Initially, I learned the "micro context" term from one excellent scrum master. I thought I understood what the word meant, but when I googled it, I realized that there was no obvious explanation for it in relation to the team project work. There was only the explanation of the term itself to be found.
Then this scrum master told me that he and his colleagues used this term at some scrum parties.
The term micro context in IT project teams means that a different context exists somewhere within the team. Projects, scopes, arrangements, limitations might be subjects of micro context. Micro context is thought to be an anti-pattern or, simply put, a problem. Taking a closer look, we can see that the issue of desynchronization between people and teams at work happens pretty often. Nevertheless, below are the examples of micro context so that it's clearer why you need to avoid getting into it.
A part of the project team (for example, a couple of managers) had a call and made a decision, but didn't share this decision with other team members. Well, they didn't share - so what? They can share it later, or others will learn about the decision one way or another. The problem is that these managers started to live in a world where the decision had already been made. So they perceive the reality with this decision in mind. There is a term Split-brain in computing that has a similar meaning.
The rest of the team lives in a world where everything is the same and perceives everything in the project with the old arrangements and decisions. In fact, these two groups see the different maps of reality, and they start to clash in some time. The managers don't understand why the others think the old way, while the rest don't know why the expectations have changed. At another planning session, engineers quietly laughed that they again weren't told about the changes in the project priorities.
The bigger an organization is, the more significant the problem of micro context is for its employees. Let me remind you that the problem is not about the news being delayed. The problem is that someone sees the world differently, not like their colleagues. In an organization, all of its members should look in the same direction one way or another. This is why the problem of micro context starts to influence the process of goal-achievement and productive results. The frustration begins to rise; people get nervous and leave the company.
Some work in the office, some work remotely, some are in another time zone, some are from another culture, some speak a language different from most of the people in the project. With the appearance of hybrid teams, the problem of micro context becomes a lump in the throat. It especially hurts when we don't know about the issue of micro context and constantly wonder:
- Why we are not heard
- Why we are not understood
- Why we don't know about something
- Whether we do something wrong
- Why we don’t have one thing or the other.
How to understand that it is you who create micro context? Try to trace how often you are upset about your colleagues and think, 'I already told this!'
Everything you said to someone but hadn’t written down or tried to deliver the written message to the group of interested people might be considered gone. If we think about the confabulation (a memory error of fabricated memories), we might even say that you can’t remember what you said in the past with 100% certainty.
Apart from discussing something outside the big group, micro context can also appear in such cases:
- When someone is absent and purposefully don’t attend group meetings on planning and strategy, retrospectives
- Smoking rooms when part of the team doesn’t smoke and is absent
- In bars and so-called teambuildings when someone can’t attend
- One-on-one sessions when team activities are mentioned and discussed
- Managers and tops discuss something with a client or team management on team and processes and forget to tell other team members or don’t tell them on purpose.
How can a team avoid this trap? Unfortunately, it's impossible to prevent micro context entirely in the era of hybrid teams. This happens because our human nature stops us from passing knowledge or decisions made to the big group - for different reasons. Sometimes we forget about it; sometimes, our cognitive biases such as the curse of knowledge make us genuinely believe that 'they can handle this themselves.'
However, some practices decrease the risks of getting into the micro context for a team or an organization.
- After each meeting, create meeting notes and publish them somewhere available for the team and other interested parties.
- After writing down the agreements, ensure that you have mechanisms to deliver the knowledge to your colleagues: chats, emails, newsletters.
- If it's essential that a particular person accepts and understands the things you reached an agreement on, tag this person in the document. Even better - share them personally.
- From time to time, several times, at your future sessions, meetings, or calls, take two minutes to remind people about the new arrangements and decisions made for a group.
There is another thing worth attention. Some parts of teams might face micro context when they try to give an impression that they understand everything. For example, two managers speak about new goals and priorities and try to explain a new work format. After the pitch ends, the question arises, 'Does everyone understand everything?' And the managers receive the affirmative answer.
Everyone realizes that understanding doesn't always happen with the first attempt. But due to a habit, fear of being viewed as a silly person, or other biases, we don't say that we have questions. Just silently nod like we understand everything - all is clear, let's get to work.
This imitation of being smart is another thing that creates the micro context for a team. In the example above, two managers don't get the questions and start to live in a world where everyone understands them and accepts their new reality. And the part of the team that pretends to understand continues to live in the old reality. This eventually leads to micro context and problems with synchronization of understanding, rules, expectations, goals, etc.
A curious reader who doesn't want to seem wise might ask the obvious question: why bother with all this micro context? We work with professionals. They are not stupid to tell them a thing several times.
Here, we need to consider several things:
First of all, our perception of time has become faster. There are many distracting factors (I checked messages in Telegram around ten times while I was writing this text). Information noise has drastically increased compared to earlier times. A person might miss your message, see it in passing, not really paying attention. You might have expected a person to read a notification when they were in the subway, reading with their phone, didn't read the whole message, then the connection was lost, and after that, they simply forgot.
The idea is that your information in the delivery process to the addressee starts to compete with other information channels - world, project, family, personal. If you don't care enough about pushing it through, the information might simply fly away.
Secondly, in the era of hybrid teams, globalization, remote work, and other integrations with blurred cultural borders, we need to remember that each person translates information into meaning differently. It's because there are different mental models, cultural and personal values.
Thirdly, people are different from biological and psychological perspectives, so they perceive, process, and remember information differently. Some people might struggle trying to understand the thin context with written text, but they will instantly understand if you tell them the information during a meeting with your camera turned on. Some people perceive through 'Why do we need this?', while others ask 'How is this going to work?'
To sum it up, here are the things you need to do to avoid micro context:
Don’t try to make an impression that you understand everything
- Write down every arrangement, decision, and knowledge
- Make efforts to increase the chance that your colleagues genuinely perceive and understand the information
- When you try to communicate something with your team, try to get some feedback with questions. You might ask them how they understood you or re-tell what they heard in their own words.
Previously published at maddevs.io/blog.