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Shock Therapy: Good for the Team

This is a paper I wrote for a master's in Organizational Leadership.

Ref:  See Sutherland's original paper on Shock Therapy - A bootstrap for hyper productive teams (PDF)

Shock Therapy: Good for the Team
David Koontz
Chapman University College

Building new teams is very difficult, getting a team to come together and gel is an art that has been studied in group dynamic and other team building efforts.  Bruce Tuckman’s model of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) is the basis of team building. Scrum is an Agile software development framework based upon empirical process control theory.  Using an inspection and adaptation feedback loop Scrum allows a team to self-manage while constantly improving its process and methods of work.  Many teams require months to reach the performing stage.  A method to reduce this startup cost is a controversial technique named Shock Therapy.  With skilled and competent leadership Shock Therapy will produce the desired results: a productive team with Agile knowledge and experience delivering the desired product.  A great value to the company and the team.
Self-Organizing Groups
Starting a team is always challenging. A group of individuals will take considerable time to form a tight cohesive team. In the forming stage of team development there are many aspects to distract the team from a quick transition to the performing stage.  Businesses desire high return on investment for projects, and are always searching for cost cutting measures.  Reducing startup cost of team development will have cost reduction benefits for the business.  For businesses that have many projects starting up, like software development companies, a cost reduction can have a significant affect on profitability and sustainability. 
Scrum is a software development framework that is focused on a team of cross-functional developers that are allowed to self-organize within the team to design solutions. Sutherland refers to Scrum as an ecosystem, “based on complex adaptive systems theory” (Sutherland, Downey & Granvik, 2009, p. 1).  Within this ecosystem it is natural for the team to find the path of least resistance, to compromise on aspects of practice, and to misunderstand the reasons underlying practices and their synergic nature of support.
Many influences act upon the formation of the team, one of the major influences is the Scrum Master.  The Scrum Master is a team leader and is responsible for the team’s process. “Theorists have argued that leadership is necessary for self-managing groups to perform at high levels (Klein, 1984; Letize & Donovan, 1990; Manz & Sims, 1987)” (Sy, Côté & Saavedra, 2005, p. 1). Although Scrum can be taught in a few hours, Sutherland et. al have found that novice leadership allows teams to “[focus] on aspects of the framework rather than on delivering value to the customer” (Sutherland et al., 2009, p. 2). At MySpace, Scott Downey has used a bootstrapping technique referred to as Shock Therapy to reduce team startup times by as much as 50% (Sutherland et al., 2009, p. 1).  Downey requires the complete team, including Product Owner, Delivery Team and Scrum Master to participate in an Introduction to Scrum training course.  Teams are then required to practice Scrum within a tightly constrained set of rules.  Rules designed to stabilize the environment. These rules define an initial team profile regarding: sprint length, definition of done, acceptance of sprint backlog items, effort estimation, progress tracking, duration of meetings, and respect for the team’s time and process (Sutherland et al., 2009). Self-organization is seen as a privilege that must be earned by the team.  The measure of achievement to earn that privilege is not completion of the training course and the formation of the team, but a traditional value of Agile, delivering customer value.  The teams are only allowed self-organization after they “complete three consecutive, successful Sprints, demonstrate a 240% increase in Velocity, and have a solid business reason to make a change that was agreed to by all team members” (Sutherland et al., 2009, p. 3).
MySpace and other companies have used this Shock Therapy technique to launch new Scrum teams. The teams spend less time in the forming, storming, and norming stages of team development.  Initial constraints on the team’s self-organization appear to have a benefit regarding formation.  These teams reach two and three times the productivity in a matter of weeks (Sutherland et al., 2009, p. 1). Creating a group experience and achieving productivity is the desired goal of the bootstrapping technique.
One aspect of Downey’s experience with these teams is that he does not have the time to coach them through project completion.  He has therefore maintained a strict rule to foster self-sufficiency within the team.  As a coach that will turn over the reins to someone else, he does not take on any fundamental tasks, he cedes power and leadership as the team assumes those roles.  When the team demonstrates that it has knowledge of the process, is delivering customer value each sprint, and is highly productive, it then deserves the privilege to self-organize.
Interactionist View of Conflict
The Shock Therapy technique is consistent with the interactionist view of conflict in group dynamics.  Constraints imposed upon the group bind the group to a well defined process.  Constraints upon the team’s stated value of self-organization act to reduce the process conflict that the team will naturally have in their formation stage. The interactionist view proposes that there are functional and dysfunctional types of conflict.  Task conflict at moderate to low levels are considered a “positive effect on group performance because it stimulates discussion of ideas that helps groups perform better” (Robbins & Judge, 2009, p. 486). While process conflict should be kept low, and “relationship conflicts are almost always dysfunctional” (Robbins & Judge, 2009, p. 486).  The Shock Therapy introduction of the Scrum model allow the team to assimilate the new process behaviors over a period of time while reducing the stress induced by the drastic changes of the Scrum framework to the developers traditional processes.  Removing the process changes from the debate, the team focuses upon the remaining two types of conflict, relationship and task conflict. This reduction in conflict types also allows the Scrum Master to focus on these areas.  The result is quicker stabilization of the Scrum ecosystem in the high energy productive state.
By reducing one of the three types of conflicts the Scrum Master has decreased the storming stage over process issues and quickened the transition to a highly performing team.  The remaining two types of conflict, personal and task conflict will be that much easier to manage.  When these types of conflict are well within bounds and the team has proven its ability to produce customer value, removing the constraints on process conflict will be easily managed also.
“Aggregates of Strangers” (Hall & Williams, 1966, p. 214)
