I increasingly believe that the single most important critical success factor for an effective team is colocation. The primary reason for the strength of this belief is empirical – I have found it to be so.
Having worked with many teams that are lucky enough to be collocated, I find there are just so many day-to-day things that you can “just do” and that “just work”, such that you pretty soon start to take them for granted.
Equally I have worked with many teams that are unlucky enough to be geographically distributed, sometimes ludicrously so (e.g. one small team split across UK, Germany, US, India).
Here there are suddenly frustrations at every turn. Now you find you can’t just instantly have that conversation to solve that problem or correct that misunderstanding without effecting some kind of mystical alignment of commitments and calendars with access to scarce communication technologies and channels (rooms with speaker phones, teleconferencing facilities etc.).
Every little thing that for the project’s sake really needs to happen now, and should take just a few minutes at most to resolve, now takes hours to organise and many days or even weeks elapsed time to execute (and then under sub-optimal conditions for effective communication to occur, such that it may take many rounds for any kind of shared understanding to be truly effected).
On this basis it becomes clear why the effectiveness of a team is massively (and I do mean massively) impacted by the simple fact of geographical separation.
A big part of the problem is socio-political in nature and would appear to be deeply embedded in the human DNA. We naturally tend to come to trust those that we have regular contact with (our family / village / tribe / region / country / team) and have an equal and opposite tendency to distrust those on the outside of these habitual daily contact networks (all those that the lock on our front door or the defences around the tribal village are designed to keep out).
The degree of separation is much less significant than the simple fact of separation. Time zones or cultural and language differences can certainly compound the challenges, but even without any of these the problems are legion and often decisive – any kind of separation can make the difference between a team being a team and a team not being a team at all.
I recently heard a team leader complain that he had no idea what two members of “his team” were supposed to be doing. There were located in a building five minutes walk away. I suggested that we walk over and chat to them about it. It turned out (as ever) that they were good people and naturally motivated to do good things. After an hour’s chat to align perspectives and directions, it turned out they were an obvious shoo-in to play a key role in the team requirements workshop organised for the next week. And valued team members thenceforth.
Once again I wish to claim no points for originality or even speed of uptake – these facts of life are recognised throughout the literature: from the Agile Manifesto of ten years standing (“Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project”, “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation”) to the book I happened to be reading yesterday (Lean from the Trenches by Henrik Kniberg : “In fact, collocation may well have been the most important success factor of this project.”).
So what practical principles of action should we derive from these well-established empirical facts? I propose the following:
- Always press for team colocation – accept, argue and aim to prove at every turn that colocation is critical to the success of your team endeavour and that dislocation will massively impact your effectiveness.
- If permanent physical colocation is simply not achievable, insist on frequent, regular and focused physical colocation – i.e. get together regularly for key meetings (e.g. Sprint Planning), events (e.g. Show and Tells) and periods (e.g. the first few days of each Sprint) – the benefits clearly outweigh the costs (even if the costs happen to be more visible).
- Whenever not collocated, work hard and think creatively to simulate colocation as effectively as you possibly can – get a dedicated team room with walls, whiteboards, web-cams, video-conferencing, a big tele, a bluetooth speakerphone for your mobile phones, projectors, web-conferencing – whatever it takes that you can get, by hook or by crook.