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Software Development Fomentor?

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Software Development Fomentor?

· Agile Zone ·
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I love the word “foment”. It’s one of those words that we use rarely and it sounds really cool. Can you say, “foment”? I knew you could.

My wife will be so cross when she reads this. I don’t mean any disrespect to Mr. Rogers. In fact, as managers, we could learn a lot from him–but that’s a topic for another time.

Dictionary.com defines “foment” as

to instigate or foster (discord, rebellion, etc.); promote the growth or development of: to foment trouble; to foment discontent.

It seems that “foment” is always used with something negative: discord, rebellion, insurrection. But if you look at the definition, it seems like the perfect job description for a manager.

To instigate is defined as

to urge, provoke, or incite to some action or course

To foster is  defined as:

  1. to promote the growth or development of; further; encourage: to foster new ideas,
  2. to bring up, raise, or rear, as a foster child,
  3. to care for or cherish.

Wow! More and more this really sounds like what it means to lead software teams. In fact, with all of the negative connotations associated with the word, “manager”, I’d rather be called a Software Development Fomentor.

But what about those negatives so frequently associated with “foment”? Some of those are pretty cool, too. I think managers should encourage a degree of rebellion. Challenging power and authority is one of the key elements in innovation. AdSense was created at Google despite being told by management that it should be dropped, and now it is responsible for an enormous chunk of Google’s revenue! Tell me that act of rebellion wasn’t good for Google.

By fomenting rebellion you are promoting autonomy, which is one of the primary motivators (see The Truth About Money and Motivation). This is one of the strongest ways to get your people to be more creative and produce better results. A team of engineers who are merely doing what they are told will never achieve their true level of excellence! You need to get them to engage their creativity and their ownership.

What about fomenting discord? That can’t be good, can it? I think it can. One sign of a healthy team is the level of conflict among the team. “Conflict” did I just say “conflict”? Yes, “conflict”! When you don’t hear any arguments, either people don’t care enough to disagree or don’t trust each other enough to speak up. This is one of the most important points in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: a Leadership Fable, by Patrick M. Lencioni.

Conflict is good as long as it isn’t personal. In order to truly argue with someone, you have to trust them that they won’t hold it against you or be hurt by your disagreement. I’ve been part of some really heated engineering discussions and they were so much fun! As long as we criticize the idea and not the person, we can really go at it. Few things tap into a person’s passion like a nice, juicy technical debate.

Conflict is also important for keeping things interesting. Just look at books, television, and movies. Every compelling story has at least one conflict at its heart. The best stories have conflicts at many levels and of different kinds. One way to make meetings more interesting is to spark conflict, as described by Patrick M. Lencioni in Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable…About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business. Hey, that’s two books by that author in this post! Yeah, he writes good stuff.

Even short meetings can be unbearable, but we’ll sit through a 3 hour movie with only the pressure on our bladders from that giant soda we drank to remind us of the passing time. Any meeting worth having should have some point of contention. If there is no contention, then

  1. the ideas are so obvious that we really didn’t need a meeting,
  2. no one cares enough to disagree,
  3. everyone is afraid to speak up.

Again, we’re back to two of the biggest assassins of excellence: apathy and fear. Sounds like a good topic for later.

For now, though, how do we start fomenting? Start small. Challenge the little things. Look for ways to shake things up and make things different. You’d be surprised what just making some changes can do!

In PeopleWare: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco and Timoth Lister, they describe a series of tests at the Hawthorne Western Electric Company. People wanted to determine the effect of various environmental changes on productivity. They increased the level of lighting and productivity went up. They decreased the level of lighting and productivity went up further. What has become known as the Hawthorne Effect states that people perform better when they’re trying something new. We crave changes in our environment and these changes make us more productive because we are more stimulated.

Even if you can’t get them to change your job title to Fomentor, you can still make things better by shaking them up a bit. So, let’s start some fomenting today!


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