This is a transcript of episode 183 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Continuing our discussion of codewords as a signal of intimacy, we look at how team cohesion changes as a team grows or shrinks, and how you can anticipate this and retain positive cultural elements as your team evolves.

Show links:

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.


Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: So we’re following from last week where, believe it or not, we actually talked about emojis. I feel somehow either very old or very young by suddenly having a telephone emoji at the centre of our conversation. Then we said we’d talk about growth and loss as a result of the codewords that people were using. Do you want to remind us and help us pick up again?

Jeffrey: Sure. Although I will say that if anyone should have a telephone emoji, it should be you, given the Squirrel phone.

Squirrel: Oh yes.

Jeffrey: For people who don’t know, it’s like the bat phone but better. If you’re a client of Squirrel, anytime you’ve trouble, you just pick up this thing called a telephone which Squirrel always has to explain the operation of.

Squirrel: There’s a way you can use phones where you push buttons on them and you talk to people. No one remembers this. They all think that you have to send a WhatsApp and then carrier pigeon to pick a meeting and then confirm with a text. You don’t have to do any of those things. You just phone the Squirrel phone. So you’re right, I probably should learn what the telephone emoji shortcut is.

Jeffrey: It’s just a matter of time until your auto-responder replies with the image of a phone anytime anyone messages you any other way.

Squirrel: I should work on that. But more seriously, the telephone emoji is part of a story of people who are using it as a codeword, and we wanted to pick up on that codeword idea and talk more about it. Where should we go from there?

In-Team Identity

Listen to this section at 01:40

Jeffrey: Yeah, I had some ideas because we were talking about the idea of codewords as an inner language, a secret language that helps create bonds and ties within a group. I think it’s a natural phenomena of a successful culture that people will have shared experiences and they will tend to come up with these references to their shared history in shorthand. It’s a little bit like the way jargon evolves in speciality fields; it is jargon of the group. This becomes one of the things that defines the group, and it becomes a cherished and positive element. It can really be part of people’s sense of membership to that in-group. Remember that humans evolved as tribal animals. I think it’s a very positive pro-social thing amongst the group, although it can also be a bit fragile, because it’s something that latecomers to the group will not have. They will not have the same shared experiences. Sometimes they can be acculturated, but it depends on the exact type of codeword and the shared experience refrenced. I remember when I joined at TIM, Squirrel, you had this idea of rules infractions.

Squirrel: And I would tell the story, the history of the company, to make sure people understood why it was that we did things a certain way. Rules infractions was another way of summarising some of the things we valued more than other things.

Jeffrey: Exactly. I remember some of them were kind of paradoxical. There was the 900 second rule and the 15 minute rule.

Squirrel: And they were different rules, even though that’s the same number of seconds in both cases. But they had different purposes. So I would explain the reason that we had one and then the other, why we called them the two names.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s right. So symbols are tools that reinforce group cohesion. They can be threatened can be threatened a few different ways, and one is actually growth. If you’ve developed as a high-performing team, you’re tightly bonded. You have these shared experiences. This is common at start-ups or internal projects. But then because of the success, now there’s a need to hire more people. ‘We have more demand. We want to create more things. We want to build on this growth.’ Suddenly you’re looking to hire people and in some cases, quite a lot of people. I’m talking to people with teams that are doubling or more within a year. These new people coming in are not going to have all those experiences. When you add even a single person to a team, you suddenly have a different team. You’re going to have different dynamics, and that can really have an impact on the way the team relates to each other. Now I think this is one of the areas where skill can make a difference, because what we’re describing is something that happens naturally. Like Alistair’s communication graph we talked about last time, there’s certain elements of humans and humanness that lead certain patterns to have certain types of outcomes. So if we have, say, co-located teams that are working together closely, they’re more likely to build positive relationships.

Squirrel: Jeffrey, I don’t remember what co-located means because I’ve been here in Folkestone for a very long time and haven’t gone near any other teams. What’s co-located mean? I think we want to remind people what that might mean in today’s world.

The End of Normal

Listen to this section at 05:58

Jeffrey: That’s a really great point. It’s one of the things we talked about in our missing affordances of remote work episode. When you’re in person with people, there’s a lot of things that you’re able to do casually. You’re able to walk with people to go get coffee, and a lot of things can happen that way. When we’re remote, we don’t have those. What we’re talking about is a similar type of disruption that happens with remote work, where those things that happened naturally no longer do, and that can be very damaging. The point we made in that episode is it’s especially damaging if you’re not aware of this process.

Squirrel: Certainly if you’re not consciously doing things to mitigate it.

Jeffrey: Precisely. When you have these teams that are that are growing, be aware of these cultural artefacts that you have. What are you going to do? Are you going to try to onboard them and tell them the history as Squirrel did at TIM? That was a very conscious act of acculturation.

Squirrel: One of the reasons was that new people needed to know it, so they could join the team and be effective. That was me being conscious about creating that culture and maintaining it, and making sure that we kept the codewords such as telephone emojis that we had built up over many years.

Jeffrey: What often happens is that teams neglect to do this. They think people will pick up on it. Obviously they’re not always wrong, and that can happen. But the more people you have joining more rapidly, the more disruption you’re having, the less likely people are to pick up on these symbols. Then suddenly you’ll have these quirks, and you’ll start to get this division between the old timers and the newcomers.

Squirrel: The OG, the old guard.

Jeffrey: You get these people who developed that culture, who had the shared experiences, and now when they use this shorthand, they don’t very often intend to consciously exclude people. But the people who are new feel excluded. ‘I have no idea what they’re talking about. This is just something that they do.’ Then those things that had been a bonding element between the team become something that alienates people. If you’re aware it’s happening, you can look at these code words emerging in the team as a real positive sign. But also ask the question, if you have new people, are they using those code words or not? If not, do they feel excluded by them? Then even further, are new code words emerging? Is this larger group generating a pool of shared experiences? Are they generating a shorthand that will then bind them together? If I see that, then I would feel pretty comfortable that things are going to be OK. But if I didn’t see that I would be concerned.

Squirrel: There you go. I want to spotlight something you said earlier: if you add a person to a team, you should think of it as a new team, and you should start again. That doesn’t mean you don’t use the existing experience! But just because the team used to be five people and used to be structured in this way and used to have these rituals doesn’t mean the six-person or 200-person or whatever new size team needs to function the same way. It can be refreshing to think to yourself, ‘OK, now I have six new people,’ and reflect on how you can structure and how you can repurpose what worked for the five people and use it for the six.

Jeffrey: Given my nature, I would even say to people, ‘we are now six new people. So what are we going to do? What kind of culture do we want to have?’ Explicitly discussing the problems you have, as in our recent episode More Complaints, More Better, gets those complaints coming in. Start solving them and you’ll begin to develop that shared culture and shared experiences and get to that point where you have a set of obstacles that you’ve overcome together. That’s really what will make the team.

Squirrel: Excellent. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.