Aug 012011

Hmmm... back to the importance of names - what is a "police action?"

“There are very few reunions of Korean War veterans”
– Fehrenbach, This Kind of War.

Now, this is not a post about the Korean War. It is about incentives and the unintended consequences of some incentives on leadership and working together in a team.

My study of this war came about when I realized all I knew about the era I learned from the series M*A*S*H. I am hardly an expert on the war now, but I want to share with you some of the background I have picked up so far.

The war in 99 words

(ROK – Republic of Korea,
NKPA – North Korean People’s Army)

In June 1950, the NKPA drove the ROK nearly off the Korean Peninsula. Under the UN banner, allied forces mainly comprised of US and ROK soldiers drove the aggressors back almost to Manchuria through November, when Chinese forces counter-attacked through mid-1951.

It took two more years to reach armistice in the summer of 1953. The “war of containment” raged with mounting casualties long after both sides agreed diplomatically to work toward armistice.

During this three years, the US had nearly as many deaths and over twice as many missing-in-actions as occurred in the 20-year span of the Vietnam War.

Signs of the times

WWII had only recently ended. Many countries were rebuilding, while the Cold War was just getting started and the defense of Europe against communist advances was a high priority. Outside the communist nations, nobody was prepared for war and nobody wanted to be there.

The US established a policy of “rotation” by which servicemen were returned home after earning 36 “points”. Points accrued at different rates based on role and type of duty. For a nation “at peace”, it was a system designed with fairness in mind, from a certain perspective.

Unintended consequences

There were several unintended consequences of the points system and rotation:

  1. Seasoned soldiers were sent home and replaced by “green” enlistees and recalled inactive reservists
  2. Many soldiers focused on staying alive until they reached their 36 points (though reaching the milestone was not a guarantee of being sent home)
  3. Soldiers who were the closest to their point threshold – who had more service time and experience – became even more risk averse

Given the side effects of the point system and rotation, some soldiers might feel more like individuals than teammates. Everyone was concerned to get home, to stay alive, to avoid risk. Institutional knowledge was lost in trade for inexperience. Though the US had more effective weapons, mobility, systems and communications they were continually re-learning to work together and fight together as a team.

As a former submariner, I get it. Maybe that is why this story resonates so much with me. I want to share it with you so you might also know more about my focus on teams, trust and the kind of careful and powerful interpretations that will help us be effective in our work together.

Reflecting on your software teams

There are so many disciplines to study. In the same way that we sometimes use rotations to help team members learn various roles and ways of collaborating, we can also learn about our teams from sources outside technical books and trade rags. I encourage my teams to read history, philosophy, business, fiction, poetry and spirituality… and we often share reading lists with each other.

So let me close this first by expressing my sincere desire that you found new or reinforced ideas in this writing, and then let me ask a few related questions to think about or trigger your comments related to team building, leadership and (sometimes misguided) incentives.

How are you preserving institutional knowledge? How are you coaching and mentoring new team members?

If you encourage people to change roles here and there, do you present it as a requirement, a privilege or an option? Though you may have a form of rotation, how do you feel about allowing team members to develop and play to their special strengths or abilities?

Do your team incentives work, in your assessment? Can you share them with us in the comments?

And finally, do you think there will be very many reunions of the veterans of your software teams?

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