The Catalyst


Communication and culture have an effect on how well a team works together, which in turn effects the development process.

Someone often takes the (often unofficial) role of TheCatalyst, the person who mediates disputes, organizes social events (such as informal group lunch trips, etc.). 

Can this pattern be generated? can you appoint someone to fulfill this role, or should you just build an organization which fosters this sort of person?


WikiWiki!BetsyHanesPerry relates a role called PublicCharacter from Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I'll let her tell more about it here.

-- JimCoplien

From Jane Jacobs's ''The Death and Life of Great American Cities'', p. 68 of the 1961 edition:

"The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters. A PublicCharacter is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a PublicCharacter. ... His main qualification is that he is public, that he talks to lots of different people. In this way, news travels that is of sidewalk interest."

Jacobs goes on to say that, once the neighborhood recognizes a PublicCharacter, people consciously tell him gossip (meeting dates, lost items) that they want propagated. A PublicCharacter is a sort of living bulletin-board, with highly advanced search capabilities. ;-)

In my experience, large software projects usually have at least one PublicCharacter, and s/he is critical to project success. When you want to know who understands the persistence layer, you don't ask the architect; he's too busy. You ask the PublicCharacter, who won't know beans about persistence, but will know that Mary knows a lot about databases, and that she will either understand the persistence layer or know who does. (Triple-indirect knowledge!)

Project members are often penalized for being PublicCharacter's -- "Oh, Mary never gets anything done, she's always gossiping." In my opinion, PublicCharacter's are a vital part of keeping large projects connected and successful. The role is essentially informal; I don't think a project manager can successfully assign somebody to this role. Rather, the role is something, like botyris fungus, that is recognized and taken advantage of when already present.

If you see a team member "always gossiping", consider whether the team member has become a PublicCharacter. Ask him or her a couple of team-related questions ("Where can I find out more about the garbage collection? Who understands the compiler tools"?) If he or she can handle these, as well as other questions ("Where's the best place to have lunch?" "How can I find Phil if he isn't at his desk?" "And what about... Naomi?"), you've found your PublicCharacter.

-- WikiWiki!BetsyHanesPerry

This is covered by MatronRole and PublicCharacter.

-- Neil Harrison