18 May 2011

A Survival Guide for New Agile Coaches - It's Quiet... Too Quiet

Kids make noise.  It's that simple.  They talk, they yell, they bang and crash.  Their toys rattle and buzz and play music.  Put multiple kids together and the noise level increases with the square of the number of children.*

This is just a simple fact of life, and as long as the noise doesn't indicate injury or imminent doom it's also a good thing.  You see, when young children suddenly become quiet then all sorts of nefarious things can be occurring.  Little Johnny, who only learned to walk last week, could be silently climbing the dining room cabinets or applying Mom's makeup to the dog.  Yes, children who are doing something they aren't supposed to be doing are as silent as a Ninja, moving rapidly seemingly without even touching the ground.

So, noise is good - noise is safe!

* Sorry no hard data to back that up, but go to a birthday party with 8 kids of any age from 1-21 and then dispute my assertion! :)

Coaching Point

When working with teams new to Agile, a common concern I hear is that moving to an open "team room" will reduce productivity because of the noise.  People won't be able to concentrate because all of their co-workers will be talking about last night's episode of [insert TV show here], or have death metal screaming away from their speakers.  My experience just doesn't support those concerns.

While the transition may involve some discomfort as people become used to working away from the confines of a tiny cubicle, the benefits of having a team in very close proximity are clear and proven.  The principles of the Agile Manifesto are clear about this:
The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
Face to face conversations are very high bandwidth communication channels.  Think of them as 10GB Ethernet right to the back of your computer.  Not only is the content of the conversation being passed, but the tone of voice and body language of the people involved factors into the communication.

If you move that conversation to a video chat, you're still doing OK - perhaps a 100MB connection - but some of the intimacy is lost as senses such as touch and smell are removed from the equation.  Move that conversation to a phone call, and you're down to a DSL connection since the visual aspect is lost and for all you know the other person is making faces at you while you speak. :)

If that conversation moves further to e-mail, you now have a 56K modem because not only are all of the physical aspects of the conversation now lost, but the conversation has lost a time element as well.  E-mails are asynchronous - if you send me a message, I don't have to respond to it immediately.  An e-mail, being written text, can also easily be misunderstood - how many times have you been in trouble because you forgot to put a smiley in a message? :)

Finally, using a written document to communicate is the equivalent of the old "phone in the cups" acoustic coupler 300-baud modem.  For those of you not old enough to know what I mean, here's a picture:

As a communication medium, a written document is simply awful.

So, we've made the case for face to face conversations, but can't we have those in a cube farm just as effectively as in an open team area?  Well, no, we can't.  The simple walls of cubes create barriers to communication, even if someone is only a few cubes away.  An open workspace without internal walls encourages communication.  Indeed, the entire cubicle concept originated at Herman Miller in the late 60's as a way to make the effective "bullpen" work area concept more comfortable.  As we all know, it was subsequently bastardized into the Dilbert-esque cube farms in order to cram more people into the same amount of floor space as a cost-saving measure.

An open workspace where the team members can see and hear each other fosters face to face communication because the probability of communication is much higher.  MIT professor Thomas Allen studied this in the late 70's and his results showed that the probability of face to face communication decreases rapidly with distance.  This is known as the Allen Curve, and I've personally witnessed its effect over distances of only 4-6 metres:

So, if you have a teams of 7 +-2 people working in open workspaces all communicating face to face, isn't there going to be a lot of noise?  Well, to an extent, yes.  This isn't a crowded pub - everyone can't be yelling!  What you should hear, though, is a 'buzz' on the floor.  There should be constant conversations going on that aren't loud enough for everyone to hear, but effective for the people involved.  Team members have to be respectful of others, and I've found that simple tools such as foam bricks and Nerf weaponry are very effective at enforcing that point. :)

In the end, a workplace with a buzz on the floor signifies a healthy workplace.  After all, silence indicates trouble.  Noise is good - noise is safe!


Patrick Kua said...

Interesting post. I agree that too much quiet is sometimes a sign of the lack of communication. I would be weary to suggest this for all situations (and to disclose where it doesn't work). I think encouraging noise (and talking/communication) is particularly important for a team (and I mean a real team). This needs to be a group of people working together towards the same goal.

A floor of people randomly thrown together all working on separate items isn't a team and this is, of course, a place where people will get frustrated if you get people chatting too much.

Thanks for sharing.

Dave Rooney said...

Hi Patrick,

Thanks for the comment!

Yes, I fully agree that the buzz should be at the team level. I should have made that assumption clear!


YvesHanoulle said...

I think you can even go further,
Any parent knows that when a group of kids (defintion of group is size >1) goes silent, that is the moment to check them out.