Collaborations patterns for class activities and meetings

Our graduate-level software engineering foundations course is offered in a mixed flipped-traditional format (see post by Cécile Péraire). Two components of the course require students to run effective meetings and develop good collaboration skills. During live sessions, students perform class activities in a team, and are asked to solve a problem in a limited time. Their semester-long team project also requires them to hold frequent planning, status, and reflection meetings. Students’ workloads are heavy so they need to be efficient. To help students with running their meetings and face-to-face collaboration in a group setting, we provide them with a catalogue of simple patterns that they can use.  We describe each pattern in terms of a symptom and a tactic:

  • The symptom signals a problem, an inefficiency, or a situation that may warrant an intervention.
  • The tactic proposes a suitable intervention that addresses the root cause of the symptom.  The tactic may refer to other patterns for tackling different aspects of the symptom.

I share these patterns below. I hope they are helpful. Let me know if you have different ones, or if you find them to be helpful or unhelpful.

Ice Breaker

  • Sympton: Team members don’t know each other well. They have many priorities to tackle. Everybody is stressed and anxious.
  • Tactic: Start the meeting with small-talk and pleasantries.  Ask everyone how they are doing, what’s on their mind, or share something that is non-work related. To optimize time, use Two-Word Check-in.

Two-Word Check-in

  • Symptom: Team members don’t know each other well. They have many priorities to tackle. Everybody is stressed and anxious. Time is limited: you need to get on with the task.
  • Tactic: Go around the group and ask each person to check-in. Check-in is simply an utterance, no more than three words, that captures how the participant is feeling. Words don’t need to relate to work. Example: stressed, eager. Ok, you can use three words.

Division of Work

  • Symptom: Time is limited. Everybody is working on the same problem individually at the same time. The tasks are a bit mechanical. Everybody comes up with more or less the same solution. This is wasteful.
  • Tactic: You’re a team: so be a team. Divide the work. Use Timebox. When the time is up, let everyone show their output and aggregate results. “Joe, why don’t you find this topic in lecture slides, while Jia is creating a template. Let’s give ourselves 5 minutes for this. When the time is up, we’ll aggregate the results.”

Pair Work

  • Symptom: Time is limited. Everybody is working on the same problem individually at the same time. The tasks are not that mechanical, they may require more than one brain. The team needs to optimize.

Tactic: Split the team into one or two pairs and one or two individuals. Give the pairs the challenging tasks, give the individuals more mechanical tasks. Use Timebox. When the time is up, discuss the outputs and aggregate results.

Moderator

  • Symptom: Chaos reigns, people are shouting over each other; or silence reigns, nobody is speaking; or people are taking irrelevant tangents instead of focusing on the task at hand.
  • Tactic: appoint one of you as a moderator; let the moderator run the show; if nobody is rises to the occasion, self-appoint yourself as the moderator. The moderator:
    • Polices time, making sure nobody speaks for too long or monopolize the discussion: “I think we get your point. Perhaps we can let Joe speak a bit. Joe do you have something to add?”
    • Decides who speaks next, being fair: “Let’s rotate, Jun, you’re next.” (see Round Robin) “Sorry, I can’t understand when more than one person is speaking. Rahul, do you want to go next?”
    • Maintains focus, calling it out when somebody takes a tangent: “I think this topic is a bit outside the topic. Let’s park it and come back to it if we have time.

Scribe

  • Symptom: You had a fruitful discussion, but nobody recorded it. Darn, now you have to present and submit your results.
  • Tactic: Appoint a scribe. The scribe’s role is to take notes. Scribe stops the team if a point is not clear or the team is moving too fast for him/her to catch up: “Wait a second guys, I can’t write down everything. Can you slow down a bit?” “Let me get this straight, do you mean ….?”

Parking Lot

  • Symptom: The team is stuck and hasn’t made any progress in the last 5 minutes; the clock is ticking. Tick tock tick tock.
  • Tactic: Park the task you are currently working on, move on to another task. If you have time, you can revisit it.

Round Robin

  • Symptom: A few members dominate the discussion. Others are silent. Or: People are talking over each other.
  • Tactic: Suggest to go around the block, people take turns speaking, in an orderly manner. Make sure nobody speaks for too long (see Moderator).

Mini Plan

  • Symptom: You’ve read or listened to the activity description. But it doesn’t give you concrete steps. The team doesn’t know how to proceed.
  • Tactic: Before randomly discussing possible solutions, take 5 minutes to make a mini-plan as a team. Strategize, focussing on the first few steps to get started. The rest may become obvious later. “What shall we do first, and how shall we do it?”

Read Aloud

  • Symptom: It’s not clear whether everybody understands what needs to be done. Task description seems ambiguous.
  • Tactic: Let someone read aloud the task description to the who team. Ask another member to rephrase it and explain it to the team.

Ask the Expert

  • Symptom: Nobody knows how to proceed. Task description is mysterious. A concept is utterly unclear. Mini Plan didn’t work. Read Aloud didn’t work.
  • Tactic: The TA is right over there. And look, the instructor is nearby too. Ask for help.

Timebox

  • Symptom: There are too many tasks. Time is limited. You have to manage time carefully to deliver something sensible. It will need to be just good enough.
  • Tactic: Decide how much time you’ll spend on each task. Be strict about it. Use Parking Lot if you need to revisit task. Let Moderator manage the time.

Iterate

  • Symptom: There are too many tasks. Time is limited. You have to manage it carefully to deliver something sensible. It will need to be just good enough.
  • Tactic: Timebox to come up with a rough solution for each task. Use Parking Lot. Then repeat the process to improve the solutions gradually. This way you can stop any time and still deliver something

 

SEEM 2018 accepted to ICSE!

SECM is now SEEM! And we are pleased to announce that our proposal, under the new name, the 2nd International Workshop on Software Engineering Education for Millennials, was accepted to ICSE 2018.  The workshop will be held in Gothenburg, Sweden, on June 2, 2018. The SEEM ‘2018 web site has launched recently. Organization is under way. Stay tuned for updates!