ProQuest is an information company that connects people with vetted, reliable information, from dissertations to governmental and cultural archives to news. The company began in Michigan with the invention of microfilm in the 1930s and over time its role has become essential to libraries, universities, research centers and other organizations whose mission depends on the delivery of complete, trustworthy information. The company, of now 1500, has grown rapidly through acquisition and mergers, as new technology has made increasing amounts and types of information available.
ProQuest’s Research Solutions division, the subject of this description, is a newly restructured part of ProQuest, started in 2010. It offers online products for researchers, for example, tools to manage research, or applications that helps to connect researchers to grants. The Research Solutions product development team consists of 30 people divided into 3 sub-teams, made up of programmers, analysts, product managers, and designers. The members of the three teams are scattered from San Diego to Amsterdam.
The group uses a modification of “Scrum,” a methodology of Agile, the software development framework that was first defined by Takeuchi and Nonaka in their 1986 HBR article, “The New New Product Development Game". In that article the authors propose "a flexible, holistic product development strategy where a development team works as a unit to reach a common goal" as opposed to a "traditional, sequential approach." Nonaka later argued in The Knowledge Creating Company, that the new framework for product development “is a form of organizational knowledge creation. Its approach to planning and managing projects is by bringing decision-making authority to the level of operation properties and certainties.”
The team makes use of the oscillation principle by bringing the group together face-to-face, three times a year, each time for a three day meeting. They call the face-to-face meetings, “Summits.” In between Summits, team members are in constant communication with each other using various forms of social media. They Scrum several times a week over Google Hangout or Skype, hold Hangout meetings between individual members or small groups to address problems, and use Flowdock as their group chat room.
Planning the Summit
Putting together a summit takes a good deal of planning and most of that falls on the shoulders of Taco, the Team Leader, and Anne, as the Scrum Master for one of the teams. As Scrum Master, Anne plays a facilitative role. Part of his responsibility is to see that the Summit process works well. He explains, “We have learned that it’s important to invest in preparing for the summit. If we don’t do it, we feel it did not work well. We brainstorm to ask, What do we want to discuss? What are the larger things that will come up in the next four months? What is not yet actionable?” Taco adds, “We find a date and email team members to ask if the date works for everyone. Once we have a date and location I ask the team what do you want to talk about? What sessions we should have? What needs to be whiteboarded? A team member might respond with a topic like, “We should talk about becoming more international so we can sell in China. When all the ideas for sessions are in, Taco and Anne plan the agenda, keeping in mind what topics could be held in parallel, then send the agenda out to everyone to review. Taco explains, When people actually see that what they suggested is on the agenda, then they know if they respond with an idea it will impact the agenda. And I also want to give everyone an opportunity to edit the agenda once we have put it together, for example, Is this where the energy is? Is it the right mix of heavy and light topics?”
Most Summits are held either in New York or San Diego. People usually come in the day before, find the hotel, and then find each other to have drinks. Some arrive earlier yet, to spend a day just working in the office of the local team.
On the morning of the first day the meeting starts with an overview by senior management providing updates about the business context, finance, sales, and new products. The agenda and goals of the meeting are discussed, recognizing they may change over the course of the three days. Then the group breaks out for the first sessions. Team members have a choice of a couple of sessions but generally go to a session based on the product they are working on.
For every session there is a session leader and a facilitator. Anne explains, “Not every one is a good facilitator so we are careful to choose people who have good facilitation skills.” The facilitator is selected from another team, so he/she will not be tempted to get overly involved in the content. Before the meeting the facilitator and session leader come together to prepare a list of questions they want answered in the session and to figure out and gather the information that will be needed to answer those questions at the meeting. Taco explains, “Whoever is going to lead the session makes sure we know the background of a problem or opportunity: causes, numbers, market data, and the like. But we are careful not to think everything out ahead of time – we don’t go in with solutions.”
The sessions last 1-3 hours and typically start with the session leader sketching the context, that is, the users’ need, to frame the issue and he or she talks about the research prepared before the meeting. Anne, laughing comments that the leader often wants to present for an hour, relating all that he/she has discovered, but the facilitator makes sure it is limited to 10 minutes. Anne explains, “We have a no PowerPoint rule. So they don’t present all that they know, but wait until the question comes up and then speak to it. Then when someone asks a question the session leader has already prepared a great explanation!” The facilitator’s task is to assure that the discussion goes in the right direction. Anne describes some of the facilitation issues, “Some people talk about what can be done, but not what should be done. People don’t have to speak and there are always some who speak less or almost nothing, but if you know them well it is helpful to say, ‘Arthur what do you think?’ And of course, some need to be stopped speaking."
