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Mood Control

lytecyde profile image Mik Seljamaa πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡ͺ ・5 min read

Packers have rules of debate, that involve taking turns to score points of each other and demonstrating complete disinterest in the outcome by demeanour and language. Mappers have rules of debate too, but they are different.

Mappers are allowed to jump up and down and shout a lot. This does not mean that they are planning to murder each other, it means they are involved. They will likely go skipping off to lunch together, only to resume yelling on their return.

They will each have their own way of talking about the features of the problem and will need to agree on a common project jargon. Just doing this acknowledges the shared mental model, and focuses the group on creating and challenging a piece of group property, rather than throwing rocks at private sandcastles. Hate the sin and not the sinner!

If a colleague is saying something that you don't understand or seems paradoxical or nonsensical, ask yourself if the person is trying to tell you about a part of the map that you are seeing in a very different way. Check what they mean by words that concern you. Start with the assumption that they have something interesting in their heads, and try to figure out what it is. This style of discussion has been thought about a lot by the Zetetics fans, that broke away from the Society for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (SICOP), to investigate what the rules of evidence that would be able to test for genuine paranormal phenomena might be.

Just being a group of mappers with a shared mental model isn't enough to start modifying it together. Like everything else, we must become explicitly aware of what we are trying to do. At different times in the project, the team will need to do different things. Sometimes you will want to gather difficulties and complicate the model. At other times organizing and simplifying it will be strategic. Sometimes you will want to describe what is needed, at other times you will have to decide how to explain it to the customer.

If different members of the team have different objectives in a discussion, little will be accomplished. One member cannot construct a reasonable description of the technical issues if they are being interrupted by people who think that the goal is maximizing customer acceptability.

This is not to say that all meetings without explicitly declared purposes must explode into name calling - that only happens when the randomly selected goals are mutually exclusive. But even discussions with multiple objectives can be clarified by first openly stating what the objectives are. Nor does the group focus have to be maintained with packer ritual obsessions, because the idea is to clarify the discussion, not prevent it. As ever, we must serve the objective, not micro-police the procedure. If a team member sees something off-topic, that trashes the whole plan, they must speak up. Alternatively, if they see issues that need to be addressed but are not so critical, they can scribble them on a bit of scrap paper and raise them at an issue parade.

Mood control also extends to the overall phase of the project. By identifying particular moods and their changes, the team leader can provide structure to the team's activities, and avoid situations where everyone comes into work each day and wanders around sort of coding, without any clear understanding of what a good day would look like.

Beyond the project, the mood of the overall organization can also have an effect on the project. A major threat can come from the way the organization sees communication within itself. Some organizations have highly ritualized boundaries between groups, leading to a considerable amount of time being spent in self- administration. While there are plenty of forces that can grow the complexity, and hence reduce the effectiveness, of baroque administrative procedures, there are few that can simplify them. This is because only the people that connect with reality and actually do the deliverable work suffer the consequences, while others get progressively more convoluted hoops to jump through while telling themselves they are doing work.

The mapper/packer communication barrier often leads people to say that the effects of an intrusive administrative overhead are limited. There are three kinds of an effect that ineffective admin can produce, at increasing levels of abstraction and hence as mappers know, power.

It takes actual work hours. Some organizations require people to fill in travel expenses forms so complex that people actually reserve a half-day a month just to fill in the forms. That's 10% of the salary and elapsed time budgets sacrificed to unchallengeable, ritual, administrative proceduralism! The data on the forms could be collected very simply, and the remainder of the clerical processing, if really necessary, could be done by clerical staff who cost less and are more abundant.

It breaks the flow. It often takes several hours to actually get a problem into one's mind, and if one is constantly being interrupted by someone from Human Resources confused about their own filing system, one can work for days without ever getting to the few seconds it would take to sort things out. Pretty soon this develops into a kind of water torture, where the wretched programmer's mind veers away from thinking about the problem because every time he or she invests the emotional energy necessary to load up the hard, unstructured question to be considered, it gets blown away. This is a very unpleasant experience. People used to attach electrodes to alcoholics and give them a shock when they touched a whiskey bottle. It's the same thing.

It does your head in. Being a mapper involves seeking clarity and considering multiple issues. If an intrusive and incompetent admin has turned the workplace into a surrealistic nightmare, keeping a focus on the high standards of clarity necessary to do programming becomes much harder, and if one can never predict how long it will take for Purchasing to acquire a software package, no planning based on it can be done.

Teams can do a lot to isolate themselves from admin chaos within their organization, by allowing people that know the game to shield others. In the same way that a good manager shields the development team from external pressures and harassment so that they can concentrate, a good administrator shields the team from lousy admin.

Remember that the packers in the organization will not understand the effects described above, because they do not acknowledge the existence of the approach and state of mind with which we do programming. This is the open plan office problem!

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