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Mik Seljamaa 🇪🇪
Mik Seljamaa 🇪🇪

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Situation Rehearsals

An effective way to maintain the shared mental map of the problem, the design, and the group's activities is to hold regular situation rehearsals. These are a short meeting where one person takes ten minutes to explain their current understanding of the group's situation. As with everything else, this is not a ritual that must be performed listlessly as part of the misery of work, it has a purpose. This means that it is worth doing a rehearsal even if not all of the team are available, or calling impromptu ones just because some interesting people are around.

The Sloane Ranger's Handbook included a Sloane Ranger's map of the world. About 50% of the total surface area was covered by Sloane Square itself, Scotland was connected to London by the thin causeway of the M1, and the major continents were squeezed into the sidelines. The point of the joke was that we all have our own distorted map of the world, but the Sloane Ranger's was particularly distorted with respect to geography. To a Sloane Ranger, it was not a joke - it was a fair representation of their world, and they argued that theirs was no more unrealistic than anyone else's. (Some of them bought the book so they could check it for accuracy. It passed muster.)

In the same way, as we all have our own map of the world, we all have our own view of the problem and the group's activities. Hearing the differences in emphasis between different people's view of the problem brings more benefits to the team than just allowing the members to check that their vision at least maps to the speakers and identifying qualitative or factual differences (which the rehearsal also does). If looking at the problem from different directions brings understanding, hearing how the comms team describe the application can tell the application programmers things they never realized about their own task.

To understand why situation rehearsals are worth the disruption involved in getting some of the team together for a few minutes each day, it is useful to think about two different physical types of image storage systems. Traditional photographic plates store a different part of the total image in each part of the area of the plate. The mapping between the image area and plate area is direct. Chip off a corner and that corner of the image is lost. Holographic plates, however, store a transform of the whole image in each part of the surface of the plate. Chip off a corner and the image is still available, but at a lower resolution because the corner contained information about the distribution of a particular frequency component of the image.

The team need not concentrate knowledge about topics in individuals to the exclusion of all other knowledge. If it tries to do this, the results will be tragic because the team won't be able to communicate internally. The distribution of knowledge throughout the team must be more like a hologram than a photograph. I need to know a lot about my job, and a little about yours. The little I know must be true and fair, no matter how bizarrely I chose to express it from your point of view. Then you and I can talk to each other.

In situation rehearsals, it is important to observe a strict time limit, or you will inevitably get bogged down. That means the speaker must have a few minutes to summarise What Really Matters, with the consequences being followed up off-line. These might be a comparison between views where team members actually disagree with the speaker, recognition of opportunities for simplification where I learn that I'm doing something in my layer that you undo in yours, or offers of specialist knowledge.

Also, remember that the model that everyone has a view of is the group model. If in the light of someone else's view of the model you can see a flaw in the shared model, attacking the model is not attacking the person whose novel approach has revealed the flaw you couldn't see on your own.

If the group can become comfortable with this Zetetic approach then an additional benefit is available from situation rehearsals. You can pick a speaker at random. This means that everyone will be motivated to run the whole project through their mind regularly so they can be really elegant and insightful if they are picked. The effects of this can be astonishing.

When was the last time you had a job where you were required to think about your work, as you are required to make progress reports, fill in time-sheets and sign off code review forms before passing them to the quality rep for signing and filing in the project history cabinet unless it's one of Susan's projects in which case you file it under correspondence and record its existence in the annex to the project management plan to be found on Eric's hard disk?

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