Members speak of whiteboarding as a verb – something they do rather than the surface they write on. Whiteboarding is sketching how a feature is going to work; trying out different ways of doing it; what will work best; how long each might take; how one feature might interact with another. Lita explains, “We map out a process and how we want to improve it or prioritize what we want to do. We work out problems and come up with the action items we need to do.”
There is a quality about a whiteboard that makes it inviting to contribute or change. With a whiteboard, as opposed to PowerPoint or a document, there is less of a feeling that the idea a team member proposes is set in stone. Rather, once an idea is on the whiteboard it belongs to everyone in the room and anyone is free to jump up, often with an eraser in hand, to make a change – and of course what is added is just as easily changed again by another. This quality of changeability results in team members, who are standing around the whiteboard, viewing what is emerging as “our” idea. Accordingly, as the design develops, team members consider themselves mutually responsible for the resulting answer.
Team members more easily discover shared meaning when they can literally see what the other means. Visual representations clarify the thinking of the idea originator as well as making his or her thinking visible to others. Creating space where visual images or common data can be explored together is often the key to producing breakthrough thinking. Mark Baloga, principal researcher at Steelcase, explains, "It gives each member the power of reviewing thoughts at a glance. It's an instant reminder of what the team is doing and what it has accomplished. It's the group's thinking on display."
For every whiteboarding session one team member is asked to make sure that what has been diagrammed on the whiteboard doesn’t get lost. He or she takes pictures of the diagrams and the pictures become part of the storyboard that resides in the dropbox that team members work from. Taco explains, “There is usually no in between the white board and the deliverable. What you use to do the actual work is the storyboard with the pictures on it.” Jason adds, “You remember the conversation when you see the picture in the storyboard.” For each session 6-10 action items may be developed. Often there are too many ideas in a session and the group has to figure out how to group the ideas together and how to prioritize them.
The ProQuest team follows Nonaka’s concept of “bringing decision-making authority to the level of operation.” So the Summits are not just about sharing information and working out new ideas, they are also about making decisions. Anne provides an example, “There was a feature in a software product that we were trying to make ‘smart.’ I was playing the role of a dummy and I remarked that ‘it was not very clever.’ Then someone sketched on the whiteboard how it would actually work. But another team member said, ‘You’re doing that same function in two places, here and here.’ Finally someone said, ‘This is how to improve it’ and drew it on the whiteboard. Everyone could see that worked. So we put an exclamation point by it, which is our sign that a decision has been made. When the exclamation point goes up it almost never changes.”
Jason explains the value of joint decision-making, “With everyone in the same room decisions can happen quickly. It is nice you know the reasons behind a decision. When developing there is always something that is left out - that wasn’t included in the plan - and if you were there, you can fill in those pieces.” In a real sense, coming together to figure out what to do, is the best form of knowledge sharing. Team members know why they championed certain aspects of a feature and why they agreed to support even those aspects they didn’t initially agree with.
The summit planners work hard to generate an atmosphere where team members can make decisions on the spot. But Anne notes, “People have to learn that the team can make decisions, especially team members from the US. In Holland we speak out. But we had to teach American colleagues that we can choose.”
Integrating the Work From the Breakout Sessions
The whole group reconvenes around 4:00. All the whiteboards are rolled into the main room and each of the session facilitators uses their whiteboard to show what problems the team worked on, as well as, how each was solved. There is a 2-minute time limit imposed on facilitator reports and no questions are permitted. But as Lita explains, “The person who is the facilitator says, ‘Here are our action items and why.’ So we all know what they decided. If it flagged something that impacts our project then we think to ourselves, ‘Okay we need to talk about that.’”
The last item on the agenda is Lightening Talks. Lita comments, “Lightening talks are voluntary. Different team members talk about what they thought was neat or interesting, for example, ‘I programmed in some different language’ or ‘I thought of a different kind of identifier for people.’ Each person is given 5 min.” There is a large clock displayed with a loud buzzer that sounds when time is up. So Lightening Talks have a fun and energizing spirit to them.There are typically five or six Lightening Talks at the end of the day – no more than about 30 minutes. As Anne explains, “We stop at 5 and will be at the bar at 5:30, because the work is intense in the sessions, the energy of everybody is depleted.”
Day two is spent in breakout sessions, as is the morning of day three. The afternoon of the last day is left as unplanned time. As hard as the Summit planners work to have the right mix of sessions and structure for the meeting, there are always issues that arise that require small groups to meet to resolve. So the planners have learned that there is a need to set aside unplanned time. Anne says, “What is very valuable is the time that is not planned. You see people from US and Europe that are sitting together. Lita adds, “There are small groups of people talking informally, for example, trying to work something out in code or talking about an impact on their project that they discovered when the facilitators reported out at the end of a session.”
