Process Solutions: Software Development – Collocation!

In my last installment, I took you through the Agile Manifesto and introduced you to the basic principles of why the philosophy aligns with good process management techniques. One of the biggest challenges of any operating philosophy is getting the “soft stuff” right. There are many aspects of Agile software development that could be mapped out with a flowchart. However, communication (or Human Interaction Management – aka, HIM) lies at the core of the Agile philosophy and it is not so easily defined.

Although I usually write this column myself, I thought it might be fun to do a little collaboration with Keith Harrison-Broninski, who knows more about the “soft stuff” than most. As an ironic twist, Keith and I are about as far from collocated as we could get, being that we live on opposite sides of The Pond.

Keith's most recent efforts have him focused on how to derive some of the benefits of collocated teams even when members cannot be together. He has developed a framework for organizing teams to achieve consistent results. His approach doesn't always parallel the principles of the agile manifesto, but there's nothing here in obvious conflict.

Basics of HIM (Keith)

To emphasise how HIM supports collaboration across any kind of organizational boundaries, it is now often referred to as “Virtual Team Planning” (aka VTP). VTP lets you describe collaborative work as Plans with a very simple structure, “Stage-Role-Activity-Deliverable”:

  • Each Stage of a Plan represents a specific goal of the Plan, shared and agreed by the Roles (responsibilities) assigned to that Stage – in other words, guiding principles are fundamental to Plan structure and negotiated by those who help achieve them.
  • Each Role in a Stage may, or may not, have Activities in the Stage. Effort can be specified for an Activity (which may produce deliverables) along with the Day Rate of the Role that carries it out, which provides Effort Cost (both total and remaining) for an Activity. Start Date and Deadline can also be specified for an Activity, which makes it possible for all concerned to see a timeline (GANTT/burn down) view of progress in real time.
  • Each Activity may, or may not, produce Deliverables. Qualifying information can be attached to deliverables, such as Maximum Financial Impact, Likelihood and Importance. Maximum Financial Impact is multiplied by Likelihood to generate Expected Financial Impact, and Likelihood is multiplied by Importance (as per traditional risk management) to generate an Impact Score. Since Maximum Financial Impact may be negative, you can use deliverables to represent risks, issues and costs as well as benefits and revenues.
  • A key underlying principle of VTP is transparency. You can place boundaries around deliverables at multiple levels (to protect visibility of documents, for example), but the structure of Plans is open to all involved. This makes guiding principles and economic drivers clear to all concerned, and ensures that full status information is always up to date in real time.

VTP also helps you understand the different aspects of leadership that are key to success, by breaking it down into “Levels of Control”:

  • Management
    • Internal to work process
    • Responsible (in RACI terms)
    • Refines initial process
    • Facilitates/monitors process and its evolution
  • Executive
    • External to work process
    • Accountable/Informed/Consulted (in RACI terms)
    • Provides input to help refine deliverables
    • Defines key Roles/Interactions/Activities
  • Strategic
    • External to work process
    • Overall sponsor
    • Defines key deliverables/metrics

In practical terms, VTP is implemented as follows:

  • Management control – managers create and manage one or many Plans representing projects, ventures, or other types of initiative:
    • A Plan is made up of Stages, representing shared goals.
    • Each Stage has Roles, representing responsibilities.
    • A Role may have Activities, representing outcomes.
    • An Activity may produce Deliverables to make the outcomes concrete.
  • Executive control – product owners, stakeholder representatives or higher level managers use dashboards showing progress of multiple Plans to align multiple programs of work towards organizational objectives (note that executive control may well be exerted by someone who is not technically an “executive” in organizational terms).
  • Strategic control – executives use specific views taken from the above dashboards to make decisions on organizational objectives.

Basics of Collocation (Tom)

The idea of collocation is not new. As a matter of fact, long before the invention of the door, humans were living and working in the same space. One could argue that being together is our natural state. Let's look at some of the benefits of collocation:

Rich Communication

What we know is that face-to-face communication is only partially verbal. Experts may argue about the percentage of information that is imparted through spoken words, but suffice it to say that all would agree we share a rich non-verbal language. Why is this additional communication so important?

Inevitably, the first thing to go is the emotional content of the communication. If the team is using email and other written collaboration tools, the writer is responsible for imbuing the content with emotional information. Unfortunately, most of us have learned from an early age to keep emotional content out of “professional” communications.

Living with Human Beings

So, if non-verbal communication is primarily emotion based, why is it so important that we find a way to maintain it? Aren't we better off without disruptive emotions? It's true that emotions can be disruptive. However, most of the time, the most destructive emotions are those which fester within us without being addressed by those involved in generating them.

