Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Agile Office Space – Isolation versus Distraction

A colleague of mine recently forwarded an article on InfoQ regarding Agile Team Spaces (http://www.infoq.com/news/2010/02/agile-team-spaces). While I agree with the vast majority of the article, there is a point in this article that suggests minimizing distractions.  My concern is the balance between minimizing distraction and isolating the team from everyone else.   While teams in their own distraction free space does promote hyper-productivity, the trade off is that the team loses the connection and understanding to the rest of the company. The team's focus and vision narrows to the work in front of them, which is good for the short term, but becomes less clear on the big picture stuff, which ultimately can hurt in the areas such as product development and innovation. 

Currently, I have a Scrum team located by themselves in the basement of a government building. The team is talented and has a done a great job thus far. They are left alone with few distractions and can produce work quickly. However, this team has some real struggles. The biggest issue is understanding the business vision and the prioritization of various elements of the program. This is proving to be a real challenge for our program and though we are producing work quickly, we often question if we are producing the right work and in the correct sequence (yes, I know that is the job of the Product Owner, who sits down here with us and has the same problems as the whole team). One of the key goals of this team is to physically move closer to the key stakeholders so that we can have day to day interactions with them to help us think more like our key stakeholders.

When I was working with the Motley Fool, I arguably had one of the best (if not the very best) Scrum teams in the company. It wasn't my awesomeness as a Scrum Master that made my team so effective, it was the team's understanding of the business vision and needs that made them strong. The team's ability to quickly understand the business needs and rapidly turn concepts into deliverables was particularly strong. Eventually the team had such a great understanding of the business and a great relationship with their business stakeholders that they became partners in innovation as opposed to just implementers of ideas. The reason that this team was so strong in this area is that their key business representatives sat right with them and were intimately involved in their day to day work. The team also had frequent access and visit from other people throughout the organization which allowed the team to develop a holistic view of the work and understand the true goals of their projects. Though it is true that the team could have worked faster with less distractions, I do not think they would have been working smarter if completely left alone.

While an Agile team with it's own space that is comfortable and pleasing does promote "hyper-productivity", there should be caution to this thought. In many ways, this is a throwback to the days where developers and development teams were the cellar dwellers and left alone to do their techie stuff while the rest of the company does business. This is a major step back and seems un-agile to me.  



  1. Something that I find helps reduce isolation is what I'll describe as the daily and weekly apportionment... For individual team members, identify the part of the day or week when they’re most productive and work very hard to minimize or eliminate distractions during those time blocks. Conversely, find the time blocks of least productivity. For example, let’s say Thursday afternoons from 2 to 4 are notoriously unproductive; this is a time block to seize and use to gain the connection and to promote understanding of the rest of the company. For example, get a SME in to have a Q&A with the team, get the marking department to meet with the team, or find some other way to integrate the team with their project’s context. Leading the team to do this kind of thing on a weekly or daily basis, when it makes sense, can be very helpful.

  2. Stephen, I agree that it would be optimal for the developers to have sustained uninterrupted periods of time where that can concentrate on their development. I think your idea is a great step in that direction.

  3. Tips on how to keep your office agile by keeing two key factors in use, isolation and minimizing distraction. A useful blog for the readers.

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