A retrospective is held at the end of the meeting to review what worked well and what not so well. Anne notes, “We always hold a retrospective, but don’t always do it at the meeting, sometimes, it’s at a bar and even sometimes virtually.”
The evening social time is as much a part of the Summit as are the sessions.
They serve to strengthen relationships and trust. Jason says, “My favorite part is the time after the meetings over drinks and dinner, a time to be more social. A lot of times you are not talking about exactly what happened in the meeting but you get an idea of how people are about different things. Hear about people’s family. We are a pretty informal team and at a planning meeting on Google Hangout someone’s kid will walk by in the background."
Taco notes, “We work intensely and then we have a lot of beer and do karaoke and it gets late- it makes for long days.” And Anne explains, “The three sub-teams are now getting to know each other. The social things outside the summit like lunch and dinner and beer helps even more. The last meeting we had a dinner with 3-5 people at a table – but its better standing up with a beer”
Recognizing the value of social time, the planning team makes sure the work sessions end at 5, and as Anne noted “We’re in the bar by 5:30.” It is in social time that team members discover what they have in common, e.g. kids, sports, hobbies, that helps to cement the relationships that are vital for their virtual work. Social time creates ‘shared experience’ that Weick advocates is necessary if shared meaning is to be created. “Remember when we…” evokes both a shared understanding and a shared emotion within the group.
The space in which the team meets is critical. Taco explains “We need nice, bright spaces with generous sunlight. Having water and coffee inside the room is good because having too much in-out traffic disturbs. Once, we used a huge hotel meeting room and those folks set up a U shape for us in a heavy carpeted conference room, complete with water pitchers and all. It was the opposite of what we needed – made it feel like a committee hearing rather than a problem solving session. Anne adds, “There were too many people for a U shape format, for example no one would go to the board. So it was mostly 1 to many presentations. If it is one 1 to N information we could have done that in an email. We want decision-making session where everyone is empowered.” As the Product Development team discovered, the nature of the space can override the intent of the meeting.
Between Summit meetings
Frequency of Oscillation
For the Product Development team the interval of the oscillation between virtual work and Summits was arrived at through trial and error. Initially the team met four times a year, but then realized that often they had not finished what they had discussed in the last Summit. So over time they moved to a four-month cycle. However, Taco explains, “After four months we are out of steam and have a loss of shared sense of direction. So for the ProQuest team coming together for 3 days every four months seems the most effective frequency.
Team members are spread from Amsterdam, to New York, Baltimore, to San Diego and Paris, yet they acknowledge advantages in working virtually. Jason notes, “Being on a virtual team works well for me. If I’m in an office someone will walk over and ask about something I’m not working on. In my home office I can concentrate. One big advantage for me is, since we are in different time zones and sharing the same card, I finish what ever I am working on and they take it back.” Jason’s description is accurate for many people whose work requires both periods of deep concentration and of collaboration. For the ProQuest team the four-month oscillation between virtual work and Summits accommodates both needs, alone time and intense collaboration.
Cost and speed of development are also major considerations in determining the frequency of oscillation. Anne explains, “The cost of our team is quite large because we want the best of the best, who are usually freelance people. This means the hourly cost of the team is more than the travel costs.” Taco adds, “We would need four scheduled calls to accomplish what we get it solved at the white board in an hour. Without the Summits it would definitely slow things down.” For the ProQuest team, the Summits both reduce cost and reduce development time.
Interacting Through Social Media
Agile's Scrum is a well defined process in the literature, starting with a planning meeting that initiates a two week sprint and ending in a review meeting. In between are daily “stand up” meetings of 15 minutes where team members talk about what they have done the day before. Jason explains how the ProQuest team has modified the Scrum process, “We use agile practices but have adapted them. We always felt like we were rushing at the end of a sprint and that was a problem for Quality and Testing. It seemed like it was an artificial deadline, so we started doing more of a continuous deployment. Whenever something is done and tested, we release it. And sometimes we also have extra planning meetings."
There are offices in four of the locations, but most team members work at least a couple of days from their home offices. Because the teams meet several days a week through Google Hangout or Skype, the meeting hours are often more convenient from home, for example for Jason in San Diego, the stand up meetings occur at 6:30 in the morning. And Lita adds that even when she is at the office, a colleague in the same office might suggest they talk over Webex so he can demonstrate what he is doing, so there is little advantage to being in the office.