Imagine this scenario: you were counting on one of your teammates to complete a particular task so that you could go on to your next task. She did not complete the task. You found this out by going to her office and asking where it is and she told you she's a week behind because her manager pulled her off the project for a special activity. Fuming, you return to your office.
Your mind is reeling. At first you are angry with her manager, and then you are angry with her. Why didn't she come and tell you when she got pulled from the project? You could have at least pleaded your case to her manager if you had known. There's nothing to be done for it now. You'll just need to wait. That doesn't change the fact that you are still angry.

That anger will continue to color your interactions with her. Chances are, you will need to avoid her until you cool off. That should be easy because you're in separate offices. Right now, it's even hard to look at her. Collocation can create an environment in which scenarios like this tend to resolve themselves quickly. With nowhere to hide, you confront her and express your anger. She explains that the request was sudden and urgent and consumed all of her attention. Further, she can see that you are angry and offers an apology for not communicating with you immediately. For your part, you recognize that the situation was unusual and accept her apology. You both move on with your day unimpeded by emotional blockage.

Quantity Matters

In the previous scenario, it is easy to imagine that you might still not be able to speak to your co-worker immediately about the emotions you are feeling. However, with collocation comes many more opportunities to communicate. The awkwardness of the moment becomes a heavy burden quickly when normal communication flows are disrupted.

In a study authored by a team from the University of Michigan and Rutgers, it was noted that collocated teams communicate continuously. It was not uncommon for a teammate to overhear another conversation and offer valuable input even though they were not initially part of the conversation. Being present allows the right people to address any situation to be available even when their value is unforeseen. The speed with which interactions can happen have great potential to accelerate the development process. However, there must be rules.

The Rules of Engagement (Keith)

Full collocation is not always possible in today's global business environment, so how can its key benefits be gained for “virtual teams” – i.e., teams located in different organizations and locations? And what lessons can be learned from this for teams that are collocated? We can answer both questions by looking at the traditional downside of collocation – what I call “network overload”.

In some areas, including not only functional specialisms such as software development but entire verticals such as healthcare, policing and government; dealing with emails and sitting in meetings takes up much of the day. Communication can be too much of a good thing! On the plus side, people network a lot, get to understand the overlaps between each other's work, and pick up on small things that might be lost with a more formal approach to communication. On the minus side, it may take forever to get anything done – often projects move so slowly that they end up failing or being cancelled after a lot of time and money has been invested, and it becomes very hard to capture stakeholder agreement formally which leaves the project sponsor open to serious risk.

The fundamental benefit from a VTP approach, for both collocated and virtual teams, is to optimize the use of communication, including both email and meetings. In particular, VTP allows you to switch from a traditional command-and-control style of management to a more collaborative focus on shared goals, accepting responsibilities (for contributing towards those goals) and working towards outcomes (that represent aspects of the goals). In other words, you empower each party involved to get work done on their own, which allows managers to spend their time helping (rather than chasing) and ensures that emails and meetings are used for important discussions (rather than for continual review and revisiting of tasks, documents and status tracking).

Collocation in Practice (Tom)

Having worked in a large open collaboration space for some time now, I have had the opportunity to experience both the benefits and drawbacks to such an environment. It should be noted that the University of Michigan/Rutgers study that was referenced earlier was conducted in war rooms. These are smaller rooms which house only a single development team (typically between four and nine members). This relative isolation has its own benefits and drawbacks.

Co-Collocation or Just Collocation

In a larger space that houses multiple teams, the benefits of cross-talk can be lost. The odds of a member of one team overhearing a member of another team and being able to spontaneously assist are far lower than with cross-talk within a team. This makes the “noise” coming from other teams mostly a distraction.

Collaboration Space

We have experimented with creating “pairing stations,” which are a cluster of tables at which pairs of developers can work together on a single task. Because pairing is already a social enterprise, having other pairs around doesn't seem to be as much of a distraction. During the short tenure of this experiment, we have already seen regular instances of someone from another pairing team overhearing a conversation that resulted in the injection of new ideas that changed the course of the work effort.

We have also witnessed frustration when individuals try to concentrate amidst the inevitable bantering around them. Quiet spaces are essential. There needs to be ground rules about who needs to use those quiet spaces and who can legitimately function within the larger space. Tolerance and flexibility are essential. Strangely, most people who join the collaboration space comment about how quiet it usually is. Having an open space reminds people of the need to contain their voices. People often report cubicles with partial walls that obscure the view of one's coworkers create a false sense of isolation which results in raised volume levels.

