Mark Pearl

When you start mob programming for the first time there will be conflict. Interestingly, in experienced mobs there will also be conflict. The difference between the type of conflict a new mob faces and the productive conflict an experienced mob faces is significant.

For new mobs, more than often the conflict exists because there is a big discrepency in the coding standards and stylistic preferences amongst the individuals in the mob.

Before mob programming, having a consistent team coding standard and approach was hard. If you were in teams similar to the ones I was in, you probably had a team document outlining stylistic code prefences, a peer review process when someone completed a feature, or even practiced pair programming. While all these practices are good, they are not as good as mob programming at achieving a consistentcy and robustness - a side effect of increased consistency is conflict.

I believe it comes down to two things that mob programming has that other practices do not have at the same level:

  1. Near zero latency between the code being written and people reviewing it
  2. High diversity in the feedback with multiple people giving their input

The challenge of near instant feedback

The challenge of near instant feedback from people who have never coded as a group before is conflict. This conflict most often manifests itself in stylistic code preferences (turns out most programmers are passionate about the code they write and how they write it). If the conflict is not managed effectively it escalates. As it escalates you risk people getting jaded and not wanting to participate in the mob again.

Having an explicit strategy for handling conflict in a mob is crucial.

See initial conflict in a mob as a good thing

First, it helps for a team to recognize that initial conflict in a mob is a good thing. It shows that the people in your team care about the code they write.

Secondly, you are having conflict because there were previously discrepencies in how you as a team were doing things. Tackling these discrepencies will lead to a happier team.

For instance, if your team tackles the conflict around stylistic code preferences properly you will end up with a consistent team code standard. Opening up a code base and not being able to differentiate between the code you wrote and the code someone else wrote because the code is consistent makes most developers happy and very productive.

Defer in depth stylistic discussion for later

It’s easy for a mob to loose momentum when discussing stylistic preferences on code (trying to resolve what particular syntax to use for branching logic is not going to be solved in any short time). Instead defer in depth stylistic discussions for after the mob session.

The rule of thumb is if you can’t get full agreement on specific stylistic preferences within a short amount of time - say two minutes - get the mob to do a staw poll between the options, go with the majority.

It is useful to get agreement before a mob starts that when there are differences of opinion, we will go with the mob majority vote.

If an individual in the mob still feels strongly that they want to discuss the topic further, the issue should be noted and deferred.

We’ve found putting these “items to discuss” on post it notes on a whiteboard near the mob station and then making sure we discuss them at some point in the near future allows the mob to move forward with solving the problem at hand.

Be mindful of the language you use

During a mob session the language you use is important. This is especially true for new mobs. In Lyssa Adkins book on Coaching Agile Teams she writes about appropriate levels of conflict within a team. The same advice can be applied to mobs.

Problem solving conflict is essential for a mob to be effective. In such circumstances people in the mob should use clear, specific and factual language. They should talk about the problem at hand. Language that moves from specific to general or that becomes distorted can escalate the levels of conflict in the mob to a point where the mob becomes unproductive and frustrated.

For new mobs that battle with appropriate language, or who keep escalating to levels of unnecessary conflict, it can be useful to make use of a facilitator to help them mob. Experienced facilitators help diffuse conflict to appropriate levels, show the mob how to use appropriate language and help the mob get past the storming stage. With time the team should look to mature past the point of needing a facilitator.

There are some great resources to help people learn how to communicate appropriately. One of the best resources I’ve come across is the book “Crucial Conversations - tools for talking when stakes are high”. I would recommend reading this book several times. If reading is not your thing, there are other ways of learning the general skill of handling conflict including workshops and videos.

There are no I’s in mob

Sometimes you are going to be in a mob, find an approach or technique that you are really passionate about, and the other people in the mob just don’t agree or see the value. Fight the urge to put yourself ahead of the mob. Just as there are no I’s in team, there are no I’s in a mob. Put the mob first.

If there is a stylistic preference the mob doesn’t value that you do, you should look for opportunities to create awareness, desire and knowledge. If your team currently does not have opprotunities for you to do this, encourage this to be introduced into your teams routine.

In Woody Zuill’s first mob they did learning for an hour each morning - in the team I’m currently in we have something similar. Both are platforms to create awareness, desire and knowledge of things individuals might value that the team needs to know more about.

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