The teams use a number of on-line tools to meet, organize their work, and stay in touch throughout the day. Jason explains Trello, an on-line organizing tool, “It's a board with lists on it and each action is on a card. We have an incoming list and a planned list, which we have discussed in a planning meeting, a list of what is being developed and one for testing - lots of lists. It creates a life cycle of what the team is working on. When you finish something you take what is next on the list.”
Both Google Hangout and Skype are used for the Scrum meetings. The Planning meeting is held on Skype because more people attend than Google Hangout can handle. At that meeting the team looks at what is on the incoming list and estimates the time it will take. The teams hold standup meetings about three times a week for 15 minutes. Those are meetings for reporting what each has been working on but there is no discussion – it’s not for sorting out problems. The stand up meetings keep the team aligned and also work as an anchor, with people often setting up other meetings right after.
Jason describes how the review meetings work, “The first part of the review meeting is the demo and we explain the details of it. More people come to that meeting to see the demo. And the last half is a retrospective. The retrospective leads to changes in our process. Someone might say, ‘In the development process more bugs are creeping in.’ or ‘Some of the code is getting sloppy.’ So we might decide to have another developer check what we do, then we change the process again in Trello”
Flowdock, is a sophisticated chat tool. Jason explains, “Flowdock shows errors on products, additional requests, and customer comments. Some of those things get discussed on chat and they are useful. Chat is on the right hand side and on the left are the errors. You feel really connected through Flowdock. You can see who is on line and people make jokes.” Like most team members, Lita keeps Flowdock open on her desk. She explains. “I keep it up all the time and if someone types in, “@ and my name” then I’m alerted that someone wants me.”
The continually flow of virtual talk almost seems a continuation of the conversation at the Summit, given that what was designed at the Summit is now displayed in Trello, the agreements made at the Summit are now being implemented, and the relationships established at the Summit are immediately and continually renewed on-line. Both the frequency and the richness of the on-line media the team employs, allow the culture of empowerment established at the Summits to continue virtually.
Product development is by its nature continual change. No one knows how to create the kind of features the ProQuest team are building – they are creating the knowledge as they go along. As Nonaka, rightly noted, “Product development is a form of organizational knowledge creation.” Anne explains, “We are learning on the spot and the project is changing. In the beginning we were a greenfield and now we have one product in production so there is more interdependence as we integrate it with other products. We are not the only one on the island, more people are there.” Jason notes, “For the last two meetings we included two additional product teams. This was done to try spreading our practices and processes and also because the products will be more integrated going forward.” He adds, “We have evolved how to do this.”
Part of the capability for the ProQuest team to evolve are the regularly held retrospectives, both at the end of each sprint and at the end of each Summit. The retrospectives provide a way to systematically review the team’s processes and to continually improve them. Holding retrospectives sends a strong message to team members that they not only have an ownership role in designing how the product features will work, but also in creating the process for getting work done. This sense of ownership or, to use Taco’s term, empowerment, is critical to the team’s success.
The Summits have an effective format that has been developed over time, but both Taco and Anne continually look for ways to improve or make them more effective. The team engages in frequent experiments with new ways of working together. Jason remembers, “We tried a hack day at one of the Summits where everyone was going to create a hack –that didn’t work very well.” And in talking about getting input to the Summit agendas, Taco says, “I feel there is too much input from a certain group of people, we are trying to make it more equal and trying to create engagement. What we are doing is okay but we could do a lot better.”
Olsen and Olsen note that, “Effective communication between people requires that the communicative exchange take place with respect to some level of common ground. Common ground refers to that knowledge which the participants have in common, and they are aware that they have it in common.” The researchers go on to say, “But the concept of common ground is subtler than this simple analysis would indicate. We establish common ground not just from some general knowledge about the person's background but also through specific knowledge gleaned from the person's appearance and behavior during the conversational interaction itself. If we say something based on an assumption about what someone knows, but their facial expression or verbal reply indicates that they did not understand us, we will revise our assumptions about what common ground we share, and say something to repair the misunderstanding.”
The Summits establish common ground for the ProQuest team. Members engage each other in breakout sessions, over lunch, in Lightening Talks and certainly in the evening socials. Lita’s comment, “It is easier for me to talk with them around a work issue if I know something about them personally” is true for others as well. In Olsen and Olsen’s words, it establishes common ground that is “subtler than knowing their background or competence.”
The use of Scrum also provides common ground through shared practices and the language of Scrum. Both are widely known across the organization, from the senior managers who set the stage for each summit, to new team members. The common practices of Scrum provide the basis for a continued and evolving sense of trust, respect, and loyalty to the Product Development Team and which significantly facilitates the conduct of complex and distributed product development work.
