Agile in general, and Scrum in particular are all about self-organizing teams collocated for maximum face to face communication that improves agility and real-time collaboration. This was a great utopian idea in ~2000s because of three primary factors back then – economics, technology and psychology. Back then, we were still trapped in the enterprise-mindset – all collaboration happening within the confines of an organizational boundary – be it research or product development because it was much more cost-effective to lead such efforts internally either due to massive costs of R&D or closed IP protection or simply being the sole magnets for top talent.
However, as Henry Cherbrough’s Open Innovation has challenged, and Lafley’s Connect & Develop program at P&G and several others have subsequently demonstrated, there is perhaps more to gain from opening up meaningless and irrelevant organizational boundaries than protect false economics of a closed innovation system.
Globalization, even with all its ugly side effects, has shown us repeatedly in industry after industry that working across a global supply chain is not a zero-sum game after all! So, why are we so parochial in software industry about not recognizing the bigger economic sense rather than limiting ourselves to a singular idea that collocated teams are the best option?
Similarly, the technology to collaborate over the wire is dramatically more potent, even if underutilized in mainstream due to various reasons, than ever before. Collaboration over internet is the most natural thing for the millennials – back in 2007, a good 97% owned a computer, 94% owned a cellphone, a good 74% used instant messaging and 94% of those multitasked while messaging. In 2013, they are spending over 25hours every week online – be it social media or online shopping, or consuming infotainment or what have you. So, it is natural that this generation is extremely comfortable – even prefers – in being connected online and getting its job done. How will you make them sit in the same office day after day, and why? Little wonder that companies such as Automattic, MySQL, 37Signals and Github are starting out as massively distributed teams – not just on day one, but are continuing with their thought process of virtual workforce that still values teamwork but prefers newer ways to stay connected with the mothership – online instead of being their physically. As they say – the technology favors the geek!
And finally, the human psychology. The more specialized the talent, the rarer it is to find than ever before, and the best talent might not always be ready to work in your office even if they are willing to work for or with you. Just like people want democracy but not necessarily politicians, they might want to work with you on specific projects or technologies, but without being part of your office politics or hierarchy. They may not aspire to a long-term career growth with you but still value working with you on that one small problem that really fires them up. However, the very thought of being on your rolls and then moving the family to your location might not make sense to them, especially if you also happen to be in the similar business of delivering services online for your own customers (and who isn’t these days?). So, will you still ‘force’ your agile teams to be collocated inside a single mothership, or take a very large pragmatic leap of faith and explore oasis wherever they are, and build distributed teams around them? To me, a process is a reflection of the social values and norms of the time when they were written. If the world has moved on since ~2000, why should we not revaluate what should ‘being agile’ mean for this world?
Let’s free up agile teams…
I draw upon several ideas for my hypothesis. Authors Ori and Rod give a compelling vision of autonomous teams in “The Starfish and the Spider” – while spider teams are more vulnerable, the starfish teams could be autonomous and perhaps more effective in “VUCA” times. These thoughts are getting echoed in leaderless teams in Holacracy, and are well-grounded in Complex Adaptive Systems. There is a whole new movement of “Office Optional” new-age companies where they work from home or Starbucks, and even the people who probably show up in a physical office have to dial-in for a call from a meeting room so that everyone is equally ‘remote’.
How will the currently established mental models of agile teams – specifically on business people and developers working ‘together’ daily, which is invariably assumed and expected to mean ‘face to face’ – scale up in such a scenario? If the people are changing the way they think and interact, with or without agile, and the organizations are changing the way they conduct business, can we expect our processes to hold out for us? Think about it – when our customers expect work to happen at their convenience when they need it, they are asking for a business model that is distributed in time and space – and all that is already happening around us! So, how could the teams designing and developing such solutions not put themselves in the shoes of customers and internalize such learning environment?
I think there is a strong business case of freeing up agile teams from the physical boundaries of collocation because the collaboration methods are both – efficient and effective – and create compelling business case – even if only a minority at this point. I definitely see a wave building up at the horizon…