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The agile project environment

This chapter’s opening quote perfectly summarises the work ethic that we want to explore in this chapter. Henry Ford is of course famous as the proprietor of Ford automobiles, but he also invented the assembly line used in car manufacturing. The assembly line is an excellent example of essential teamwork, where each member contributes to the delivery of the vision. But almost as important as teamwork is an environment in which the team can work together.

A shared workspace improves interpersonal and project communication

We have already said that to improve chances of success design should not happen exclusively in one phase, or be performed exclusively by designers. We also recommend that design not be done exclusively in a creative environment. To make design inclusive, integrated, and continuous it must also be collaborative and therefore the designers need to be collocated with the rest of the team. A face-to-face conversation is usually the most efficient form of communication, especially when time is of the essence. Therefore, project communication is most efficient when the team members work in a shared space.

Where teams are collocated there is no need for complex project reporting tools as the wall becomes the project dashboard and the project repository. Design artefacts work best when they are shared and understood by the rest of the team. Rather than burying design detail in documents that no one ever has time to read, design artefacts in an agile environment are displayed on the wall as a constant visual prompt to the whole team.

Where does a project team call home?

Life on an agile project can be quite different from that of other project structures. To facilitate “individuals and interactions over processes and tools,” it is preferable to have shared project space where the team members are collocated. Ideally, this is in a single space or a group of spaces in close proximity.

Collocation is key

Collocation is a critical success factor on an agile project. It makes sense for functional teams working on the same project to sit together. So of course it’s going to make sense for cross-functional teams who are working on the same project to sit together. The key benefits are efficiency and quality of both communication and problem solving.

  • Collocation is key for cross-functional teams delivering a project together. Benefits include efficiency and quality of both communication and problem solving.

To be truly effective, collocation requires a certain amount of discipline from the team members. Complex thinking takes much longer when the thinking process is constantly interrupted or there are too many distractions.

Here’s a summary of the key benefits of collocation of cross-functional teams:

  • Closer physical proximity
  • Shorter feedback cycles
  • Less time spent traveling between floors and sites
  • Less time spent in less frequent but longer-duration meetings where individuals benefit from only a small proportion of the total meeting time
  • More rapid establishment of team building, familiarity, and trust
  • Cross-functional problem solving, rather than solutions that are biased toward one particular functional area
  • Tribal behaviours break down where functional groups are not prevalent

Disadvantages and problems with collocation

We don’t want to be idealistic. Collocation of cross-functional teams isn’t for everyone or every project, so what follows are some of the main issues that come up and ways that you can solve them.

Separation from functional teams

If an individual has a stronger sense of belonging to a functional group than to the project team, especially if he is in a minority on the project team, he may be reluctant to separate from the functional team. You won’t solve this problem by decree; instead, acknowledge the importance of the functional tribe and allow the individual the opportunity to reconnect with his functional group. This could mean letting him attend his functional group weekly meeting, which was established long before the project team, or allowing him one day a week to work with his home-team environment to reconnect and reestablish his position in the group. Be cognisant of the fact that if the individual is having tribal issues, it might have nothing to do with the project and everything to do with his own tribal politics. He might feel that his position or value will be undermined by sustained periods of absence from the tribe.

Working on multiple projects at once

Where certain capabilities are in scarce supply or where a particular functional role is not required full time on a project, some individuals may need to work on multiple projects simultaneously. Regardless of project utilisation though, individuals still need to feel that they are making a worthwhile contribution and that their contribution is recognised by the team. Simple gestures such as confirming or acknowledging a team member’s attendance prior to his arrival on the project site are worthwhile. Arrange an adequate space, even if it’s a “hot desk” for him to work at while he is on the project site as opposed to having him crash at someone else’s space. Confirm his requirements prior to his arrival—there’s nothing worse than having a limited window of opportunity and then finding that other essential contributors are unavailable.

Resistance from the functional group manager

There will always be the insecure middle manager who thinks you’re trying to poach his team and who doesn’t understand the need for collocation. First try reason and logic. If that doesn’t work, try to appeal to his better nature and reason that it’s necessary for the greater good of the organisation and its customers. If all else fails, then escalate. Appeal directly to the manager’s direct boss. If you’ve gone as high as you can go and he’s not giving in, you’ve probably got bigger problems than getting individuals to collocate.

When collocation is not possible

Collocation is ideal but not always possible. Just because you can’t collocate the entire team doesn’t mean that you should abandon agile. You can adapt and adopt and do the best you can with the opportunities and constraints that you have. There are many reasons why you might need to work in a more distributed fashion. It could simply be that parts of your team (functional areas, for example) are located elsewhere in the region, country, or world and the cost-benefit ratio of moving the teams to a single location is too high.

Again, the wheres and hows of collocation are probably the primary concern of the project manager, but in cases where you’re the person or part of the team who cannot be collocated, here are some ideas to make your project life easier:

  • Up-front collocation: If you can’t be there for the whole of the project, is it possible to attend the initial part (inception) where the team come together to build a shared understanding of the project? If you can’t have the whole team attend the inception, can you delegate to one or two individuals who will be responsible for imparting the key messages to the home team on their return?
  • Part-time collocation: If you can’t be there for the whole of the project because you have commitments elsewhere, can you consider part-time collocation? You can agree on the frequency and duration of your involvement with the other team members who need your input and the project manager.
  • Videoconferencing: If you can’t be there in person, can you attend remotely via videoconferencing? You don’t need any fancy equipment; a free Skype account and a webcam work quite effectively.
  • Instant messaging: One of the key benefits of collocation is being able to get an answer from the team when you need it. If you can’t be there in person, consider using the next best thing, such as instant messaging. Don’t rely on e-mail as it can take too long to get an answer, plus you can’t always see from e-mail if a person is actually available. If you have a complex issue, you can use instant messaging to invite a team member to attend a videoconference.
  • Collaborative tool sets: We’ve spent a fair chunk of this chapter talking about the collaborative workspace and the value of the visual wall. This is not such a great metaphor if you have distributed teams. There are any number of virtual collaborative tool sets available, such as Mingle from ThoughtWorks.
  • Collocation at each site: Where you have distributed teams it still makes sense to have team members collocated on each of the project sites so they have the benefit of working together.
  • Adjusted work schedules: You might need to consider adjusting the work schedules, especially if your distributed teams are in different time zones. This will ensure that no one team is persistently disadvantaged.

Stick with agile practices—you might not be collocated, but it shouldn’t stop you from adhering to some of the other agile practices and tools such as using a card wall and daily stand-ups.

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