Collaboration Here There and Everywhere
There’s nothing I like better than using a physical wall to make a team’s work visible and communal, and seeing it's impact on team communication.
It may however interest readers to know that ‘back in the day‘, (a phrase I can now confidently associate with the dawn of Agile software development as it’s been over two decades!), as soon as digital tools were available to manage things like User Story cards, we jumped onto them immediately. Most ‘agilistas’ around that time were fast adopters of new ‘Agile project management tools’, many of us were fighting objections that you couldn’t possibly manage a software project without some kind of digital tool. I can’t tell you how many MS Project plans I saw with a bunch of two week iterations wedged into them like a neat set of stairs. As well as being a bung tool for project management, we had found yet another task it seemed to fail at — Agile project management.
Putting aside the tooling debate, an even hotter topic is that of co-location and Agile teams.
An increasingly common workplace trend is orgs extending flexible work conditions to their people. A lever of engagement and also a gesture of human decency, more companies are becoming ok with regular work-from-home, and also work-wherever-you-choose arrangements. Like all of you out there, we can see the world changing, and organisations becoming not only more customer-centric, but more human-centric and valuing the individuals working within ‘The System’.
As proud Systems Thinkers we are joyed by this, but we see a number of clients that are too often panic stricken when they perceive that the collaboration that we advocate and teach, comes with undertones of ‘everyone back to the office’ and over eagerness to index towards the ‘co-located’ principle of the Agile Manifesto.
In fact, it is possible to interpret three principles of the manifesto; numbers 4, 5 and 6 as contradictory, and almost discriminatory in their nature.
#4 “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.”
What if the team cannot be together daily, are they not an Agile team?
#5 “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”
Why couldn’t we trust the team to chose their own environment and be where they want to work that’s most productive for them instead of demanding co-location?
#6 “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”
Will people who chose remote working be damned with a moniker of less efficient and effective in our Lean and Agile ways of working? Are Systems Thinkers opposed to remote team working? And can remote flexible workers never be successful at Lean and Agile ways of working?
We advocate high levels of collaborative and collective work, for solving complex problems. Why?
We understand the challenge of conveying tacit knowledge and learning to a virtual world.
It’s a common belief that knowledge is something that can be represented in words, visualised in pictures and taught, however this isn’t always the case. Tacit knowledge is by it’s nature difficult to communicate. Tacit knowledge is deeply rooted in action, commitment, and involvement.
For example, I may study Turkish language by reading a book and practicing a lot, but living in Turkey for two months had me conversing with Turkish people — even though there was a lot of hand waving going on. I can study the attributes of great leaders but I won’t pass muster as a leader without the opportunity to experience leadership myself. I can cultivate my own view of what is aesthetically pleasing but I cannot easily transfer that ‘eye’ into another person. Languages, leadership, aesthetics all fall into categories of tacit knowledge, and along with the desire for innovation, emotional intelligence, body language, intuition and humour, we tend to stack these challenges up as more reasons to front up to the same office with your co-workers every day.
Or… are we just being lazy about it?
Look around a little and you’ll find companies that are reaping the benefits of not only allowing remote and flexible working but openly promoting and embracing this workplace trend, these are companies that have also embraced the collaborative working practices of Lean and Agile. How are they doing it and what are the factors that are making them successful? I’ve been fortunate enough to work at a couple of these companies.
In 2016 I worked at REA Group, the digital giant behind successful property website realestate.com.au. They have been presenting at conferences for years on the innovative ways they integrated distributed development into their Agile software development operation. Working with around 100 developers in Xi’an in China, their teams have virtual portals into their space via large screen ‘always-on’ video connections. They consciously invest in creating positive team culture by funding travel back and forth during the year and all manner of fun joint activities like virtual cake for birthdays and celebrations. To see these teams when they get together physically, it’s akin to witnessing a family reunion, the team members speak of each other as treasured friends.
In my team at REA Group we had a developer who had to relocate to Sydney for family reasons. We didn’t want to lose her and asked her to trial remote working. Pleasingly she did and still does a year later, visiting Melbourne every month or so. Since then the same team has had a member working remotely from Russia, and one that has been working from all over the world as he tours with his fiancé — a member of Cirque du Soleil. I was really impressed with the whole team’s attitude to problem solving and making it work in order to retain their valued team members. I remember a time when they were all in the office together, practicing remote communication by working in different parts of the office holding their retrospective over video conferencing.
I also spent some time working at Envato, they have a unique culture and are very publicly ‘not fussed’ about where people work, this gives Envato an amazing hiring edge. As well as a ‘Work from Anywhere’ in the world policy they enjoy employees dotted throughout regional areas of Australia.
There’s nothing like immersing yourself in a problem to solve that problem; that means try, try and try again. Experimentation with tools, techniques and remote etiquette is rife at Envato. When you enter their Melbourne hub for a meeting, you naturally assume someone will be attending remotely in a Google Hangout. The entire building is kitted out for frictionless communication over video conference, the most you might lose is a minute if someone has to drop out and rejoin a conversation. Forcing yourself to partake in being remote provides empathy for other remote teammates and makes you become very good at solving problems (even remote problems), remotely.
Another way Envato becomes super skilled at remote working is something so simple it’s sophisticated. Regular disciplinedpractice and behavioural role modelling. Leaders throughout the organisation ensure they are remote some of the time, it’s written into team working agreements. It’s clear to all that it is supported culturally and people are trusted, remote workers are not relegated to feeling like a poor underclass and Envato enjoys high retention and engagement as a result.
I also attended a wonderful talk at LAST Conference in June 2017 ‘Synchronous communication is overrated’ where Thoughtworker Kelsey Van Haaster shared the issues and joys associated with working with her team of five globally distributed support team members, who between them service a workforce of 5,000 globally distributed users. Kelsey’s research and approach is thorough and results inspiring. Her experiences echo the importance of investing in culture building for teams. It was interesting to hear the team are friends on social media platforms outside of work, a solution for incidental office chatter, that increases the human bonds of connection.
Perhaps we should be advocating to other technology giants about increasing the pace of technology change to support remote working? I’m on record as being impatient to attend daily stand-ups as a hologram. Some of these companies would do better to place their efforts into solving those challenges of communication instead of calling everyone back to the office, as IBM has recently done.
There are a heap of technical tools available in the world now that can help you accelerate and improve remote collaboration — they exist and are being well and truly used all over the world, they are evolving and they will increase in number as more organisations experiment with remote working. Get in touch with us to understand more about how to utilise these tools and apply collaborative techniques to remote teams who want Agile and Lean ways of working. A big hint would be to start with company Culture and Working Agreements before you try and solve Stand-ups and User Story Cards.
Even if an organisation has the motivation and drive to invest in evolving technology solutions to support frictionless remote working for your teams, the more critical question is: Can organisations make the cultural leap to trust employees to work remotely? Fabiano Morais Delivery Coach, also from Envato, gave a terrific presentation ‘Global Nomads’ at Agile Australia 2017 and LAST conference, on how mobility is shaping the futures of people around the world, and how more organisations are pushing autonomy down to teams. To quote Fabiano “It turns out when you trust people, they start to trust themselves”.
Whether or not you have the technology investment or cultural foundation to support flexible and remote working, I can confidently assert that you definitely have the problem solving DNA inside your organisation to make it work, for what are human beings if not natural at solving problems of communication?
(This blog was written in two cafés, in the lobby of a large building, on the train, on my sofa at home and at a beach holiday house; everywhere except an office.)
This post is an edited extract of a blog originally published by Alex on the Luna Tractor Blog in July 2017