In an early study of group dynamics Hall and Williams (1966) studied the decision-making abilities of groups.  There basic research question being asked was; did an ad hoc group that was typically studied generalize to the population of a well-established group? In this landmark study the researches found strong evidence that “established groups were significantly superior to ad hoc groups in decision performance relative to several criteria” (Hall & Williams, 1966, p. 214). The criteria of interest here is the difference found in the study for resolution of conflict.  The established groups treated conflict objectively as a task type conflict and worked toward creative solutions and “adopt[ed] procedures designed to bring about constructive resolution of differences” (Hall & Williams, 1966, p. 221). The tendency of the ad hoc groups was to view conflict “among strangers as having potential affective consequences which preempt the importance of the task (Hall & Williams, 1966, p. 221). “[A]d hoc groups were likely to resolve differences through compromise procedures whereas established groups responded with increased creativity” (Hall & Williams, 1966, p. 214).
In the software development industry, the dynamic nature of the work allows companies to form many project teams.  The industry has a transient nature, developers are hired as contractors for projects because of specialized skills required.  Project teams are constantly formed, reformed and disbanded.  A technique for quickly transitioning a newly formed group (an aggregate of strangers) into a well established team has tremendous value in the industry.
Functional Conflict is Situational
It has long been held in management theories that some level of functional conflict is beneficial.  Conflict is assumed to reduce the disfunction of group-think.  Many organizations practice formal or informal devil’s advocacy. “When in conflict, people confront issues, learn to take different perspectives, and need to be creative” (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003, p. 741). In a meta-analysis De Dreu and Weingart (2003) contradict this long held view of task type conflict as beneficial. They studied both task conflict and relationship conflict as related to team performance.  Relationship conflict and task conflict were found in the meta-analysis to “both have a moderate and negative correlation with team performance” (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003, p. 748).
Given the mixed results on task conflict and its correlation to positive performance it would be wise to keep a close watch on the levels of task conflict.  Scrum allows the watchful Scrum Master the tools to empirically measure performance and task conflict.  Scrum’s sprint  retrospective is a great opportunity to gauge the task conflict of stories completed during the sprint.  This can then be correlated with the team’s velocity.  Allowing the Scrum Master the opportunity give feedback to the team about their task conflict’s impact upon velocity, and instruction upon self-regulation of this aspect.
Forming a Scrum team is a team building exercise. Team building is largely a socialization function.  During the formation stages of a team the members will undergo an adaptation process.  The Marines call this process boot camp, where the new recruit’s level of commitment is challenged and the drill instructor molds the recruit.  This indoctrination process is use by many organization to introduce the companies values and culture. Schein (2004) defines culture as: “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems” (p. 17).
Contrary to Wall Streets common warning about stock performance, past performance is no indication of future performance; for people past performance appears to a great predictor of adoption of company culture, and future performance. Robbins and Judge (2009) describe a three-stage socialization process as: “prearrival”, “encounter”, and “metamorphosis” stages (p. 561-562). The prearrival stage recognizes that people arrive with expectations, attitudes and behaviors based in their past performances.  This is why the selection process is so very important to company culture.  The encounter stage is when the team member confronts the reality of the current situation and compares it against the expectations. Decision to conform, or to challenge the status quo, or perhaps opt-out by leaving the company are then made.  Significant resources will be committed and expenses expended by the team to socialize the newcomer. This cost is often seen in teams adding individuals to increase capacity.  In the worst case the addition of individuals overwhelms the team’s ability to absorb and socialize new members, which has been well described as the death march in The Mythical Man-Month (Brooks Jr, 1995).  The metamorphosis stage describes the new team member’s process of resolving the major discrepancies in perspectives. The team and leadership can facilitate this process by providing formal and informal roles such as mentors and friendships. With the nature of dynamic teams in many businesses today, one could easily argue that the socialization process never ends. Van Maanen and Schein (1977) stated, “if one takes seriously the-notion that learning itself is a continuous and life-long process, the entire organizational career of an individual can be characterized as a socialization process (Schein, 1971a; Van Maanen, 1977a)” (p. 3).
Good Stories Lead to Culture
Employees learn the company culture through the stories, rituals and language (Robbins & Judge, 2009). “It is with language, metaphors, and stories designed through the language-in-use, that people, organizations, and countries become who they are. The conscious use of language as a component of development serves a vital function in setting the stage for change processes to be more effective and long lasting” (Ricketts & Seiling, 2003, p. 41).  A common story is the Chicken and Pig story which has pervaded the Scrum community.  Told to differentiate between roles in the development process and their commitment levels.
A chicken and a pig are together when the chicken says, "Let's start a restaurant!" The pig thinks it over and says, "What would we call this restaurant?" The chicken says, "Ham n' Eggs!" The pig says, "No thanks, I'd be committed, but you'd only be involved!” (Schwaber, 2009, p. 4).
Scrum teams use the notion of chickens and pigs to distinguish roles and use the labels to denote the rules of the Scrum meeting.  Pigs are the Scrum team members, fully committed to delivering an increment of product during the iteration; whereas chickens are others who are interested in the project but are not actively engaged in production, such as management. Chickens are not allowed to speak in the Scrum meeting because they lack ‘skin in the game’.
Another common story involves the teams velocity. Velocity for a Scrum team is defined as the amount of work effort the team can perform to a set standard of completeness in a given time interval (sprint). Velocity is used in all levels of planning and in predicting project success.  It can be accurately measured, but one part of velocity is effort estimates and therefore constitute imprecision in the aggregate measure. This is highly debated because it is a fundamental measure of team performance.
The scenario concerns how one would predict the weather with very little knowledge of meteorology.  The typical response is that one would use yesterday’s weather as the best predictor of tomorrow’s weather.  This meme becomes shorthand for an idea that there is value in consistency of performance and  predicting future performance is best done based upon past performance.  This adage is used by Scrum teams to suggest that the best predictor of next sprint’s velocity will be last sprint’s velocity.

