This weekend was a watershed moment.
Normally my son's soccer team is shellacked. The reasons vary. Sometimes its lousy luck, sometimes its distracted play, and sometimes the other six-year-olds are obviously breaking the league's illegal substance policy. Regardless I applaud the good that does happen and explain to my disappointed offspring that right now its really more about learning and winning isn't important. (Which is true.)
But this weekend my son's Dragons scored first. Then they scored again. And again. But it wasn't just that they caught a few lucky breaks. They were passing. They were attacking the ball. The were dropping back into a zone defense and not just making a beeline toward the net the first time the opponent touched the ball. It was as if all the coaching the past several weeks suddenly clicked. They got it. They were playing as a team.
By half time the delighted parents were turning to each other and exchanging their surprise. Shrugs of acceptance had given way to grinning pride.
The same thing happens in software. You can tell a software team that's been beaten down by circumstances. There will be occasional flashes of brilliance. However, those are rare and isolated incidents. The other programmers are distracted, either through exhaustion or indifference. People have walled off their own areas and unwilling to move beyond them. The aims are personal and fragmented. Communication has broken down and the little victories are swallowed up by a looming inevitability of failure.
These workplaces are grim. The humor, when there is some, is of the gallows variety.
It is possible, even advantageous, to have this "heads-down" approach in short bursts. Over the long term, however, it leads to big problems. Innovation goes down. Morale leaves. Efforts are duplicated and solutions become more brittle.
My challenge is how to get my team back to the point where "playing" is fun. Like how the crisp passing in soccer leads to good things we need restart the free-flowing exchange of ideas. We need to get communication restored. We need to build positive momentum as we go into our busy season, one completed goal at a time.
We recently launched a major restructuring of our software. To try and jump start some advantageous feedback loops I requested we take a half hour and perform a quick postmortem: identify what went well, what was just ok, and how we could do better with what was missed.
I'm still waiting for a reply.