War Rooms

War rooms provide two main advantages: 1) they provide a place to hang artifacts salient to the project where everyone can see them, and 2) they isolate the team in a way that, as the referenced study indicated, is conducive to creating deep bonds that enhance collaboration.

For some teams, the war room is their place of residence. The team's computers are set up in the room and they tend to stay there most of the time to work. At the University of Michigan Medical School, we have both. The team tends to meet in the war room to discuss things, but we live and work primarily in the main collaboration space. Nonetheless, we have found ourselves trying to create some isolation within the larger space so that we can feel more connected.

A War Room Experience (Keith)

A few years ago I was asked to help with a large software development project, for a innovative (highly distributed) air traffic control system. The project had over 200 engineers, mostly but not all collocated, and senior managers could see from the fix/fault curves that they were going to miss a key payment deadline. My brief was to introduce new fault management techniques that allowed them to meet the deadline.

I did this via a war room – but not a standard war room. The key benefit of having an isolated environment, free from the standard project management techniques applied to the rest of the work, was being able to apply VTP planning techniques. I also incentivized staff using the oldest of management techniques – a unlimited free supply of high quality food and drink – but that's by the by! Using an VTP approach, we doubled productivity (almost exactly, according to the detailed statistics kept by the project) and met the deadline. I completed the assignment by helping management devise a plan for institutionalizing the approach in the long term.

So imagine my surprise when a year later I got another call from the same project with exactly the same problem. I went back, and delivered the same solution – again we doubled productivity and met the payment deadline. When I asked why the organization hadn't institutionalized the approach in the meantime, it came down to the traditional challenge of changing embedded culture. A war room environment is much easier to control than an entire organization!

Since then, software tools for VTP have been developed, and I have seen since what a difference they make to embedding such a significant culture change. The key benefit of VTP is transparency – which is helped enormously if you use a projector to show a VTP Plan during a meeting, agree upon changes to it and then make the changes online during the meeting. This simple trick means there is no need to keep minutes, assign actions, write up the minutes afterwards, review the minutes separately, then review the minutes again together during the next meeting – which in turn means that everyone walks away knowing exactly what they need to do now, and who they need to work with in order to achieve it.

In my experience, this is how you can get the best value from collocation. Use your meetings for negotiation of a VTP Plan (or Plans), so that people are empowered to work as efficiently and effectively as possible thereafter, both on their own and with colleagues.

Putting the Pieces Together (Tom and Keith)

The VTP approach to organizing work is a critical component to making collocation work. Just putting people together in a big room will not ensure benefits. Bringing structure to roles and accountability means that team members are empowered to make appropriate decisions without consultation while still having easy access to and awareness of the correct people to assist when group decisions are required.

By focusing on deliverables, each team member can effectively determine their own level of productivity. When a team consists of the right mix of people to organize and define the required deliverables ambiguities and uncertainties can be quickly dispatched. If team members are geographically dispersed, technology is readily available to put people back into the room. We have used telepresence robots and iPads with FaceTime® and these have proven highly effective. However, they cannot help with time differences.

Moving away from command and control communication models will reduce the negative effects of time delayed communication, but it won't always eliminate it. Virtual Team Planning ensures that team members know what work is important and how it fits into the context of the project. This goes a long way towards keeping remote members productive when other team members are inaccessible, and helps those present to make best use of meetings.

In other words, having people present has measurable advantages, but whatever combination of collocated and remote working is used in your team, achieving optimal results will require you to develop working practices that make the best possible use of everyone's time.

Next Time (Tom)

For my final piece in the agile software development series, I will be talking about the product owner. While the product owner is not considered a member of the agile team, heavy engagement is essential. This critical role will make or break a product development initiative. Stay tuned to find out why.

Tom Bellinson

Tom Bellinson

Mr. Bellinson has been working in information technology positions for over 30 years. His diverse background has allowed him to gain intimate working knowledge in technical, marketing, sales and executive roles. Most recently, Mr. Bellinson finds himself serving as an Agile Coach for ITHAKA, a global online research service. From 2008 to 2011 Bellinson worked with at risk businesses in Michigan through a State funded program which was administered by the University of Michigan. Prior to working for the University of Michigan, Mr. Bellinson served as Vice President of an ERP software company, an independent business and IT consultant, as chief information officer of an automotive engineering services company and as founder and President of a systems integration firm that was a pioneer in Internet services marketplace. Bellinson holds a degree in Communications with a Minor in Management from Oakland University in Rochester, MI and has a variety of technical certifications including APICS CPIM and CSCP.

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