Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Communication in the Agile Team

Agile methodologies, particularly XP, strive to achieve better process efficiency by reducing the amount of the required documentation to a “no more than sufficient” level (among other things, of course). Having a relatively small team of people who get along quite well, and putting the team members spatially close together should provide the desired background for an informal but highly efficient communication, to spread between team members.

What “spontaneously” happens is something slightly different: communication happens, but developers aren’t saying the right things. They’re asking each other
  • how do you configure this?
  • how do you setup the environment?
  • This page looks odd, how did you solve this in yours?
Which are good questions, but could be better answered by an agile HowTo, or a script. Or are problem determination questions, which are good for sharing knowledge but still with a backward perspective. What is less likely to happen is an efficient communication between mates, about what really matters (to me, at least) which is putting the pieces together to produce software that works. Developers tend to focus on their task only, asking somebody else only if they are in need. Otherwise development proceeds silently, or with headphones, wasting all the competitive advantage of space proximity.

Constructive communication
Adding cooperative documentation didn’t prove itself to be an efficient glue. What did prove so was re-assigning tasks in a way that forced team mates to cooperate: instead of trying to have developers work simultaneously on two separate parallel tasks (which is what you normally do to avoid deadlocks), I asked them to work together on the same, short task. The result was a lot less messy than expected, in fact we had working code faster than expectations; there was a deadline pressure, to be honest, but didn’t result in overtime. Instead it produced a spontaneous design discussion on the classes to be shared, something I haven’t seen for a while.

Some might say that I just discovered the XP hot water: pair programming, and continuous integration. Which is partially true, but we still aren’t doing real pair programming (for a lot of reasons), while we normally have continuous integration practices in place. Still we are talking here about integration at communication level. Asking is only one form of communication (and if DeMarco’s theory about the state of flow is true, asking is a sort of stealing) and a pretty primitive one. Forcing tasks overlapping might look like a suicide choice, but generates instead positive effects on development speed, and on the team mechanics.

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