query. But between you and me, I'm not so sure things are going that well."

"Have you let them know your uncertainty?" Aaron asked.

"I can't do that -- I'm the manager!" Jake exclaimed, "Morale would be shot if they knew I had doubts!"

"Maybe it already is -- you'd better get this off your chest," Aaron finished, leaving the cubicle for his next meeting.

Cafeteria Stage Fuel: Mis communication

Often, the "self directed team" is more an excuse for management not to do their job more than anything else. In this case, Jake was caught in the middle, between a team who was rapidly coming up to speed with Smalltalk (both in terms of capabilities and weaknesses) and senior technical people who had planned out a way for Smalltalk to become either the savior of the company, or the reason for failure.

The team let Jake know that they did not share a vision about their direction. They've been given a requirements document that called for a particular result, but they've also been tacitly given the "dream" that important people in the division have for using new technology as a "silver bullet" to solve their problems. On top of it all, they are also supposed to come up with a "OO development process" that will become a company standard.

What is the product here? Is it really solving a business problem, or is it experimentation with new technology, or is it a process and methodology? With these conflicting goals, it is no wonder that there is dissent and mis-communication. And through it all, either for good reason or just because he happens to be there, Jake gets blamed by the team for their troubles.

At this point, several things can happen:

The impasse drags on and becomes a political battle. No technical resolution makes the team members feel they have a chance for success. The experienced Smalltalkers will probably leave the project, and possibly even leave the company. The "dreamers" get their way, and goals are further muddled with statements like "we need the freedom to fail." With that attitude, there is a very large likelihood that the project will fail.

Upper management will figure out how to force the "self-directed team" and its manager to decide on the right technical course. Perhaps the manager has to go; perhaps the team will be split up.

Perhaps the technical direction decision is deferred. Most of the team will not be given an architecture design to work with, and they are back to de facto "it's okay to fail" mode. Then there will be many more trips to the cafeteria, and eventually team members will begin to drift away.

But then again, perhaps something will go right for a change

Cafeteria Catharsis: Clear Direction

"Hey, you're looking chipper today!" Aaron sang out to Jake as they passed in the hall.

"Yup, I've been spending a lot of time in the cafeteria lately!" Jake answered, leaving Aaron with a puzzled smile.

Later, Jake explained in more detail: "You helped me realize that this 'self-directed teams' concept is a bunch of bull. They toss a manager in there who is new to the project, then expect to call all the shots. What 'self-directed' really means is that someone wants authority to call the shots without responsibility for the outcome!"

"I quickly realized who was going to get crucified when it all came tumbling down," Jake continued, "and so I decided if I was going to hang on a cross, it was going to be for something I did, rather than for something I didn't do."

"I spent more time with the team than I ever had before -- of course, I had to disguise it via some excuse to go to the cafeteria!" Jake laughed, "working this through has cost me two belt notches!"

"I figured it was better to have one strong goal that might be completely wrong than to have several goals that covered all the bases but left people confused," Jake explained, "so me and the Smalltalkers you loaned me got together and decided to meet the business goals, and let the technology and process goals slide. Some people are going to get heartburn over this, but at least I don't have to go to the cafeteria to find my people any more!"

"Sounds great!" Aaron chuckled, "So I guess that means our lunch meeting is canceled then? Or should we simply have it any place except the cafeteria!"

Go to the previous column in the series, or the next column in the series.

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