Agile purists often advocate that to collaborate most effectively, everyone on a team should be sitting together whenever possible.
One reason is the claim that “osmotic” communication will occur; people will overhear things, and those things provide important awareness for what is going on. Such communication is accidental, but it accumulates and some of it is important.
Another reason is the assertion, made explicit in the Agile Manifesto, that “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”
We suspect that this Manifesto principle came from Alistair Cockburn, who had been saying it in almost exactly those words for years before the Manifesto was written.
These ideas each have an important kernel of truth, but are flawed. They are terrible oversimplifications: so terrible that they lead to very bad choices about work.
Agile 2 Embraces Asynchronous Communication
People on a team need to communicate. They also need to get work done. If their work involves creative thought or deep thought, then they need to focus; and to focus well, people need protection from distraction. Sitting together enables collaboration, but hinders focus.
Collaboration is also only part of what work is about. For most people who design and build technology products, work also involves heads-down solitary creation and deep thinking. Having people walking around and having conversations – that “osmotic communication” – is very destructive for focus and therefore for deep thinking.
That means that unless you want people to stay at a surface level in their thinking, mostly able to execute simple tasks but largely unable to go deep and conquer hard problems, then it is essential to set things up so that they can focus without distraction. The osmotic communication needs to be turned off.
The assertion about face-to-face communication being universally best is inaccurate because it is an event-oriented view of a continuous and multidimensional process.
If one wants to find out something simple, then yes, it is quickest to shout a few seats over to ask, “Hey Susan, is the customer ID field a string or an int?” Never mind that by doing that you just disrupted the thought process of everyone nearby.
But if you need to, say, collectively decide on a strategy for how you will combine and test changes to multiple product components, some produced in-house and others coming from external partners, then a side-of-desk conversation will not cut it.
Even a group meeting will likely not cut it, especially if the team has never had to deal with some of the issues before. The problem is that the issue is too complex: there are too many aspects to it.
If you have a one-hour meeting about the matter with the entire team, perhaps seven or eight people, what is likely to happen is that no one person will get a chance to fully lay out their thoughts.
We have seen discussions about this very topic and they tend to swirl. Also, the facilitator needs to understand the subject matter, or they will be lost.
The sciences deal with very complex topics. At a scientific conference, one presents a paper, without being interrupted. Others present other papers, sometimes offering competing points of view.
Afterward, there are breakout groups to discuss the papers. Collaboration occurs after each person has had their say, in entirety; and they also wrote their thoughts down.
Jeff Bezos famously makes his staff write a “six-page, narratively-structured memo” for each meeting, and he says that it was the “smartest thing we ever did” at Amazon. He wants his people to think deeply, and not have shallow debates in which they go in circles.
He believes that complex issues require structure, and the best way to establish structure is through writing. And it would be hard to argue that what Amazon does is not effective.
The reality is clear: face-to-face communication is not always best. Effective communication about complex issues often involves many modes of communication, including writing, reading, talking, and listening; and effective communication is often not a point-in-time event, but rather is a process over time.
These are the reasons why Agile 2 has principles that place the need to respect cognitive flow (outlined here) and to make it easy for people to engage in focused, uninterrupted work (outlined here) on an equal footing with communication.
Agile 2 also emphasizes the need to foster diversity of communication and diversity of working style (here), since some individuals and some situations demand talking while others demand writing, and some require both.
Where does remote work fit in, given its sudden and unexpected surge worldwide this year? Agile 2 contains several insights on remote work, unifying several of its principles.
Remote Can be Better
Gitlab is one of a growing number of companies with an entirely remote workforce. They advocate what they call embracing asynchronous communication.
In their view, to be able to leverage a global workforce, one must accept the reality that real-time meetings that include everyone who needs to participate cannot be the norm. Time zones and other factors do not make it possible. They claim that mastering asynchronous communication is essential for a global organization.
Ian Tien, CEO and co-founder of Mattermost, also a remote company, has observed that for remote teams, writing skills become more important:
“One of the biggest indicators that we’ve found around who thrives in a remote environment is strong written communication skills.
If you’re a strong writer and you can consume information in written formats well, you’ll probably have an easier time transitioning to a remote team than someone who prefers face-to-face communication.”
Maybe there was a reason that in school we learned to write! It also turns out that for remote teams, the people who tend to become leaders are not the persuasive talkers, but instead are the people who get things done.
This implies that remote organizations might be more effective than those that place everyone in proximity.
Agile disrupted many toxic practices and made us think in new ways. At the heart of Agile, there are profound insights, and we must not lose those. However, some of the prescriptions are too simple or not quite right.
The approach to collaboration and communication are examples of this. Agile 2 tries to bring nuance back to these issues, so that the core ideas of Agile are not lost, but are made more effective.
Agile 2 can be found at https://Agile2.net