What I Learned From The Tiger Woods Saga

Members on Agile teams must bring their whole selves[1] to work. They do not split themselves into pieces, bringing some to work and leaving others out. Companies that use Agile methods successfully must help team members work as their whole selves.

The recent Tiger Woods “saga” strikes me as a useful example of the problems of splitting the public from the private self. According to the cover story in the February 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, Tiger Woods, guided by an army of advisors, crafted a public image which in significant respects was wholly at odds with his private self.

Unfortunately, managing the multi-facetedness of humans in a standard command and control manner is difficult. So, in order to reduce management burdens, many companies require, either by decree or by culture, that employees pasteurize themselves to remove their cranky individuality and become more uniform. There is both anecdotal and academic evidence[2] that such conformity “shaping” is harmful to individuals and to those around them (and thus to teams and workplaces).

Consider how the typical command-and-control company addresses divorce. Managers encourage the employee to take vacation or a “personal” day (as if every day were not personal) to handle any issues relating to a divorce. When he or she is at work, the employee must function as if the divorce were not happening. That is to say, management requires the employee to maintain the same input/output relationship no matter what the employee’s internal state may be. This is very dehumanizing. Further, this policy does not serve the company’s interests because it forces employees to behave in dysfunctional ways which are harmful to them and to the company.

A while back, I was teaching a two day course on Scrum when the class began to talk about sharing people across teams. The conversation continued for 30 minutes and covered a variety of topics in a meandering manner. After 30 minutes, a guy I’ll call Greg said, “I do not feel as if I am a member of a team.” This feeling was immediately seconded by several other team members and crystallized the discussion. The key problem was not sharing people across teams, but a lack of team feeling and identity. (Hence, little sense of team responsibility, commitment, or progress). If Greg had not felt safe, he would not have been able to share this feeling. The team would have taken much longer to identify the source of its unhappiness. It’s worth remembering that identifying sources of unhappiness or blockage is critical to increasing a Scrum team’s velocity[3].

When an environment is deeply inconsistent with our way of being, we are forced to splinter. Tiger Woods, with his personal and now professional problems, is an example of this. While we on Scrum teams are not athletes, we do have a need for efficient graceful action just like a great golfer does. We should pay attention to maintaining psychologically safe environments that allow team members to be whole.

When we splinter, trust, respect, and transparency suffer. Splitting ourselves has a bad effect. When teams become less trusting, the quality of communication drops, and so does productivity and that pleasurable feeling of productivity that Agile teams require.

[1] I learned the phrase “whole selves” from Lyssa Adkins.
[2] Managing Workplace Stress by Cartwright and Cooper.
[3] www.scrum.org

Michael de la Maza

I am an agile coach and an angel investor. As an agile coach, I have consulted and trained at dozens of companies. Major agile coaching engagements have been with Paypal, State Street, edX, Carbonite, and Symantec. I typically begin with culture first and then proceed to process improvement and business results. I believe in a non-confrontational, non-coercive approach to change in which people are invited to be and act in a new way. This takes the pain out of agile transformations.

With Rob Rubin, an online education pioneer and the Founding VP of Engineering at edX, I recently created DemingWay.com, an online agile education portal that we plan to grow until it has the best agile content and the best learning platform.