Workshop Wednesday: self-selecting teams

This year’s Agile Australia 2016 workshops will include topics like Kata, Lean, testing, mindsets, and self-selection. Today the Agile Australia blog revisits the practice of self-selection thanks to Nigel Dalton’s blog on self-selecting teams in World War Two. Nigel (CIO, REA Group) is an Advisor for Agile Australia 2016.  

Self-Selecting teams – tales from WW2 Lancaster bomber crews

Nigel Dalton – CIO, REA Group

Back in the day, when I worked in the USA in a fascinating startup (then called ePredix, who were rolled into Previsor and are now part of SHL), I was regularly set on my chuff by one of our amazing technical advisory board members for thinking that anything at all under our digital sun was NEW, or that any of our 21st century science of Industrial-Organisational Psychology (in simple terms, big data about people, for hiring and development) could be viewed as a sure thing.

Our tech advisory board had every right to proffer those kind of opinions to a young economist whippersnapper, as between them they had invented several of the things the science was founded on!

The tools we were building at ePredix were online selection tests, delivered in short form on the web. We had patented ways (don’t get me started on patents by the way…) of serving up a couple of dozen multi-choice questions and then stack-ranking the applicants in their suitability in the role. Bloody clever, big data, but a PhD required to do the maths.

One of my most memorable moments was at dinner one night when one advisory board member quietly advised me “you know, it’s all baloney really, you might as well just let teams self-select – they’ll be just as successful”. He went on to tell me of the Lancaster bomber crews of the RAF in the early 1940s, where after short training periods, Bomber Command were stuck with terrible problem of selecting the crews.

Their creative solution? Jam them all (several different flying disciplines, from multiple countries around the world) in a hangar or mess hall, and tell them they had 10 minutes to join a crew.

The result was some of the bravest, effective, well put-together teams in the history of the war. That said, the odds were against them surviving as a team – at the final tally, half the 125,000 young men had been killed or wounded in action, and nearly 10,000 became POWs. The crews had a fair idea of what they were in for – in some cases, 25% of intakes were killed in training.

With a lot of discussion at present about team self-selection in the agile world, it occurred to me the Lancaster bomber story was worth looking into again.

I found this book by Leo McKinstry from 2009. Here’s the key quote that validates what I heard way back in 2001:

“Once all the initial course had been finally completed, the recruits were sent to an Operational Training Unit, where they began their real preparation for bomber combat. It was at the OTUs that the individual trainees formed themselves into crews for the first time. After all the formality of the previous selection procedures and examinations, the nature of ‘crewing up’ seemed strangely haphazard, even anarchic.

“There was no involvement from the senior commanders, no direction, no regimentation. Instead, the trainees were all taken to a large hangar or mess room, and just told to choose their colleagues to make up the 5 man crew: pilot, bomb-aimer, gunner, wireless operator and navigator. The engineer, who had to undergo specialised training, and the second gunner, would join at a later stage. Without any guidance or rules, the trainees had to rely entirely on their own gut instincts in selecting which group to join.”

The book goes on to discuss the kind of people who made up the trainee group of Bomber Command – aged between 17 and 27, self-selected into the jobs (not conscripted), intelligent, inwardly motivated, with broad-based educations.

“They did not need leaders or formal structures,” concluded Frank Musgrove in 2005 (Dresden and the Heavy Bombers).

This story sounds a lot like the thinking at Zappos at the moment around Holacracy, and other innovative organisations like Valve and Spotify.

As someone deeply involved in my own day job experimenting with REA-Group’s organisation with new ideas that change traditional leadership roles and formal reporting structures, I’m excited to find these kind of references. I see similar patterns in the world of rock bands and music – but that’s another blog post!

Let me be the first to concede that RAF Bomber Command is a horrific story, for both the crews and the millions of civilians who bore the brunt of this brutal military strategy on both sides of the war. But the extreme nature of the situation called for unusual methods to be applied – we should not ignore them today as we find old ways of running things coming up short and wasting time and money.

And as a grandson of a UK war veteran, I offer a moment of thanks for their sacrifice.

This article first appeared at http://lunatractor.com/ and was republished in the AgileToday Magazine (Volume #7, May 2014).  For more on self-selection, read guest bloggers Sandy Mamoli and David Mole’s recent guest post.

Interested in teams and self-selection? This year, Sandy Mamoli and David Mole will speak at Agile Australia on self-selecting teams, and will also offer a workshop. Find out more about their presentation and other Agile Australia topics here. You may wish to have a look at the 2016 workshops relating to self-selection, Buurtzorg, Agile testing for the whole team, Collaboration Frameworks for Agile teams, and facilitation skills.

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