Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Wot no team room?

You don’t have to do much reading on agile before you come across advice about how to arrange the environment for a team. And it’s pretty different to what most of us have available in a corporate office environment.

Much as a dedicated “war room*” for each team with no cube walls in the way, copious amounts of whiteboard space and additional private areas to retreat to would be nice, we ain’t got it. From what I know, not much of the corporate world usually does.

So what can you do? Well we recently decided to try and make the best of our lot. Previously, our teams were scattered to the wind over an area housing a mix of people from the organization. This had actually been purposefully done -- the idea being that it would get folks from different groups talking in an impromptu and synergistic fashion. Turns out that wasn’t quite the case. I won’t say no good came from it, but as we adopted agile, the physical separation of our teams was noticeable.

What we decided to do was try out a reorganization, where each of our teams were placed in contiguous blocks. We couldn’t get rid of the cubes, but we could make better use of them. We divided up the space into three groups of cubes, assigning one group to each team. Then we let each team negotiate amongst themselves exactly who would sit where in their group.

Now any large move like this is going to receive a mixed reception from those involved. Not all cubes are created equal. Some are of the premier variety; they are by windows, larger in size or have less “traffic” passing by them. Now understandably anyone losing that is not going to feel like their situation is improving. There’s often precious little comfort or individual benefit available in the uniformity of a cube farm and I for one can more than empathize with the desire to hang on to what you’ve got.

However, there were enough people in favor and the benefits espoused in a myriad blog posts and books seemed compelling enough to give it a try.

A little while later and I polled folks for their thoughts on things. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and while there were a few people who felt it was not an improvement most people were extremely happy with it. The following are just a few representative quotes that say it better than I could ever hope to:

“At first I thought that there was no real point - we weren't so far away, we could just walk a few steps, but I found out differently. We do interact more and include each other in conversations by heads popping up over cube walls or by overhearing ... so I was skeptical but am now a believer.”

“Honest opinion: It is the best I came across in 10 years of my life with Perceptive.”

“I actually love it”

“...communication has improved significantly now that we are all sitting together. I can't think of any downsides. “

It seems to me that our teams have taken things to a new level, which is clearly reflected in their positive feedback to this change. One recurring theme from people was how this had helped establish a much stronger sense of team, and of “being in it together.” Psychologists say a large part of job satisfaction comes from getting along well with the people you work with. I’d like to think that this change has had a positive impact in this way for our teams. By bringing teams together not only have they a better environment to do their job, but there’s more camaraderie too, which I makes things just a little bit more pleasant and fun for everyone.

*War room vs. team room. War room = aggression, danger, stay out. Team room = inclusive, fun, friendly. You decide... I forget who I originally saw tweet that, and I may not have it verbatim, but I liked the gist of it. In my opinion the world of business is too full of BS terms inspired by conflict: “war room”, “aggressive” time lines etc.

Friday, April 2, 2010

My Dad's on Twitter. You should be too.

Yesterday I received an email entitled "rkharcher is now following you on Twitter." That's my Dad. He's a pretty tech savvy guy but I was still pleasantly surprised seeing as how I had only mentioned the prospect of him joining half-jokingly the other week.

I've been wittering on about Twitter to various people who'll tolerate it for the last year or so. For those who've not experienced it, it's hard to grasp the potential utility of it. The media tends to portray it solely as a source of information about celebrity self-indulgence. *Why* on earth would you want to pointlessly inform dozen (or hundreds or even more) people of your mundane everyday actions or thoughts? Even more bizarre perhaps, *why* would you want to be informed of the same nonsense from others?

Well, here's the thing. Twitter is more a platform that you can use as you wish rather than an enforced stream of pointless drivel. It can be used in some very worthwhile ways. I'm going to share what I've learned about it in the last year. Maybe you'll be convinced to try it, maybe you won't. My honest opinion is you are unlikely to "get it" from just reading what I have to say here. You need to give it a go for a couple of weeks if I pique your interest. For me, it's become as essential as email and IM. I think the reason I most like Twitter though is because of the accessibility it gives me to people. For example, to see what someone like Mike Cohn (@mikewcohn) is writing about I can go visit his blog. But by following him on Twitter, I can see what he's reading too.

Career & Industry Information
This was what really got me hooked. Initially I signed up for Twitter because curiosity had got the better of me. But this happened to coincide with our adoption of agile software development. It didn't take long for me to find a very healthy and vibrant community of people involved in agile in one way or another. This ranged from the everyday person like myself, to industry thought leaders like Kent Beck (@KentBeck), Mike Cohn (@mikewcohn), Lisa Crispin (@lisacrispin), Jim Highsmith (@jimhighsmith), Ron Jeffries (@RonJeffries) and many more (apologies to those omitted, nothing personal).

