The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
Together and apart
In pre-pandemic times I’ve been asked this question more than once:
“Now that we work in this ‘agile way’ can’t we work from home?”
In some cases, people who even had contractual arrangements allowing them to work from home a few days a week where asked, more or less gently, to stay in the office.
Because that “face-to-face conversation” somewhat ended up being interpreted as “(agile) teams must be in the same room”.
I witnessed companies going at great lengths to show their commitment to this “working in the same room” thing.
I’ve seen hundreds of people put on the same floor, with more o less heavy office renovation involved.
In some way, this has been a good change for many people involved.
In other ways, there was a lack of options: it was either you are “into” the team’s room, or your are outside of it all.
First class and second class citizens. This is terrible.
The tyranny of the team
The thing is, most companies operates on a highly individual, point-to-point way of working: teams are not the standard operating mode.
You can spot this tendency any time you ask people about their workflow: they never speak about “the team” or “the workflow”, their description of how work happens is always about a chain of handoff to one specific person to another one.
The agile versione of team is a highly idealised and advance one. Helping people to realise and then improve how they work individually is way overlooked.
“I work with teams” is something I said many times during pre-pandemic times, I considered the individual sphere of agility outside of my area of control or influence. Or interest, to be honest.
I think that we might have been a little too obsessed by team, and we might have to focus more on teamwork. Especially asynchronous teamwork.
Being out of sync is good
June 2021: we’ve all been forced to work from home for almost a year and a half.
Is it still true that “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”? As we all claim to be Zoom-fatigued, we can’t really say that virtual facetime is that effective, really.
We are all having heated, on-going debates about how much productivity has been lost or gained and how much our lives have improved or worsened due to this situation.
If there’s something that changed in the way I approach working with teams is the individuals. Shorter meetings with fewer people instead of longer workshops with more people. More 1-on-1s. More focus on individual expectations.
If I had to highlight what strikes me as the most difficult way of working that people are struggling with is asynchronous work.
As a former software developer, and as someone that worked with geographically distributed teams working in different time zones, I realised that I have concepts of asynchronous work baked into my personal way of working. Most people who are not developers, though, really struggle with this.
Developers grow up influenced by version control software so much so that we take it for granted: the rules of versioning software sets clear working agreements in how to work together even when we are apart, because “being apart” in the software engineering is considered normal, not an exception.
But that’s not the reality for many other non-engineering professionals. There’s no version control for analysts, marketers, retailers, sales, business people in general, and there’s only some version control for other professionals such as designers and data people.
Try explaining what a pull request is to your account manager.
So we want cross-functional teams made of different kind of professionals from various background, and then we kinda don’t want to face that their ways or working are vastly different.
Forcing functions for teamwork communication
In the realm of design there’s the notion of forcing function, a behaviour-shaping constraint that prevents mistakes: version control software is full of those forcing functions that over time shape not only how you write code, but how you work in general.
Communication is happening, constantly, at different speeds and on different channels, at any time, in any organisation. It’s likely that you have no forcing in function to prevent people having meetings in WhatsApp and the meeting-that-should-have-been-an-email in Zoom.
To be successfully “together and apart” means being aware of where, how and why communication happens where it happens: my suggestion is to start by auditing how does information in your company gets shared.
See you next week
Episode 4 will be about emergence and coercion.
Out on Monday, June 14th.
Just a reminder: you subscribed to this newsletter because you probably read or wanted to read something interesting about Agile a few months ago. This newsletters drops in “seasons”, like a TV show, so I will be publishing constantly for a short while — seven weeks in a row — and then disappear for a few months.
My name is Davide and I’m an organizational consultant who’s sometimes called an “Agile coach” (beware the capital “A”, beware the “coach”).
We can have a quick chat about if and how I can help you.