Social Contracts, Simple Rules, and Self-Organization

This is the abstract and conclusions from a short paper I wrote and presented at the 15th International Conference on Agile Software Development (XP 2014) in Rome, Italy. A preprint version of the full paper is available here.

Abstract

Teams and organizations are complex adaptive systems. Self- organization in complex adaptive systems evolves through a set of Simple Rules. Self-organization is a core tenet of agile teams. Self-organization does not mean everyone gets to do whatever they want to do. Team members create contracts with each other. These contracts create boundaries, or containers, within which self-organization can occur. Teams also create contracts with other teams, the wider organization and other stakeholders. The contracts are both implicit and explicit. Social contracts in complex adaptive systems are more effective if they are based on Simple Rules. Social Contract Theory acts as a lens through which we can better understand these social contracts in agile teams. This paper represents ongoing research that examines the role of Simple Rules and Social Contract Theory in fostering self-organization in agile development teams. The paper discusses four examples of social contracts in agile teams: definition of done, definition of ready, working agreements, and retrospectives.

Conclusions

This paper described the connection between Social Contract Theory and agile teams, viewing agile teams as complex adaptive systems. The field of Human Systems Dynamics provides a suitable lens through which to view teams and organizations as complex adaptive social systems, and defines necessary conditions for self- organization using Containers, Differences and Exchanges. The social contracts in agile teams and organizations are based on the Simple Rules that govern emergence and self-organization.

Simple Rules support coherent behaviors in a system. Definition of done, definition of ready, and working agreements are all examples of social contracts, created using Simple Rules, in agile teams and organizations. In addition, there are examples of social contracts to be found in retrospectives, including the prime directive, second directive and ground rules. These Simple Rules and Social Contracts support emergent behaviors and self-organization.

Teams own their own Simple Rules. As teams adapt their Simple Rules, new patterns are formed in the system. These patterns are governed by the social contracts created by the Simple Rules. Violating the Simple Rules creates a tension in the system that can be resolved by the team enforcing the rules or altering the rules (an Exchange intervention), or by the team membership changing (a Container intervention).
Social Contracts exist within agile teams, between agile teams, between agile teams and management, and within management teams.

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