A Sentiment Scale for Agile Teams

I have finished my PhD … These are five wonderful words! Due to COVID-19 lockdowns, there will be no ceremonial graduations at Wits University this year, but it was a significant milestone to receive the letter. I have been studying Agile software development teams in large organisations for the past 4 years using a research method called Grounded Theory. As part of my thesis, I developed a theory about how these teams respond to people-related conditions in their environment, and more specifically how they perceive managerial practices. I interviewed senior people in 25 organisations across five continents and analysed all the data they provided. The scale has fifteen points and runs from negative (-7) to positive (+7). This is a brand new theory in the field and contributes an improved understanding of the human factors in Agile team environments. Managers can also use this scale to improve their practices.

During my studies I wrote about this research as it was unfolding;

I also published a case study, with my supervisors, on the FNB Codefest that tested some of these earlier findings:

On the scale, management behaviour is shown to polarise team sentiment. Negative behaviour such as interfering with the team’s work causes negative sentiment while empowering behaviour causes positive sentiment. Established, fit for purpose Agile methods were found to stabilise the team’s sentiment to the middle of the scale, ie in the neutral range. The full scale of fifteen points provides more specific measures and is a framework for explaining the correlation between environmental conditions and team sentiment. Future articles will work through these fifteen points and provide examples from the data as well as implications for managers.

Grounded Theory aims to produce new theories about what is going on in people’s lives through a rigorous process of developing concepts which are “grounded” in the data of the study. It is mainly used in the social sciences but has become used more widely in the engineering field. It is especially useful where human interaction is an integral part of the process being studied, such as software development. The method was developed by two social scientists in 1967 when they studied terminally ill patients in their ground-breaking research called “The Awareness of Dying”.

The method is very labour intensive, requiring man hours of “coding” the data. For interviews this means going through the transcripts “line by line” and categorising themes and concepts. Although I used some tools to help me, there is very little automation built into these tools and the development of the theory rests mainly on the analytical skills of the researcher. Some work is being done on how artificial intelligence can help grounded theory researchers and possibly speed up aspects of the method.

Prior to writing up the research, I presented my work to the first year MBA students at GIBS business school. In a series of evening lectures I took the students through the framework as part of their study module on innovation in business. I also presented it at FirstRand, to assist change management efforts on our digital transformation journey. I also presented the application of Grounded Theory in the study to a group of PhD students at Wits Business School. These were important opportunities to test and share my study before finalising it in my thesis.

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