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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?"
Blake was one of the few seasoned Smalltalk project leaders at
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
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
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!"
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