Pair Programming

When you envision a computer programmer, what comes to mind? A solitary worker in a cubicle, with a can of Coke, and a couple of Dilbert cartoons taped to the monitor. They have strong ideas about how to do their job, and they’re used to being left alone. Most people don’t expect great social skills from computer programmers (I’ve been there; my undergrad degree is in computer science).So you might be surprised to learn about the latest trend in software development: it’s called pair programming or extreme programming. The way it works: one person, the “driver,” types; the other person, the “navigator,” actively watches–catching errors, thinking strategically, or referring to printed documentation. Every 30 minutes, they switch. In some big software teams, the pairs change every couple of days.

At its best, this sounds like a waste of money–why pay two programmer salaries to do the work of one? And at its worst, this could be a disaster, with personality clashes and arguments slowing the project down to a crawl. After all, programmers are legendary for their idiosyncratic quirks.

But the surprising fact is that pair programming saves money and results in higher quality programs. The pair gets the job done in less time than two programmers working separately; but even though the time isn’t cut in half–the two programmers generate fewer lines of code per hour than two programmers working separately–the secret is that the code they generate has far fewer bugs. That means that the company saves money down the line in quality control testing and in user support. A project at Chrysler that used pair programming found that almost the only defects that made it through testing were in code that someone had written alone–when their partner was out sick, or when the pair just decided to program apart for a while.

Even in tasks that we think are ideal for solo workers, group genius wins the day.

Who should run the meeting?

Most of us have mixed feelings about meetings. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em, is the best we can think to say, and it goes downhill from there. Like everyone doing knowledge work, I found myself in a meeting earlier this week, developing a new course that is being co-taught by the legendary cast of thousands (well, actually, more like ten professors). This particular meeting went quite well and we all came up with a lot of good ideas, ending in a valuable consensus. But I had a nagging feeling that we could do better, and so can your organization.

Who led your last meeting? Most likely, it was your boss; or at least, the most senior person in the room. Leading a meeting is considered an authority role and the highest-status person naturally gets to do it. Of course, no one can be an effective manager without being able to run a meeting. But very few of us have been in a meeting that was led in a way that fully realized the creative potential of the team.

The research on group genius is unambiguous: groups led by a trained facilitator are more creative. Design firm IDEO has taken this research to heart, and identifies and cultivates good facilitators. And why not try something radical: The person who facilitates your meetings doesn’t have to be the most senior person. A manager needs a whole host of skills, and why not delegate the meeting facilitation to a trained expert? You might end up with better meetings, less stress, and more innovation.

Your tax dollars at work

The government pays for billions of dollars of scientific research every year, using taxpayer funds. Most people don’t know anything about how the government decides how to spend the money. Unlike just about every other government program’s budget, spending decisions are not made based on political priorities or in backroom negotiations with powerful senators and congressmen. The key to the system is called “peer review,” which means that each researcher’s grant proposal is examined by other researchers who are experts in the same area. At the National Science Foundation, several times each year they fly researchers to Washington, DC from all over the country, put them in a room that’s wired with networked computers, and ask them to collaborate to select the best research proposals.

I’ve participated in several of these review panels, and I’m fascinated by the collaborative dynamics of these groups. In them, you find both the pitfalls of groupthink as well as the power of group genius. And with just a little redesign, I think these groups could make even better decisions about how to spend the money.

Basically, eight senior scholars read ten 80-page proposals back at home, and then fly to NSF headquarters in Arlington, Virginia to sit in a room with each other for two days. We discuss each proposal for about 30 minutes, and then enter our decision into a special computer system. Some aspects of this process are consistent with group research; for example, it’s a good idea for everyone to think about the proposals alone, before coming together. But with just a few more of the right structures, these groups could avoid the many problems associated with group decision making. For example, researchers have long known that if a group starts with a mild consensus, then talks for a while, each person will end up with even stronger opinions than when they started. In other words, if each scientist likes a proposal a little bit, and they spend 30 minutes talking about it, they’re likely to end up liking the proposal even more. Researchers also know that if everyone shares the same opinion, except for one person, that loner will typically moderate their stance to “get along” with the rest of the group.

Every group faces these problems; but because so few people are aware of the science of group genius, managers don’t put in place the simple structures that improve group decision making.

The problem with freelancing

I just finished doing an interview with Adrian Savage ( about how freelancers and the self-employed can best stimulate their creativity. This is a great question, because my research shows that significant innovations always emerge from groups and from collaborative conversations. The risk is that, if you stay in your basement office all week long, you’ll never have those impromptu conversations that prompt so many sparks of insight–that’s one benefit to the 20th-century practice of going to work with other colleagues in a central office location. If you’re one of those people who spend a lot of time working alone–whether because you’re self-employed, or because your job requires a lot of focused time (computer programmers, technical writers) then you have to make that extra effort to create space for collaborative conversation. Make a point of going out to lunch–and not always with the same group of co-workers, either. Attend networking events and trade group meet-and-greets. You’ll never be able to re-create the spontaneous water cooler conversation of the office, but you can still create opportunities for group genius to flourish.

Innovation in Community Development

I’ve just come from giving an invited talk to the “Exploring Innovation” conference, hosted by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. Andy Hargadon was also a speaker at the event, and it was great to hear him talk again and to have some time to catch up with him. The audience represented community development experts from around the country, all interested in making their activities and their organizations more innovative. I always learn a lot from the insightful questions that come from audiences after my talk, and this event was no different. Because my talk emphasized the power of collaboration and of group genius, many people wanted to know “What should I do if I’m dealing with an extremely uncreative group?” Examples given included city councils and city governments. My talk also emphasized the importance of connection and cross-fertilization, which led several people to ask “What should I do if my region is balkanized, with each locale focused solely on what’s best for them?” These are great, tough questions, and I have no easy answer for these folks. The real answer is that innovation isn’t likely to emerge until these deep seated structural features are changed, so that regional networks start to look more like the types of networks that generate substantial innovation. No single person can make this happen; it will take a concerted, long-term, broad change to regional culture and ways of doing business.