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A teaser for a series of interviews

TLDR: This is a teaser for an upcoming Oddly Influenced episode. I hope it will interest people in being interviewed, and let them judge whether their experience maps onto – or comments on – the theory proposed in Michael P. Farrell’s 2001 book, Collaborative Circles. I’m looking especially for people involved in early Agile teams. I’m also hoping to do some interviews about Context-Driven Testing.


Collaborative Circles develops a theory of creative change, basing it on influential groups like the French Impressionists, the “Ultras” group of US first-wave feminists, the early psychoanalytic circle (specifically Freud and Fleiss), and so on. Those are teams that had significant impacts on the entirety of their field. However, I think the theory also applies to teams that stop short of going public: teams that just want to do good work without feeling obliged to Fix Everything. I want the first episode to help such teams. 

I think of the theory of collaborative circles as an alternative to the forming-storming-norming-performing common wisdom.

I think (hope!) that my listenership is disproportionately dissatisfied with the status quo. I’m betting that makes collaborative circles resonate with them – because that’s also a characteristic of the people in Farrell’s case studies.

Here’s Farrell’s definition:

A collaborative circle is a primary group consisting of peers who share similar occupational goals and who, through long periods of dialogue and collaboration, negotiate a common vision that guides their work. The vision consists of a shared set of assumptions about their discipline, including what constitutes good work, how to work, what subjects are worth working on, and how to think about them. […] For members of the collaborative circle, each person’s work is an expression of the circle’s shared vision filtered through his or her own personality.

I think this fits early agile teams like the C3 project and that early London XP team (the one with Steve Freeman, Rachel Davies, and others). And the history of the Context-Driven School of Software Testing – especially the LAWST workshops – resonates nicely with the early history of psychoanalysis: a largely remote affair with ritualized get-togethers. 

Farrell organizes his discussion around stages of growth: Formation, Rebellion, Quest/Creative Work, Collective Action, Disintegration, and (sometimes) Reunion. He emphasizes how the rituals of collaboration change over time, and also how the different stages call forth different roles for people to play. 

In the podcast episode, I’m likely to downplay rigid stages and up-play changing roles and changing collaboration practices. However, here I’ll follow Farrell’s stages, noting that only the first three stages apply to the non-public team. And the first stage is not a great fit for a typical team that’s assembled by a boss. 

  1. Formation is when sympatico people in a particular trade, field, or profession get together for friendship and shop talk.
  2. Rebellion is when these people realize they’re dissatisfied with the status quo and begin to identify specifically what and whom they dislike.
  3. Quest is when they coalesce on an alternative approach and work through the details by practicing elements of that approach. That blends into a period of creative work, when the members spin out their own embellishments on, and interpretations of, the group’s approach.
  4. Collective action is when they try to dislodge or take over the status quo: become a mass or at least larger movement.
  5. Disintegration is when the individuals no longer so much benefit from the circle, began to get jealous about who invented what, and go their own ways.
  6. Reunion doesn’t interest me much. I already know what it’s like to be a nostalgic has-been.

The outcome of Quest (Creative Work) marks a team that’s competent in a new way. A different episode will will cover the later, “going public” stages.

What follows is a brief sketch of the first three stages, enough that I hope people can see whether their own history matches or not. I’m going to emphasize the roles in bold

Formation - “Something’s wrong"

In the formation stage, a collaborative circle is a group of people we’ll call novices who are interested in a particular field or craft (such as painting, or writing, or treating neurotic patients) who meet together fairly socially, often in public (like proto-Impressionists in cafes, drinking, smoking, and talking shop). These people are generally either starting their first career or switching careers. They feel marginalized. For example, first-wave feminists came out of the temperance and abolitionist movements – where they were not allowed to talk, except in small groups to other women. There are typically no mentors available (which is fortunate, because mentors typically act to preserve the status quo). All the people in the circle are roughly equal in their level of expertise and generally their overall “social capital” is roughly the same. 

Most importantly, they feel that there’s something wrong with the status quo, but they have difficulty expressing what that is, much less seeing alternatives. 

All members of the nascent collaborative circle “are likely to share a number of characteristics, including a similar orientation to their discipline, similar levels of ambition, a common language of discourse, and common attitudes toward success in their field”. Some may be more conservative, some more radical, but they generally find it easy to talk with each other. You could say they share a lot of tacit context. (I do realize this makes Farrell’s theory an awkward fit for teams that are specifically trying to benefit from diversity.)

These somewhat-homogenous members result partly because mis-fits will drop out. For example, male collaborative circles sometimes have a style that’s vaguely “bro-ish”. In the case of the proto-Impressionists, Manet and Degas set the style: “intellectually competitive, 'show no quarter, take no prisoners’, rough and playful, peppered with playful insults, but ultimately nurturing and stimulating". That particular style is not required. The Ultras of first-wave feminism had a much different style: but nevertheless they had a recognizable style. Whatever the particular style, it’s well understood that people with other styles will tend to select themselves out of such groups.

But homogeneity also comes because the novices are selected for it at the start. The gatekeeper is the person who invites new people to come and sample one of the social gatherings – and thus forms the circle person by person. 