Choosing Media to Match the Nature of the Task
Work tasks can be described as tightly or loosely coupled. Tightly coupled tasks, “strongly depend on the talents of collections of workers, and is non-routine, even ambiguous. Components of the work are highly inter-dependent. The work typically requires frequent, complex communication among the group members, with short feedback loops and multiple streams of information. In contrast, loosely coupled work has fewer dependencies or is more routine.”
Olson and Olson have demonstrated that the more tightly coupled the task, the richer the communication medium that needs to be employed. Many researchers have rated media from highest to lowest in terms of richness, most rate face-to-face, as the richest and email and memos at the low end. In describing what makes face-to-face a rich medium, Olson and Olson explain, “It provides more clues in terms of tone of voice, facial expression, body language, etc. all of which assist the person speaking to make quick adjustments in their message in order to head off misunderstandings and disagreements. It also provides those listening greater ability to immediately clarify or add perspective before the topic moves on.” Olsen and Olsen’s research has shown that tightly coupled work is difficult to do remotely because of the absence of those characteristics that are found in face-to-face interaction.
Product development work has phases of both tightly coupled work and more loosely coupled. The ProQuest team has organized their work so that the tightly coupled stage occurs in the three days of the Summit. The design is worked out there around a whiteboard where features are diagramed, discussed, revised and prioritized. The design work is the most creative phase of product development, where multiple and varied perspectives are needed to spur innovative thinking. Orlikowski notes that, “Supporting participation ensures that a multiplicity of voices and ideas is represented in discussions, deliberations, and decision processes. [Designing for participation demonstrates] a knowing how to innovate because of the creativity that is promoted through allowing a diversity of ideas and experiences to be expressed and then shared.”
The more loosely coupled task of coding and even problem solving is accomplished virtually and working in parallel, as Jason describes, when he talks about handing off the work he has been doing to someone in Europe.
Maznevski and Chudoba’s (2000) research demonstrated that, over time, virtual teams can learn to match the task to the appropriate media. The ProQuest team appears to have developed this capability, employing face-to-face for the design meetings, using Google Hangout and Skype for problem solving, and Flowdock for the transmission of errors and customer comments. The researchers also note that part of that capability is team members delaying raising difficult issues until the next scheduled face to face meeting, understanding that the nature of the issue requires a richer medium. Taco explains, “We often (and largely unconsciously, I think) delay discussions around features of a certain magnitude until the next Summit, knowing we’d never really effectively get them conceptualized without the richness of face-to-face contact coupled with sketching.” Matching the task to the appropriate media is faciliated by regularly scheheduled, as opposed to as-needed collective sensemaking meetings, as this affords teams the assurance that there will be an opportunity to address the more difficult issues.
Attention to Culture
The culture that Taco and Anne are striving for is one of engagement and empowerment. They achieve that not by talking about culture, but by putting into place practices that facilitate the culture. Those include:
- Actively seeking team member input into the agenda,
- Using a facilitator in every session, and thought given to the choice of facilitator
- Decision-making power given to the team,
- Little or no hierarchy displayed,
- The use of whiteboarding which provides a mechanism for obtaining ideas from all the team members
- The almost daily virtual meetings of the whole that keeps everyone aware of what everyone else is doing,
- The rich visual medium of Google Hangout and Skype that is chosen for virtual meetings,
- The role of Scrum master who has the responsibility for process both virtually and at the Summits
For team members to learn during the Summit, a culture has to exist that Edmondson labels “psychologically safe”, that is, “team members have a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish members for speaking up.” When members feel psychologically safe they are able to engage in behaviors that are necessary for any group to learn and change. Edmondson identifies those behaviors as, seeking feedback from each other, customers, and other parts of the organization; sharing information; asking for help; talking about errors or problems; challenging the interpretation of others, experimenting to gain insight; and reflecting together.
Both at the Summit and virtually, ProQuest team members exhibit many of these behaviors. The use of whiteboards facilitates those behaviors, as was illustrated in the design example as team members felt free to point out where an items was found in two places. Psychological safety is also accrues in the practice of session leaders who choose not to go
into a Summit with predetermined answers.
The Summits serve to align on the team’s goals for the next period. They provide needed and innovative input to design decisions and in so doing, shorten the time needed to build the features. The Summits strengthen the relationships between team members in a way that facilitates the virtual work they engage in. Finally, the Summits make the work both more fun and more engaging for team members – a strong retention factor for any software company.
In the interviews I did with the ProQuest team, I asked Anne, “How is it different right after you get back from a Summit?” His response was a great summary of their effort, “Usually we had a great time and there is a feeling of energy. We had this big goal but we have made it more simple, we first do A and then B and we don’t worry about D.”