Turning up the heat – introduction

by admin

This is the first slice from the book chapter on the “Turning up the heat” model.

Vegetable soup

My grandfather was a fantastic chef, and he was a great inspiration to me. My parents named me after him, and not only did I inherit his love of, and talent for, cooking, but unfortunately also his girth. One of the first things I learned from him, at a very early age, was how to make vegetable soup. OK, maybe he just wanted some cheap help for mise en place, but at that age, I didn’t care.

Vegetable soup is simple. It consists of carrots, celery, onions, leeks, some herbs, and lots of water. That’s all. He’d let me peel the carrots and onions, and then he’d chop up all the ingredients and throw them into a pot that was so big it reminded me of something the cannibals threw the missionaries into in an old movie. An hour or so later, magic had happened, and out of all these ingredients emerged a tasty soup.

One day, after I was old enough to be allowed to use a small knife myself, I decided to surprise my grandfather and cook vegetable soup myself. Early one morning, I snuck down into the kitchen, got the ingredients, prepped them, then threw everything into the pot and waited for my grandfather to come. When he entered the kitchen, I jumped up, ran over to him, told him I had a big surprise for him, and proudly pulled him over to the stove. He looked into the pot, and what he saw was – mush. Careful to not upset me, my grandfather said that I had forgotten something. “But I put in all the ingredients as you always do,” I said. “Yes,” he said, “but the most important thing in making soup is not an ingredient itself – it’s turning up the heat.”

The same thing happens to us every day. We get a group of great people together, expect they’ll make a great team, and then watch as they act like a bunch of idiots, without understanding why this is happening, or what we still need to do to get them to work well together. We’re forgetting the main ingredient!

The team is the fundamental unit of software development. A team of skilled and highly motivated individuals, creative, focused and productive, is the cornerstone of the Agile philosophy. It does not follow that a group of people, however carefully selected, will auto-magically form a team capable of producing excellent software, on time and within budget.

Any group of people will self organize, according to the social and psychological principles, or ‘human nature’ that have influenced human interactions since the days of cave dwellers. Self-organisation will happen eventually, then, but there are two reasons why leaving a group alone to self organise for software development will almost undoubtedly fail. First, few projects incorporate the time or resources necessary to allow a stable organization to emerge before any work is done. As the saying goes, ‘a drop of water may hollow out the hardest stone,’ but we can’t afford to wait that long. Second, the team that emerges will be likely to have developed according to individuals’ ingrained behaviour patterns, many of which will reflect our primate ancestry. All groups of primates self-organize. This mainly results in the establishment of a pecking order, a rank and power hierarchy. Self-organization ends up being a fight for alpha male dominance. This what probably not what you want – unless you’re the alpha.

So, for a group to become a team, you must turn up the heat high enough that the team members cannot maintain their ingrained behavioural patterns.

If you don’t increase the heat, people won’t need to change the way they normally behave, and so they won’t change. Any self-organization will revert to being the basic primate fight for alpha male dominance. Unfortunately, this isn’t always an easy thing to do. Another thing I learned from my grandfather: for most people who haven’t trained as cooks, heat is a Boolean. It’s either all the way on, or all the way off. A good cook, however, knows how to regulate heat, how to use it to his advantage. He also knows which kind of heat to use in which situation. Too much heat, and things burn. Too little, and they don’t cook, don’t blend well enough to become soup – or whatever else you’re cooking. No heat at all, and they stay in their primitive state – raw. Only when the heat is right does cooking happen, do flavours blend, whilst retaining nuances of individuality.

It’s the same thing with people. Too much heat, and they burn out. Too little, and they don’t feel the need to change and adapt. Only when the heat is right do they adapt their behaviour and meld together to form a team.

As the posts go on, we’ll look at the Heat model, its different temperatures, the thermometers (analysis tools) available, and the various stoves (interventions and techniques) available to turn up the heat on a team.