Schrödinger's Empowered Team

Jonas Abernathy is a stray delivery coach I picked up during one of my solo, post-work, beverage debriefs.

He’s sinewy, awkward, blunt, delightfully insightful after his 3rd beer and destructively inspirational past his 5th.

My first interaction with him, over 6 years ago, was in a bar. He convinced me and a bunch of strangers to play a drinking version of the Ball Point Game. By the end of an exceptionally long and messy evening our motley crew of unknowns had created a Lean Business Canvas, a vision roadmap, and a backlog for the next 3 months on the bar walls.

We were going to make apps to help people who wanted to make apps. Our name was going to be “Appity App” or AA as we would later refer to it.

Fast-forward a few years and better life choices later, Jonas and I would still occasionally catchup at our favourite Auckland, copper topped hideaway. We never plan our meetups; they just happen when they happen.

A year or so ago, Jonas and I found ourselves in one of our impromptu AA meetings. We were moaning and delighting at the events of the day when he slapped the bar top, stopping the conversation.

“You know what really gets my goatee!?” he growled, instantly changing the subject.

He didn’t have a goatee.

I’ve learned to wait and smile at these 90 degrees turns in conversations, so that’s what I did.

“All the businesses I talk to its ‘We empower our teams’ this and ‘our teams are empowered to’ that.”

Jonas leaned in and whispered at normal talking volume “But you talk to the poor teams and they’re miserable. They're drowning in work! They are constantly under pressure. They context switch so hard at the end of the day they can’t finish their own sentences!”

Did I mention that he enjoys hyperbole?

“How is that empowerment?” Jonas flattened.

I waited; I’ve learned to tell when he’s in “self-realising monologue” mode.

“On one hand the team can make a lot more decisions than they could before. On the other hand, no one has bothered to help them make good decisions. They just said, ‘here yah go yah bunch of cross functional monkeys, now this pile of crap is yours.’ The business doesn’t help the team develop the skills to manage the workflow better. It doesn’t help lower non-productive conflict, or make decision making easier. The business expects these teams to magically learn how to do the thing that the culture couldn’t figure out in the first place.”

“So” I said, checking to make sure I was hearing him right, “You’re saying the teams are empowered because they are expected to make decisions about how to best manage their work, but they are not empowered because the business doesn’t invest in making decision making easier, nor did it give them a lot of guidance on how exactly a team manages workflow effectively.”

Then he said something that I enjoyed so much that I thought I’d share it with you.

“Exactly!” Jonas exclaimed, “They are Schrödinger’s Teams! They are both empowered and not empowered at the same time!” Jonas pressed his fingers to lips. A sign that he was feeling an epiphany work its way up his throat. “Oh my god, Joe! No one is observing them!!”

To understand his revelation, you need to know a little bit about what Jonas meant when he said Schrödinger’s Teams.

In 1935 Albert Einstein and physicist Erwin Schrödinger discussed a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics that suggested a system is in a state of superposition (having multiple possibilities existing at once) until it is observed. On the quantum level, an atom or photo can exist in many possible states until we observe them.

If you think that sounds unbelievable and ridiculous then you are not alone. Erwin Schrödinger thought the existing views of quantum theory were absurd. To illustrate his point, he proposed a mind experiment where he placed a cat in a locked, steel chamber with some contained poison. In this chamber the cat’s life or death depended on the outcome of a random and unpredictable trigger that either would or would not release poison.

Schrödinger argued that if we applied the thinking of quantum superposition to this scenario, for the time the cat remained, unobserved, in that locked container, the cat would remain both alive and dead until the state of the cat could be observed.

This mind experiment, where a cat can be both dead and alive at the same time, is what is referred to as “Schrödinger’s cat”.

So, when Jonas was saying the teams were Schrödinger’s Teams, he was saying that they weren’t just context switching tasks, they were existing in two cultural realities at the same time.

These teams were simultaneously in a reality where they were not in an environment that supported empowered teams, while also in a reality where that same environment expected them to behave like empowered teams.

Jonas’ last epiphany, “Oh my god, Joe! No one is observing them!!”  didn’t mean that no one in the business was paying any attention to the teams. It meant that no one in the business was observing that the teams were being pressured in this way. The teams were stuck in this place between expectations and reality with-in the same environment.

Imagine being taught to drive a car by pressing the accelerator and the brake at the same time. Now, imagine you worked for a delivery company and must drive your car to make deliveries. No one in this company gives you feedback on how you are driving, or even how to improve your driving. The company only looks at whether you make the deliveries.

The company feels like you are empowered because you are given a package and trusted to see it to its destination, which you often do. The company has given you training (2 days course) on the rules of the road, of which you passed. The company assumes you know how to technically use the vehicle (of course you do, just press the accelerator and the brake to make it move). It assumes you know how to check the health of the vehicle (it turns on and goes and stops when you need it to). It assumes you are planning your routes based on the most effective way to get the package to its destination (all backroads, avoiding highways because your vehicle doesn’t run safely at high speeds).

