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Pairing to Learn (Part 2 of 2)

Pairing, or two people sitting at a single desk working on a single task together, is a practice that was introduced in Extreme Programming by Kent Beck. At Menlo Innovations more than just the programmers pair; the High-Tech Anthropologists® and Quality Advocates pair, and even the project managers and support staff often pair.

Pairing, however, is not necessarily a skill that every Menlonian possesses. While most have worked on teams in other organizations, those teams often consisted of individual heroes, towers of knowledge and those not pulling their weight. Everyone remembers that disastrous group project in school that turned them off to collaborative work early in life. But pairing is a different beast entirely and while it presents a number of learning opportunities as pairs discover each other’s strengths, it can also present friction and tension as pairs discover each other’s weaknesses and even begin to butt heads.

So what do you do when you disagree as a pair? How do you move forward when you don’t approve of the direction? What about when you just don’t like the person?

Disagreeing on direction

People are, by their nature, creative beings. This can often drive people to pursue the implementation of their ideas hard, especially in environments where a good idea can reap bountiful rewards like more money or greater status. At Menlo, we circumvent this drive in two ways: we design and code focusing on the end users’ needs instead of our own and our primary objective when pairing is to “Make Your Partner Look Good”.

Any time a decision must be made, we first consider the user data we have gathered and what solution would help that user accomplish their goals. It is not a debate between the pair over who’s idea is cleverer, or trendier, or easiest. All discussion revolves around the user and their wants, needs, and behaviors. Removing the personal preferences de-escalates the disagreement and moves the conversation from personal preferences to where it should be: the user.

We are 200% accountable: to ourselves as well as our pair partner."

The first rule at Menlo, from the interview on, is to “Make Your Partner Look Good”. This means that in any team discussion, client meeting, and pairing situation, our primary directive is to ensure our partner is not left to stumble. We are 200% accountable: to ourselves and our pair partner, and so any failure of theirs is really a failure of ours. This same rule extends to the greater team. By sitting together as a project and keeping this directive in mind, we encourage eavesdropping and interruptions that foster better code, better design and better decisions. When a pair is heard disagreeing on a direction, it is in the project and team’s best interest to keep that pair moving forward. 200% accountability means if you have knowledge that will break down a disagreement, it is your responsibility to offer it up and remove the obstacle so that work can continue.

Not getting along

“Make Your Partner Look Good” extends beyond just making project decisions. It also changes the motivations in every partner interaction, even when personalities clash. When making your partner succeed is constantly your focus, it shifts your motivations away from personal “wins” and hero status to an others-focused mindset instead.


But focusing on others does not mean automatic smooth sailing. Every person on our team is different, with different learning, decision-making, and processing styles. At Menlo, another key hiring question is “Do they have kindergarten skills?” This goes beyond ABC’s and 123’s and includes skills like sharing, curiosity, a willingness to make mistakes and apologize.

Often, we forget those skills as we grow up. This was the case one day when my pair partner and I were struggling through a difficult, time-sensitive task that seemed to continue to creep out of scope. We are complete opposites: he is an extrovert, I am an introvert, he can quickly make decisions while I prefer to dissect every option. And both of us were more stubborn than usual that day: refusing to compromise and simultaneously feeling bullied out of our opinions.

My pair partner chose to be curious, to be kind, to brave the tension."

It took too long for us to realize what we were doing to each other and to our project: we’d made very little progress and frustrations were rising. Finally, my pair partner chose to be curious, to be kind, and gave voice to the tension neither of us wanted to address.

It turns out? Neither of us were being heard. Both of us were behaving in ways that made the other feel dismissed and silenced and we’d been telling ourselves “stories” regarding each other’s motivations, never bothering to find out if they were correct. We had a fifteen-minute conversation, sharing those “stories”: that he cut me off because he didn’t care about what I had to say. That I was silent because I didn’t want to engage. Neither of our stories were true and, in fact, were often unconscious behaviors we weren’t aware we were doing.

It didn’t have to go that way. I could have refused to even begin the conversation. He could have refused to broach the subject. We could have continued down the path we’d been on for the rest of the week, making little progress and becoming more and more infuriated.

Make your partner look good allowed a space for me to trust my partner and for him to do the same."

But instead “Make Your Partner Look Good” allowed a space for me to trust that my pair partner wouldn’t punish me, but would also hold me accountable to how I was treating him. And that I was not only allowed, but responsible to do the same. And “Kindergarten Skills” reminded us that, at the very core of what we do each day, the foundation of our skills is sharing, curiosity, and being willing to make mistakes and apologize.

Organizations have recognized the high value and speed of pairing and mobbing, and as collaboration looms its head on the horizon, many employees dig in their heels, burrowing deep into their cubicle with earbuds firmly shoved in their ears. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Change is painful. But when given the understanding that not every pairing will be perfect, and the knowledge and ability to handle difficult partners, organizations can successfully introduce a healthy collaborative culture that adds immense value and quality to their product.