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Using Voir Dire for Agile Team Creation

I was recently selected to participate in the great American Jury Duty obligation. I am an admirer and fan of the American Jury System. I have been on two juries in the past – one criminal and one civil. 

Using Voir Dire for Agile Team Creation

This Jury Duty process was different from my past experiences and newly updated for the San Francisco Superior Court. You call in every day after 4:30 pm for a week to see if you need to go in and potentially get selected to be on jury for a case. Well, I was told to go in for two days. You are ushered into a very nice waiting room where you can work using your laptop and you watch a video of why it is important to serve and how this legal process of peer representation is in the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence many times. The last day I went in was a Thursday and I was selected among 50 people to march into a court where the Judge, defendants, plaintiffs, lawyers, and court people were waiting. One of the new procedures was that the opposing lawyers would take five minutes to tell all the prospective jurors their view of the case and why it is important to serve on the jury. Then, 27 people were selected for the jury selection process to find 12. Yes, I was selected. 

This process is called Voir Dire amongst the legal profession; the judge said it was an archaic term and no one liked it. The judge told us we could not talk to anyone about the case, not even other jurors, until deliberation starts. The judge indicated he gave the legal teams nine days to present their case based on prior discussions with the lawyers, and he indicated some days he will be off and there will be no court. The judge asked each one of us to provide the following:

  • Name
  • Part of San Francisco City where we lived
  • Highest education obtained
  • Profession or work
  • Married or single
  • Spouse and spouse’s occupation
  • Children and children’s occupation
  • If we were on a jury before; if so, was it civil or criminal, and was a decision arrived at by the jury
  • If we know anyone personally or professionally in the courtroom

So, 27 strangers got to know a little about each other – oh and the 23 alternates that had to wait and listen. We were all sworn in to be truthful. Then, the opposing lawyers got to ask their questions. It was interesting to note that there were many artists and musicians within the entire group as well as technology people. This was a civil case about a breach of contract with a software startup firm and a larger firm that used their product and did not pay.

The plaintiff attorneys get to go first. Their questions were specific to this type of case, asking people if they have experience with the following:

  • Contracts, creating and executing contracts, do you consider verbal contracts as binding as written contracts
  • Software profession and company experience
  • Patents, creating them and if they are important in society
  • Financial accounting and investment experience like with startups and venture capital
  • Mathematics experience and ability

All of the attorneys asked us to be fair and look at the evidence for our decision. Unfortunately, I did not get selected and was excused and thanked by the Plaintiff Attorneys. I assume it is because I shared strong opinions about written contracts, software ownership, and financial accountability. 

I wondered if parts of this Voir Dire process could be used for supporting self-forming Agile teams, learning about each team member, and accelerating team cohesion. Several years ago, at a large multi-line insurance company, we introduced Agile and the teams created an “audition” approach for new team members, similar to movie or theater auditions. I noticed similar questions and openness during that process and jury selection. Some companies create an open forum for teams to self-select through an iterative process to achieve balance.

As teams form, the need for people to learn about each other is important. It provides the basis of the team reaching the levels of support, transparency, honesty, and humility that we all want.

On the first day, we spend time together to learn about each other, asking similar questions as the Voire Dire but customized for the business domain, individual and company culture, and the purpose of the team as defined by something like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). Here is an example of the sharing amongst team members at the beginning:

  • What is your Name and where do you live?
  • What are your passions in life, what do you like doing and sharing with others?
  • Do you know anyone on the team, personally or professionally?
  • What is your role and responsibility within the team and the company?
  • What are your strongest skills?
  • What skills and experiences do you want to learn?
  • What do you know about our objective and purpose?
  • What experiences do you have with Agile, Scrum, Kanban, DevOps, Design Thinking, XP?
  • General questions about experiences within the specific business domain, product, customer empathy, and technology used for the team.

A more explicit selection approach is needed for self-organizing teams. The notion that teams are long-lived and work comes to the team is an important factor as we self-select our teammates as well as how we balance our teams. Many studies, including the latest Google Aristotle research, indicates that creating a psychologically safe environment is the fundamental lynchpin for high-performing teams. The team cohesion is further fostered as we develop our Team Agreements, defining how we communicate with each other and other teams. Team customer outings, tailored training, and innovation collaboration days are important to enhance team results.

One way to look at a jury is that it is a temporary team of 12 people that are sorted and selected by the attorneys. This team has enormous power and responsibility. The attorneys, like many business and technical managers within companies, try to create the winning team for their customer needs i.e. the plaintiffs or defendants, based on the attorney’s bias and expectations. As we all know, the jury can, and probably will, decide against your case and client even with the best jury selection approach and decisions applied. 

Many are finding that if we let teams self-organize within some constraints, the result is better than managers creating the teams. However, most companies are still hiring or assigning people to teams by managers or non-team members. I think we can learn something from the United States jury selection process: non-team people picking team people does not get you the results you want.

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