Beyond the agile and Scrum world, I also starting finding and adding interesting folks doing software development in general.

Twitter became my top source of information and inspiration as I ramped up my knowledge of agile. The great thing here -- in contrast to simple googling "agile" or "scrum" -- was that I had this curated list of recommended links to articles, books etc. all flowing in for my perusal. The number of great discoveries made this way was huge.

Breaking News, and News in General
The second substantial use of Twitter for me is news. A lot of people will tell you it's good for breaking news, and that's true. But I've also found it to be good for news in general. With all the major international, nation and local newsources now on Twitter it provides a superb feed of highly scan-able headlines. One of the truly great things here is that the enforced brevity of Twitter (140 characters per tweet, maximum) kills the clutter associated with email or RSS based news updates. There's no clutter, no verbosity, no fonts...just clean simple headlines and you can quickly click through to stories of interest. Shakespeare had it right when he said "Brevity is the soul of (t)wit."

Responsiveness. Or Not.
One characteristic of Twitter which I only really appreciated fairly recently is how it occupies and halfway house between IM and email. With IM there's an interactive expectation. It's not much good unless the person you are IMing is at their computer too. Although email can mimic this to some extent it's a more verbose medium. Twitter sits somewhere in between. There's no expectation of an immediate, interactive response, although that can happen and it works great. The short messages can keep a conversation flowing. But equally tweets can go un-responded to for some time. It can mask timezones very well.

Controlling the Flood
One potential problem with Twitter is information overload. Luckily there are several mechanisms for handling this.

The first thing is to stop looking at Twitter like email. Based upon the people you are following, messages from them will show up in your "tweet stream". Unlike email, they don't sit there waiting to be read. If you don't look at it for a day, things just pass you by. This is nice because you can go switch off when you want and not worry about "missing" anything. You can be pretty sure that anything truly earth shattering will show up from more than one source over time anyway.

The second thing is to take advantage of "asymmetrical following." This is perhaps vastly more useful to celebrities than the likes of you and I, but it's still a key difference between Twitter and Facebook or Linked In. Just because someone chooses to "follow" you, doesn't mean you have to follow them. You only get to see the tweets of people you have elected to follow, and you can un-follow people anytime you like.

Lastly, a fairly recent new feature called lists can help sort the important stuff from the noise. The way this works is you can create any number of lists of your own, and add people you follow to one (or more) lists. Then you can just check in on certain lists. For example, I have lists for "agile" and "colleagues" and "news" etc.

The Social Aspect
The final aspect of Twitter I want to mention is the social element. It's somehow different (I think) than Facebook et al. There's an exploratory, discovery of new and interesting people to it. I've reconnected with people I haven't talked to in years despite having their email addresses or even IM accounts. Somehow Twitter has enabled conversations that they did not. I think a lot of that may be to do with the characteristics I described under "Responsiveness. Or Not." above. And Twitter is somehow humanizing for a technology. Catching a glimpse of friends and colleagues in a quite candid way does that. My colleagues now know what a total dork I am (if there was any room for doubt previously...)

Curiosity Piqued?
If you're interested in giving it a try, here are my pro-tips for getting started.
  • Put a Twitter app on your smartphone. The iPhone is the best represented here. I've no experience with other smart phones but they all have something you can try. No smartphone? You can use Twitter over SMS. Looks like a pretty grim (and potentially expensive) proposition to me, but the option is there.
  • Get a Twitter application for your desktop. On Windows? Try Tweetdeck or, my current personal favorite, Seesmic for Windows. Got a Mac? Good choice ;-) I Like Echofon but there are many others. The Mac has the best clients.
  • Follow @Twitter_Tips. As the name suggests, they tweet out tips, often links to articles that are particularly helpful for those new to Twitter.
  • If (when) you start getting emails indicating somebody new is following you take a look at their follower/following/tweet stats. THere is a growing spam problem on twitter. Bogus accounts will follow you (and hundreds of others too) hoping that naive people will follow them back. Once you're following someone you see what they tweet and they can even send you direct, private messages. Spammers of course will fill your tweetstream with spam... The key hallmark of a spam account is they have very few followers, have tweeted hardly anything and are following hundreds or thousands of people.
  • Consider following me (@9200feet) ;-)