The veteran Scrum Master will encourage the Agile culture that allows stories and rituals to pervade.  “Stories in the workplace often underlie the implicit assumptions within the workplace community” (Ricketts & Seiling, 2003, p. 39). This jargon once assimilated by a new team member unites them in the organizational culture.  Much of the stories and jargon will be learned on the job and does not need to be taught upfront to create the processes.  However, this language helps to maintain the processes and the culture surrounding the team.

What About Trust?

For the newly forming team this culture will develop as the team is forming. The Scrum Master’s role is to optimize the process and enforce the rules, but also to foster a positive culture.   “Three pillars uphold every implementation of empirical process control” (Schwaber, 2009, pp. 1-2).  Scrum is an empirical process control framework and is therefore built upon these pillars; transparent processes, frequency of inspection, and ability to adapt (Schwaber, 2009).  A culture must embrace these pillars and be willing to make changes.  There are risk inherent in the dissonance associated with restricting the newly forming team’s right to self-organize with respect to the Scrum process. Trust that the team is capable of self-management must also be given to the team. One person to point this out is Tobias Mayer.  In his response to the Shock Therapy article he wrote: “I fear the concept of hyper-productivity, represented by Shock Therapy, will run rough-shod over the essential human values of enjoyment and passion, and the empowering feeling of self-organization, fueled by trust” (Mayer, 2008, p. 1).  Shock Therapy is not seen by all in the community as a positive method of building a team.

