The (invisible?) influence of structures

When I walked into the room, I noticed the haphazard arrangement… 3 short rows of 4 chairs each here… a circle of chairs over there… a couple of comfy couches and chairs surrounding a coffee table in that corner… 4 chairs around a small table… and some chairs in random locations, as if shaken up like a cupful of dice and somehow landing on their feet. I sat in the front of the 3 short rows. Other people were arriving, sitting down in various places in the room. We were waiting for the session to begin.

After a while, something entered my awareness… at the circle of chairs, there was a lively conversation. At the comfy couches, there was a lively conversation. At the chairs around a table, there was a lively conversation. But in the rows of chairs… we had greeted each other as we sat down, but we were not now engaged in conversation. I turned to the people near me in the rows, pointed out what was going on in the other circles, and suggested that we turn our chairs into a circle. Lively conversation ensued. 

This was Agile 2019, the Audacious Salon session The Oppression of Structure and the Tyranny of Structurelessness with Johannes Schartau. While that initial room layout was never mentioned, I firmly believe it was part of the experience that had been created for us. For me, it left a lasting, visceral memory of how much we are invisibly influenced by the structures around us. If the room had wholly been arranged in either rows or circles, the contrast that prodded me into awareness would not have existed. This experience has prompted me to pay more attention to the subtleties of our structures and how they invisibly influence our behaviors. 

An example comes to mind that most of us will have encountered: hand sanitizer dispensers outside health care exam rooms. In the quest to improve patient outcomes by reducing unintentional transmission of infectious agents, hospitals and health care facilities went through many iterations of trying to improve health care provider compliance with hand-washing. Various pleas, knowledge, threats and exhortations had only a minor effect. What tipped the scale significantly was simply installing hand sanitizer dispensers that could be easily used by the health care provider on their way into the room. A change in structure was a significant driver for a change in behavior.

One way this shows up in our technological day-to-day work is in the transparency of collaboration forums…

Slack, Public and Private Channels, and TransparencySlack Icon

As an organization with distributed teams, we use a variety of communication tools, one of which is Slack. Slack organizes communication into Channels, which are an easy way to organize conversations by team, project, client, technology… whatever. Team members join and leave channels as needed. Slack supports both Public channels (which can be seen, searched and joined by anyone in the overall Slack workspace) and Private channels (which cannot be found or joined except by invitation). (Slack also support direct messaging – a conversation with one or more specific people, without creating a named channel.) 

When creating a channel, we have the choice: public or private? This is a structural decision that influences behavior

For project-related channels, we’ve largely settled on public channels, because these encourage information sharing and transparency. On any large project, common challenges include staying in sync and finding information. By making channels public, we are encouraging shared understanding and shared collaboration. When asking a question, we encourage posing it in a public channel – if one person is asking this question, likely other people will also have the same question. They may see this exchange now, or it is part of the project history that can be searched as that question comes up again in the future. When a team has a channel, we encourage that being public as well – if someone needs to communicate with that team, they can drop in to the team channel, converse on the specific topic, and then leave when their presence is no longer needed. 

Contrast this with what would happen if project and team channels were all private: we would be encouraging information hoarding and knowledge silos, hampering the flow and finding of information, and slowing down the organization. 

I notice another effect as we – along with many other organizations – have stepped into a work-from-home arrangement to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus: the fact of those public channels helps me feel more connected to the other members of my organization, even those who are on different projects and teams. 

This is just one small example of how a seemingly innocuous structural decision has a very real impact on the behavior – and effectiveness – of our teams. 

Questions for thought…

  • In what ways are structural decisions invisibly influencing your organization?
  • In what ways are these influences in alignment with what you want to create? In what ways are they out of alignment?
  • What might you do about that?

Originally published April 2nd, 2020 on the Innovative Software Engineering blog. Republished with permission.