There is often also a charismatic central figure – not quite a leader – who somewhat sets the tone for the group. For example, Sidney Hirsh was an eccentric world traveler with odd ideas who, in a way, "held court” at the early meetings of the Fugitive Poets. The eventual core of the group were those the gatekeeper invited who found Hirsh exciting and could keep up with him. “Davidson, Johnson, and Tate all convey a similar picture of what it was like to enter the group and be greeted by Hirsh – an unpredictable challenge, Socratic dialogue, wild ideas, a mesmerizing performance, but always the promise of learning something new". (Note, again, that there is more than one way of being a charismatic central figure, and not all circles have quite so obvious a one.) As the group turned to poetry, though, Hirsh drifted into a secondary role and a poet replaced him.

I should note that membership in the circle is not fixed after Formation. New people will arrive throughout the life of the circle. Some of them will become those Farrell identifies as core members. Others will remain peripheral. Some initially core members will move into the periphery – perhaps forever, perhaps for a time after which they’ll drift back to the core. 

Rebellion - “This is what’s wrong"

In the Rebellion phase, the circle sharpens its critique of the status quo. They don’t yet have a solid concept of what good work is, but they know what it isn’t, and they know who isn’t doing it. Often, a particular outsider is identified as the tyrant, the embodiment of all that’s wrong with the status quo. The circle gains solidarity by telling stories about the outrageous things the tyrant and people like him do. The lightning rod often takes the lead in attacking the tyrant and the status quo – revelling in being seen from the outside (and inside) as the “bad boy.” The charismatic leader will take more of a center stage and will often bait the other members into moving outside their comfort zone. For example, Monet was the charismatic leader of the early Impressionists who got them to reject authority and paint outdoors. 

There may be a peripheral (rarely core) member who is the scapegoat, the one most ambivalent about rejection of the status quo. That person can be useful by forcing the sharpening of arguments, whereas the tyrant is so obviously wrong that his value diminishes rapidly.

This – and later – stages can lead to conflict that will blow up the group. The peacekeeper has the role of keeping that from happening.

The result of the Rebellion phase is (1) changing ambivalence into purpose, (2) buffering outside pressures toward conformity, (3) providing the courage to rebel and – contrariwise – making it harder not to rebel, and (4) emotional, social, and tangible support (like giving an artist down on his luck someplace to stay).

A lot of the work gets done in ritualized meetings in set places at set times (as opposed to social occasions dominated by freeform shop talk). 

Quest/Creative Work – “This is how we do it"

In the Quest phase, the circle constructs “beliefs about the basic ‘facts’ that should be taken into account in the field, the most important problems to work on, and the best ways to work on them”. They are developing the equivalents of the principles and values of the Agile Manifesto or the seven principles of the Context-Driven school. (Though formal codification and publishing of principles comes later.)

A lot of the work is done in pairs who work together, critique each other in near-real time, and take ideas to their limit. For example, in the summer of 1869, Renoir and Monet painted together, literally setting up their easels side-by-side and painting the same scene. “The discoveries they made and the techniques they developed that summer are considered the definitive elements of the Impressionist style. […] They arrived at the vision as they worked alongside one another, commenting on each other’s work, experimenting, making mistakes, deciding to include some mistakes, and eventually discovering the effects they preferred.” 

It is also common for people to share unfinished work with the whole group in ritualized discussions. For example, the Fugitive Poets had a ritual of each member bringing a new work to each weekly meeting. “Every poem was read aloud by the poet himself, while members of the group had before them typed copies of the poem. The reading aloud might be followed by a murmur of compliments, but often enough there was a period of ruminative silence before anyone said a word. Then discussion began, and it was likely to be ruthless in exposure of any technical weakness […] and was often minute in analysis of details. Praise for good performance was rarely lacking […] but even the best poems might exhibit some imperfection in the first draft.” The comparisons to the writers’ workshops of the patterns and early Agile movements write themselves. The LAWST workshops on context-driven testing also had a similar style. Pull request reviews could have a similar effect, though my impression is they rarely do.

There are also more general discussions of the emerging consensus, typically brought to the larger group by pairs. A devil’s advocate “plays an important part in challenging the pairs to refine their thinking. A center coalition of members assumes responsibility for weighing and integrating the innovations into a new vision. Through dialogues with the creative pairs and the devil’s advocate, the center coalition eventually negotiates consensus on a coherent and engaging vision.” Also relevant are the conservative and radical boundary markers. “Boundary markers are core members who become identified with the extremes of group culture. The radical boundary markers are the ones who 'go too far’ in embracing rebellious, new ideas; the conservatives are those who ‘lag behind’." Having boundary people advance arguments for their position in the group meetings sharpens the understanding of the center coalition, who “sift through the arguments, and then synthesize the conflicting views into a common vision. The coalition members are the ones who give voice to the shared beliefs and values of the group – their style, manifesto, or vision. Once the coalition members crystallize a vision, they produce work based on the vision and attempt to persuade the others to use it."

Once the vision has proved itself out through work, the individuals “begin to follow through on the implications of that vision.” Continued group meetings help them overcome obstacles and remain enthusiastic. “The group meetings are occasions where members replenish their self-esteem, sharpen their understanding of the vision, and share solutions to problems.” Note that such meetings are no longer frequent – on the order of weekly. They are more likely to be once a year or a few times a year.