June - 6th agile principle

2019-06-22

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

The sixth agile principle addresses the issue of communication in agile teams. The statement is simple, definitive and prescriptive. Face-to-face communication is understood as the best form of communication within the team as well as between the team and business stake holders. It is easy to see why. Face-to-face communication is direct, instantaneous and immersive. It allows for non-verbal communication to happen, such as body language, gestures and facial expression which convey information that is otherwise lost. Likewise, voice inflection sometimes carries important meaning that cannot be conveyed in written form.

Instead of exchanging emails or text messages, in many cases it is easier to walk up to someone and start talking. For example, as a developer I could ask the product owner some questions and get the answers I am looking for right away. If I had decided to write an email instead, it might have required multiple exchanges. Face-to-face communication is the most natural form of communication for most people. It happens spontaneously and directly. It is suitable for formal as well as informal communication. For that reason, it fits well with the open and informal approach of agile development.

meeting room

Try to imagine a lengthy Sprint planning meeting with ten or perhaps more participants. Everybody sits in one room around a big meeting table. It is easy to see whether someone wants to speak up, whether she is listening attentively or whether she is distracted, or perhaps getting tired. There are a lot of visual and non-verbal clues. Provided that the team is acquainted with each other, communication flows naturally and freely. The situation would be different in a teleconference. If you only hear the voice of other participants, it is not easy to tell whether someone is following the discussion or whether he is distracted. Sometimes it is not even possible to tell whether someone left the meeting.

The stipulation of face-to-face communication for agile teams contains two important implications. First, agile teams must either be collocated or at least come together frequently. Second, teams can only have a limited size. Face-to-face communication would be rather difficult and probably not even meaningful, if the team consisted of 50 people. While there is no hard prescription for agile team size, common wisdom places the upper limit between 9 and 12. If there are more people working on a project, they usually form individual smaller teams, each with their own backlog and planning meetings.

The advantage of small collocated teams is twofold. First, small teams have a sharp focus, as the workload they can take on is naturally limited by size. The focus is easily adjusted to the scope of the current iteration. Second, communication flows freely among team members who work closely together on a daily basis. This makes for an effective work environment. Technical challenges, complex decisions and ambiguous specifications can be tackled efficiently by a small team as long as the problem space is limited. Team consensus on technical questions is important. So is osmotic communication. This is an agile term for information absorbed from the background. It simply means that individuals in the same room tend to overhear conversations between others. They “absorb” what is going on in the background, so to speak. This may sometimes end up being important. For example, you might hear a colleague talking expertly about database technology. Next time you have a question about databases, you already know whom to turn to.

Agile methods strengthen and support the mentioned two factors of small collocated teams, focus and informal communication. Focus is emphasized by Kanban, for example, which strictly limits the work in progress. Informal communication is strengthened by team rituals, which are meetings that take place on a regular basis and that follow a defined procedure. Both Kanban and Scrum feature daily stand-up meetings, for example. The daily stand-up meeting is intended to synchronise team members, review the team progress towards the defined goal, and identify any impediments. Typically, team members talk about their work on the previous and current day. The retrospective meeting is another ritual that allows the team to reflect on the past iteration. The idea is to identify strengths and weaknesses, whether they be technical or process related. It’s a formal approach that invites the team to reflect on how to improve and become more effective over time.

While these methods work well in collocated teams, the stipulation of face-to-face communication and its implication of being in the same physical space are nowadays questioned by some agile practitioners. During the past decade, we have seen an increasing trend towards remote work and online-commuting. This trend is driven by technology and changing lifestyles. For example, video conferencing is now commonplace and quite reliable. It was not readily available and required expensive equipment at the time of the inception of the agile principles. Home office work and remotely loacted teams are now much more common than 18 years ago. On the extreme end of this trend are so-called virtual companies. A virtual company is a legal entity with no physical space of its own that uses the Internet to link people in different geographic locations.

Given these trends and technological improvements, it is fair to ask whether the sixth agile principle is still up to date. After all, the difference between video communication and face-to-face communication is not that big anymore. It is certainly not as big as compared to more “traditional” telecommunication by phone and email. Today, it is quite common for people to be always online. This allows for a much greater degree of flexibility and spontaneity than was possible two decades ago. It enables people in different locations to collaborate more effectively. So, perhaps the issue of collocation is of less importance nowadays.