Zhou and George (2003) would argue that the effectiveness of Shock Therapy would depend greatly upon the leader’s emotional intelligence.  There study of leader emotional intelligence recognizes the inevitable tensions, conflicts and debates in an organization attempting complex endeavors.  Their findings reveal that employee creativity may be awakened via five routes described as: “identification, information gathering, idea generation, idea evaluation and modification, and idea implementation” (Zhou & George, 2003, p. 545).   Based upon earlier work and the theory that some task type conflict may be beneficial to group behavior and performance.  Their findings are that “leaders high on emotional intelligence will be able to sense this frustration and importantly to create favorable conditions to channel it into creative problem solving” (Zhou & George, 2003, p. 564).  A Scrum Master with high emotional intelligence will serve the team well by facilitating creativity and positive moods.


Scrum is a framework for optimizing productivity of a software development team and reducing project risks.  Team development requires time and energy, which cost businesses money.  A technique of reducing startup cost for new Scrum teams is Shock Therapy.  This technique restricts the Scrum team’s self-organization principle by imposing well defined rules for the Scrum process.  Shock Therapy is a means to an end.  Its use may stress the Agile values of trust in individuals and self organization.  A competent leader (Scrum Master) with high emotional intelligence, skilled in team building, and well grounded in Agile philosophy will mitigate these risks.  As the team progresses through the Tuckman stages of group development into the performing stage the Scrum Master will relinquish authority and the team will regain the abridged self-organization ability.  The ability of leaders to guide teams to the performing stage quickly is one measure of leadership.  A highly performing team creates self-worth for the team members and is a core value of software development companies.

Definition of Terms
Agile software development - A family of methodologies based on iterative and incremental adaptive development with lightweight process controls featuring highly collaborative environments with disciplined technical practices focusing on delivering frequently and embracing changing requirements.
Lightweight process - generalization of Agile processes; relative to highly formal processes or heavyweight processes.
Methodology - “a system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity” (Jewell, 2001).
Scrum - a lightweight process framework, based in empirical process control theory, which uses an iterative and incremental approach to “optimize predictability and control risk” (Schwaber, 2009, p. 1).
Scrum meeting - a short focused daily plaining meeting for the team, also called the standup meeting (because no one is allowed to sit).
Sprint - a time-boxed iterations of product development (typically one month or less).
Time-box - a fixed time duration in which a task is performed.
Velocity - the amount of work a Scrum team performs in one sprint (may be measured in unit-less value of story points).
Waterfall - a generic term applied to heavy-weight formal sequential phased development methods.
Yesterday’s weather - a meme in Agile terms relating to predicting future performance based upon past performance.

Brooks Jr, F. P. (1995). The mythical man-month (anniversary ed.). Addison-Wesley Longman Publishing Co., Inc. Boston, MA, USA.
De Dreu, C. K. W., & Weingart, L. R. (2003). Task versus relationship conflict, team performance, and team member satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(4), 741-749.
Hall, J., & Williams, M. S. (1966). A comparison of decision-making performances in established and ad hoc groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3(2), 214-222.
Jewell (2001). The new oxford american dictionary (illustrated ed.). Oxford University Press.
Mayer (2008, September 15). Shock therapy... Or compassion? Agilethinking.Net blog [Web page]. Retrieved October 1, 2009, from
Ricketts, M., & Seiling, J. G. (2003). Language, metaphors and stories: Catalysts for meaning making in organizations. Organization Development Journal, 21(4), 33-43.
Robbins, & Judge (2009). Organizational behavior . Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Pearson Prentice Hall.
Schein, E. H. (2004). Organizational culture and leadership. Jossey-Bass.
Schwaber (2009). Scrum guide. [Pamphlet]
Sutherland, Downey, & Granvik (2009). Shock therapy: A bootstrap for hyper-productive scrum. 2009 Agile Conference.
Sy, T., Côté, S., & Saavedra, R. (2005). The contagious leader: Impact of the leader's mood on the mood of group members, group affective tone, and group processes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(2), 295-305.
Van Maanen, J. E., & Schein, E. H. (1977). Toward a theory of organizational socialization.
Zhou, J., & George, J. M. (2003). Awakening employee creativity: The role of leader emotional intelligence. The Leadership Quarterly, 14(4-5), 545-568.

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