Have you ever played a pen-and-paper role-playing game?

You create a character. You define whether this character is human, dwarf, elf, or whatever. You decide the character's height, weight, age. You're given an amount of gold with which to equip your character. Will they be a warrior, a mage, a cleric?

Then you choose an alignment.

"Alignment" is a combination of moral axis and attitude toward social order. Your character can follow the letter of the law, be anarchistic, or simply be neutral on the issue. Similarly, your character can act for the betterment of personkind, for selfish reasons, or ambivalently.

Harry Potter was Neutral Good. He fought against the dark forces of Voldemort and the Death Eaters but he wasn't afraid to break the law to do so. Ebeneezer Scrooge was Lawful Evil. He wouldn't hesitate to evict a poor family from one of his properties if they didn't pay their rent on time, not caring if they perished from the cold. Tyler Durden was Chaotic Neutral. He didn't really care about the morality of a specific action, only that it furthered his goals of destroying the system.

... I'm not going to ask you to judge the morality of your teammates.

Alignment in Teams

So why the introduction to Alignment?

Alignment is important in the construction of role-playing groups. Five or six Neutral Evil characters together with a Lawful Good character may result in so much in-fighting that the story never advances. It's a very important trait to consider when coming together for a common goal, since "how" that goal is accomplished is often constrained by alignment.

What if we come up with some properties that are more appropriate for our product teams?

The two that I've been experimenting with are "Process adherence" (similar to Lawfulness) and "Team investment" (similar to morality). For example, I love working in a team setting and am invested in creating a safe place where people can share ideas and collaborate effectively. However, I'm more than willing to skirt process or even tear it down if it gets in the way of delivering value. I would call myself Chaotic Teamful.

I've worked with people in the past who are comfortable working by themselves or in a group, but get uncomfortable if there are any process violations. I would call these people Processful Neutral.

I've never worked with Chaotic Solos, but I imagine I wouldn't enjoy it.

A word on 'evil'

Because the role-playing Alignment has an axis for morality, there is an 'evil' value there that we have to map to, for which I chose Solo. Which is unfortunate, because it's not Evil to prefer not to work with others. I know lots of engineers who are very strong introverts, and for them too much time in team situations is simply draining.

This approach is not meant to alienate or judge - it's meant to help understand. If you find yourself saying "hmmm, that Bob guy is too Chaotic for this team, I wonder if I can coach him to be more Processful..." then you're doing it wrong. Don't try to change people. Instead, you could work with the team to help everyone understand the impact Bob's attitude toward Chaos has. It's a two-way street: Bob can adapt (not change) to address the needs of the team, and the team can adapt (not change) to address Bob.

We're not cogs. We're agile practictioners.

What do you do with this idea?

This Alignment approach been helpful for me to frame my relationship with others on my team. I know, for instance, that I work with a person who is somewhere between Processful Neutral and Processful Teamful. So when I have a conversation with this person I have to remember their Alignment and alter how I present my Chaotic ideas, facts, arguments, data, whatever. It's a great way to avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary conflict.

In a recent retrospective I asked the team if they'd mind rating themselves on this dual scale. I drew an X and Y axis on the whiteboard, labeling Y (from bottom to top) Solo, Neutral, and Teamful; and X (from left to right) Processful, Neutral, Chaotic:

alignment-base

Seven people rated themselves:

alignment-base-with-stickies

I then drew in the lines to delineate the nine Alignments:

alignment-base-with-stickies-and-lines

Results

These are the actual team results, not the example above (although they are similar).

  • Three considered themselves True Neutral, with one of those leaning Neutral Teamful and one Neutral Solo
  • One was somewhere between Processful Neutral and Processful Teamful
  • One was Chaotic Teamful (that was me)
  • One was Chaotic Neutral
  • One was Neutral Teamful but trending toward Processful Teamful

This seems like a reasonably balanced team to me, and we know where each other sit. This shared understanding may contribute to having better conversations in the future - at least, that's my hope.

Try this out! See what conversations it spawns within your team, see if anyone can more easily connect with someone with a different alignment. How does your team lean? What are the liabilites and assets that might come out of the composition?

If you try this I'd like to hear what results you find. Did conversations happen? Were they useful? If an Owlbear attacks, how will your team fare?

If it feels a little intimidating, don't worry. Owlbears are pretty much harmless except for their claws. Avoid those and you'll be fine.