Colocation, let me just start by saying colocated teams are more successful period. Far-located teams have a success rate of 60%, near-located 72% and colocated 83%. Given the increase in success rates it is surprising that still less than half of Agile teams are colocated.
I am looking in this post at the ideal for most individual teams and why we should all strive for it.
As Phil and Kirstie know location is key, between team members a coach length away may as well be a coach trip away for the reduction in communication caused.
Ideally the scrum team needs to work together in a common space, all within around six meters of each other. By sitting close together you can have a quick discussion without leaving your desk or having to raise your voice.
The main reason for colocation is to make communication richer, more open and simply quicker. By maximising face-to-face communication we gain quick clarification, resolve issues faster and avoid wasted time waiting for answers to e-mails and messages.
Phone calls, video-conferencing and collaboration applications are all great but do not beat the immediacy of being able to overhear a conversation and instantly spin around your chair, jump in and help. The context and depth of interaction is also reduced when the speaker is not physically present, 60-90 percent of communication is non-verbal (gestures, posture, tone etc.).
Alistair Cockburn succinctly states “The speed of the project is the speed at which ideas move between team members”. Another term coined by Alistair Cockburn in his book Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams is osmotic communication where information flows in the background hearing of team members who pick up and respond to relevant points as required. This selective tuning-in and tuning-out is further explained as selective attention or the cocktail party effect.
From cubicles creating barriers, functional groups forcing formal handovers and the lack of trust increasing valueless documentation companies seem to go out of their way to hamstring teams.
Further benefits of colocation include:
- Cross-functionality: Integrating functional disciples within a single team reduces silo mentality and promotes cross-disciple working. In Agile we seek to encourage generalising specialists and T-shaped people.
- Removal of travel time: Distributed teams need to travel to shared meetings and potentially find ways of working across time zones. It is quicker to organise and attend meetings when everyone is in the same place.
- Trust: Closer working relationships develop faster when working alongside colleagues. It is easier to build trust when you can see the actions of others in response to agreed actions or commitments.
- Improved team behaviors: Tribal behaviors develop team working and reinforce positive collaboration.
- Co-operation: The opportunities to assist each other increase with colocation and helping each other increases trust and team working by means of a positive feedback loop.
Let’s Talk About The Issues
Hey, this is a pragmatic scrum blog and not everything even in ‘Pure Scrum’ is going to be perfect – sorry to break it to you now.
There are potential problems with colocation, especially initially:
- Forming teams separates people from their functional groups (HCI, databases, test etc). Effort is required to still share knowledge across multiple teams, this is usually performed by communities of interest (or Guilds at Spotify).
- Background noise can be distracting. Colocation in scrum leads to a raised level of conversation that the team and those surrounding them need to get used to. Note that pair programming can reduce the acclimatisation time for those involved.
- Working on multiple projects is still common; colocation can reduce the ability to multi-task. Providing hot-desks within each team area for shared resources can alleviate this issue.
This Is How We Do It
First we talk with the stakeholders; I want project management and the full team to buy-in to colocation. We really need their support to move people within offices and ideally prepare the right environment. Gain agreement from HR, product management, finance and whoever else is required to make the changes.
As well as the usual requirements I want to see lots of whiteboard space, paint the walls with whiteboard paint or even better install long magnetic whiteboards. If you are low on wall space use wheeled whiteboards, static roll whiteboards or whatever else you can create to provide information radiators and big spaces in order to design and discuss work.
Work with facilities management to create room for the team. Try for a shared area, close desks, quiet spaces and a meeting room with a projector and tele-conference/video-conference facilities (as required).
When planning desks, aim for programmers to sit together with the testers (assuming they are still different people at this stage) to sit alongside. Sit domain experts and HCI engineers close enough for questions. The PO and PM (most Agile teams still have one) are usually located close enough to be aware of the teams work but far enough away as to not annoy the team with their constant talking on the phone.
Are we restructuring the entire company into teams with their own perfect environment – no, and even if we could this big bang approach is fragile and risky. Start small, show success and then scale incrementally, this takes time. Each team is different as each person is different, this needs to be recognised. Do not force change on people, they will leave.
Environment is easy, what about the team themselves? We are moving from individuals working separately to teams co-operating and collaborating. Work with a coach to focus on soft-skills within the team, encourage interruptions, prioritise helping others and share knowledge and skills.
So can we still use a distributed team, yes of course but it will not be as productive as one that is colocated. We will need to utilise webcams, video-conferencing, co-operative tools and a willingness to travel to attempt to compensate.
It is essential to get the team to drive the colocation and work with the local powers to make it happen. Guerilla tactics, weekend desk rearrangements, booking hotel rooms for six months and re-purposing conference rooms were all great methods ten years ago but the worlds moved on. Persuade your management, pull down the cubicles and remove the barriers (physical, structural and mental) to successful teams.
And finally, in the worst possible situation remember Bas Vodde’s remark “change your company, or change your company”…
Thanks for reading and I would love to hear from you if you think of other benefits or issues involved with colocation of an Agile team.