How can firms and teams become more agile? And when working under a novel task, how can teams help each other and extract the maximum out of everyone based on their individual strengths? Professor Thomas Kude, University of Bamberg, formerly of ESSEC Business School, and his fellow researchers Sunil Mithas, Muma College of Business, Christoph T. Schmidt, SVP International Technology, and Armin Heinzl, University of Mannheim, shine light on pair programming and backup behavior – two key concepts that teams can adopt to become more agile and more adept at handling new challenges.
Pair Programming and Backup Behavior: Tools to become ultra-agile by CoBS Editor Pavan Jambai. Related research: Thomas Kude, Sunil Mithas, Christoph T. Schmidt, Armin Heinzl (2019) How Pair Programming Influences Team Performance: The Role of Backup Behavior, Shared Mental Models, and Task Novelty. Information Systems Research 30(4):1145-1163. https://doi.org/10.1287/isre.2019.0856
If you have followed any company or industry in recent years, you might recognize this word from their self-description: Agile. In today’s environment, everyone and everything needs to be in order to cope with the dynamic needs of the market. Software development is no exception to this thumb rule. So how exactly can firms and teams become more agile?
As new processes destined to increase teams’ operational effectiveness are developed regularly and frequently, Prof. Kude and his fellow researchers examine the impact of a common, yet effective, practice in creating agile teams – that of pair programming – and its consequence among the team members – backup behavior – especially when teams have to regularly work under novel tasks.
Pair programming is a central and widely adopted practice of Extreme Programming (XP), one of the two most popular agile methodologies for software development, the other being Scrum. As the name suggests, pair programming is when two software developers share one computer to jointly design, develop, or test software coding.
From existing knowledge of workplace collaboration, it follows that assigning a task to two programmers instead of one can increase the quality of the developed software code and the speed with which the task is completed. However, this practice is particularly powerful in the face of novel and complex tasks.
Moreover, in today’s dynamic and highly competitive environment, developers constantly require new capabilities or processes in carrying out their activities. Under such circumstances, pair programming enables the team members to create what the researchers call ‘backup behavior.’
Backup Behavior under Task Novelty
In simple terms, backup behavior is a yardstick to measure the extent of coordination and cooperation among team members. It refers to the extent to which team members understand, help, and collaborate with each other in achieving the common objectives of the team.
Although it is a naturally desirable team quality, Prof. Kude et al emphasize the importance of backup behavior, particularly when working with novel tasks. Indeed, backup behavior is found to mitigate the numerous potential negative effects of a novel assignment, such as mis-allocation of tasks among the team members, not leveraging team members’ excess capacities, and failing to integrate team members’ capabilities and efforts.
Adopting pair programming helps teams facilitate and achieve backup behavior. And as pair programming increases the shared mental modules among the team members and allows them to know each other’s capabilities and strengths, it directly facilitates backup behavior among team members. As a result, the team that adopts pair programming can handle task novelty much better than a team that does not.
Agility vs Brain-Drain
But pair programming and backup behavior are not silver bullets that can solve all the problems facing a team. Interestingly, Kude, Mithas, Schmidt, and Heinzl find that in situations of low task novelty, teams may, in fact, be better off not providing backup to each other, indicating that backup behavior may have adverse effects on teamwork if there is no legitimate need for backup.
However successfully we may have surpassed the COVID-19 pandemic, there is another silent pandemic that has been brewing among organizations for quite some time: the mental health and workplace wellbeing pandemic. And if firms fail to omit and employ every possible process to ease the lives of their employees – especially for those who regularly work with new tasks – they might find themselves in a state of brain-drain. Here too, pair programming and its associated backup behavior might offer a timely and useful approach for companies to think about using.
- Link up with Prof. Thomas Kude on LinkedIn
- Read a related article: Is IT becoming the next oil & gas?
Learn more about the Council on Business & Society
The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
Member schools are all “Triple Crown” accredited AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA and leaders in their respective countries.
- ESSEC Business School, France-Singapore-Morocco
- FGV-EAESP, Brazil
- School of Management Fudan University, China
- IE Business School, Spain
- Keio Business School, Japan
- Smith School of Business, Canada
- Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa
- Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
- Warwick Business School, United Kingdom.