A few months in and the company notices the super high fuel cost. A bit more time and they realize that about every 3 months you have to get the brakes replaced. You’ve never gotten a ticket and the package nearly always gets there, but your travel times don’t make sense to the company.

The company can see that there is something wrong, but they don’t want to not empower you. So rather than having a delivery expert sit in and observe you do deliveries, the company shows you the fuel price, the unexpected cost of multiple brake changes, and the long delivery times.

All those numbers make perfect sense to you. Those numbers are good decisions that you’ve made based on how your vehicle operates. When you tell the company this, they get upset because they think you are pulling the wool over their eyes, and you get upset because what do a bunch of desk jockeys know about making deliveries?

This is a Schrödinger’s Team scenario (albeit a bit exaggerated to make the point) and Jonas and I have documented a few, and some, since his first epiphany a year and a bit back. In our desire to make everything an acronym we’ve come to refer to it as STOM - Schrödinger’s Team Observational Model.

After using STOM to log and discuss several Schrödinger’s Teams, one interesting characteristic stands out. In nearly every scenario we found and investigated, there isn’t anyone to blame. Everyone one involved is motivated, caring and genuinely trying to do the right thing. The missing piece, the irony of the whole situation, is a misunderstanding around what “empowerment” is. This need to empower a team while not understanding what that word means ironically leads to the obfuscation of the team and keeps them from being observed (like in the driving example).

At this point, some of you may be wondering how can you use STOM to find and observe a Schrödinger’s Team and what does that even look like?

STOM is simple. It has two steps:

1. Fnd a Schrödinger’s Team

2. Observe the Schrödinger’s Team

Step 1: find a Schrödinger’s Team

Since we are talking about teams existing both as empowered and not empowered simultaneously, start with any teams in the business that people say are empowered to do things. They may be called squads, or scrum teams, or Kanban teams, or maybe just cross functional teams. Then find the answers to these questions:

1. Does the team feel like they are drowning in work?

2. Have they given up their iteration meetings (planning, stand-ups, reviews, retros) to make more time to work?

3. Do stakeholders describe work that enters the team’s backlog as “disappearing into a black hole”.

4. Do they (or the person managing the backlog) spend a disproportionate amount of time managing multiple stakeholders for work priority?

5. Does work enter the team through more than one channel? (Not funnelling and prioritising all the work together)

6. Does the team not see value in planning because their work is constantly being interrupted with higher priority items?

7. Is it difficult for the people who are supposed to be supporting the team to know when they need to help?

If you’ve answered “Yes” to any of these, it might be a Schrödinger’s Team. If you answered “Yes” to more than one, it is likely that the team is stuck between being empowered and not being empowered.

Step 2: Observe the Schrödinger’s Team

This doesn’t mean that you go up to their working area and stare at them. It also does NOT mean that you wave a lot of metrics at them and ask them to fix them.

You need to do a little bit more to break the cycle. Like in the driving example, you need an expert on their sort of delivery to sit with them and empathise with how they are working.

You must go up to the team and show them that you see them struggling.

Tell them what you hope they can do in terms of managing work and listen to them when they tell you what the business does that makes it hard for them to do it.

Take notes, prioritise the list, and commit to addressing the issues that are making it harder for them to manage the work in meaningful way.

The list may have things like:

  • Education or training in how to manage their workflow better.
  • Clear business wide priorities to lean on when negotiating with stakeholders.
  • A promise to quiet the noise from increased demand, allowing your team to focus on supplying solutions.

At this point you’ve engaged in recognising their struggle and have started a plan to improve the quality of working. You’ve done this based on the needs that they’ve expressed to you, so are acting in their interest. Now they are on the road to empowerment.

STOM is intentionally an over-simplification. After all, it was created by a couple of goofy coaches after a long day at work. It solely focuses on recognition.

It doesn’t address the details around how to up-skill the teams in a way that addresses their needs. It doesn’t address how to create sustainable delivery abilities the team will continue with after the uplift. It doesn’t help you navigate the politics or cultural barriers that may be keeping a team from performing. In essence it doesn’t replace the need for experience.

At very least, and the reason I thought to share it, it raises awareness.

My aim is to publish more articles on how these sort of circumstances affects your delivery’s ability to thrive. My hope is we can walk towards solutions that are closer to the harder to see problem, instead of settling for patching symptoms in our busy world.

In the meantime, STOM gives anyone who might care, a perspective to find, observe and begin a journey with these teams. It helps you attain the first step on a path to relieving so much stress created from a simple misunderstanding.

In that light, I’ll end this article with the definition of empower that Jonas and I used as the principle focus when developing STOM.

If TO BE empowered is when your effort is supported to fail, learn, and eventually succeed.


TO empower (to observe) is to make time to stand beside them in failure, to give them feedback that relates to them and resources to improve from, and to celebrate their successes with them.

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